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How the 87-Year-Old Founder of Jewish Environmentalism Helped Me Grow

Image by Anya Ulinich

Editor’s note: The following article was originally published in 2016 and has been re-published for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Everett Gendler, one of a cohort of rabbis who were active participants in the Civil Rights Movement, was jailed in Georgia alongside King. Read on for more details.

I didn’t want to interview Rabbi Everett Gendler.

In November, my editor sent me a note about Gendler’s new book “Judaism for Universalists,” a collection of the progressive rabbi’s writings on his experience and interpretation of Judaism, and suggested I write about him. I looked Gendler up, and was impressed. He’d been an active participant in the Civil Rights Movement, was the father of the now-thriving Jewish environmentalism movement in the United States, had spent the last two decades helping organize nonviolent resistance in Tibet in collaboration with the Dalai Lama, and had, most intriguingly, been a consistent thorn in the side of the Jewish establishment.

He was just the kind of person I should have wanted to write about, so I said yes. Secretly, though, my heart sank. That thing about him being the creative pioneer of Jewish environmentalism? Those were not words I liked.

The previous April, my partner, Ben — that’s a pseudonym — had started talking about a desire to farm. We were living in St. Louis, where we’d both gone to college, meeting as freshmen at the impromptu performance of a Jewish a cappella group. He was disarmingly smart and even more disarmingly playful, a skinny physics student who, the first time we hung out, insisted on giving me the soundtrack to “Spamalot.” We were friends first, and didn’t start to date until our senior year. After we graduated, we stayed in St. Louis; he did a public affairs fellowship, and I joined AmeriCorps.

Initially enthusiastic, Ben experienced his fellowship as somewhat stunting, yearning for a professional life that was more spiritually engaging. He’d played with the idea of becoming a rabbi, and became increasingly interested in gardening, nurturing a small aquaponic system in his room. At some point he started to think about how those two interests could intersect. When his fellowship ended, he found a Jewish farm out west where he could spend the summer. He left. I followed him out of St. Louis two months later, my parents and I driving the 800 miles to our family home in Denver. He’d given me a small succulent for Hanukkah, to which I developed an almost fanatical attachment. We carried it the whole distance on our laps.

Ben and I grew increasingly estranged. That farm was a world of spiritual experience that I — less spiritually inclined, and busy with a desk job in St. Louis and an impending move to New York — couldn’t share. He grew more enchanted by it, and I grew more resentful; we both knew we were growing apart, but we avoided discussing it. In my mind, in a small, absurd way, the mere existence of Jewish environmentalism preordained a series of events that led, inevitably, from that first mention in April to the last Monday in August, when Ben flew to Denver to end our relationship. I knew why he was coming; still, I met him at the airport while carrying his birthday present, a golden necklace engraved with the Hebrew word for earth — adamah.

That moment, when I handed Ben what had transformed from being a memento of the earth he loved into a memento of the earth I felt he’d let separate us, was still defining for me three months later. The idea of speaking to the man who’d pioneered the ideas that had captured Ben’s imagination — let alone trying to write about him objectively — felt impossible.

The rest of November passed, then December. “Judaism for Universalists” lived on my desk, not quite out of sight but clearly untouched. At some point, my editor’s questions about it grew a little less understanding. I started to page through the book. I read Gendler’s essays on the cross-pollination of Judaism and environmentalism. His writing was exuberant. I thought that speaking to him would be a good assertion of my independence. Halfway through January, I reached out.

At Home in the Berkshires: Everett Gendler Image by Talya Zax

Everett Gendler was born in Chariton, Iowa, in 1928. When we met in person this past April, and I asked him to recall his first meaningful spiritual interaction with nature, he looked out over the gentle slope behind his Berkshires home, which was covered in trees still bare from the winter.

“In Chariton we lived about a block and a half away from a railroad bridge with a road under it,” he said. “If I went to that bridge and went down and looked out, there were 150 miles of tall corn stretching out. That’s an image that’s been persistent and manifest.” A couple hours earlier, when he had picked me up from the bus station in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, he’d confessed that he still dreamed of rural Iowa.

Gendler’s family left Chariton for Des Moines when he was 11, and he left Des Moines at 18 for the University of Chicago. He earned a Bachelor of Arts there in 1948 — at that time, the university didn’t allow further specialization — received his ordination as a conservative rabbi from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1957, and hopscotched through a variety of congregations in South and Central America before taking an appointment in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1962.

He was new enough in Princeton that he was sleeping on the floor of the congregational house, waiting for his furniture to arrive, when he got a call from a friend. The call changed his life.

“‘Dr. King is having a lot of trouble down in Albany, Georgia, and would love some help from northern clergy,’” he was told. “‘Would you be available?’”

He went. “At a certain point,” he said, “do you put your feet where your mouth has been, or do you not?”

Gendler told me this over the phone, the first time we spoke. His voice was dry and somehow sparkling. He clearly loved to speak — a literary man who owns, and proudly displays, all 20 volumes of the second print edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, he finds words both a pleasure and a spiritual stimulant — but likes listening even better. At points in that first conversation, I thought it was likely I was revealing far more of myself to him than he was to me.

“I had some wonderful time with Dr. King and the people planning the demonstration,” he said. “Boom, all of us were arrested and jailed, and my first Friday night at my congregation in Princeton I was involuntarily housed in the Carroll County [jail].”

A Meeting in 1968: Gendler With Martin Luther King. Image by Courtesy of Everett Gendler

The civil rights movement became a passion. Gendler was one of 19 members of the Rabbinical Assembly who joined the protests in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. In 1964 he traveled to Kansas City, to give a talk about his experience in the movement. And at the end of that talk he had tea with a woman named Mary Loeb, a Kansas City native studying for a master’s degree in English. They exchanged addresses, then letters. Soon after, he invited her to visit him in Princeton to hear Rosalyn Tureck play Bach’s Goldberg Variations. She lied to her parents, telling them that she was going job hunting in New York, and visited Gendler for 10 days. They missed the concert, and when she returned she told her parents she was getting married.

“I sometimes jokingly say Martin Luther King was our matchmaker,” Gendler told me. Over the next many years — “almost 51,” he said, over lunch on his and his wife’s back porch; “Almost 52,” she corrected — the duo left Princeton and moved to Cuernavaca, Mexico, then went to Andover, Massachusetts. Gendler served as the rabbi at Temple Emanuel of the Merrimack Valley, in Lowell, and also as the first Jewish chaplain at Andover’s Phillips Academy. They had two daughters, Naomi and Tamar. For a love born of 10 short days, the couple have turned out to have remarkably similar interests: They love to garden, are passionate about nonviolence — they’ve been heavily involved in the nonviolent struggle in Tibet since 1995 — and happily spent 19 summers living in a pop-up tent trailer on their property in the Berkshires, which now boasts a house and garden charming enough that when I visited, I offered to move in.

The first time Gendler and I spoke he was in Florida and I was in New York, so he suggested we try to speak over “telephone, or Skype, or some other exotic modern wizardry.” From the first words of that conversation — telephone being our wizardry of choice — I really, really liked him. We bonded over our love of literature — “It ennobles the world,” he said — our mutual fear that an increasing political focus on Israel might nudge Judaism away from its deep intellectual heart, and a love of D.H. Lawrence (questions of anti-Semitism aside). We spoke for an hour; as our conversation ended, he told me, almost offhandedly, “I’m delighted by what I hear of your spirit.”

I went to the bathroom and cried.

I felt seen in a way I’d forgotten was possible. When Ben and I had been apart the previous summer, he’d spoken with tender admiration of the spiritual capacity of the people he was meeting. I met them in July and found myself sharing his response. I also felt, strongly, that he was failing to direct a similarly deep gaze toward me. Receiving that kind of recognition from Gendler, a stranger, I felt dazed, unsure of how to respond. Gendler and I spoke again the next week. “It’s the 27th of January,” he began. “That’s Mozart’s birthday. For people who believe in incarnational theology, that the divine was made manifest in human birth, the 27th of January is their strongest argument: the divine Mozart.”

In response, I sent him my college application essay, a musing on the second movement of Mozart’s 23rd piano concerto. He wrote back, concerned for my well-being as “a musician in Wordville.” “The typewriter and the electronic key pads are NOT substitutes for the sublime 88,” he wrote. “Are you sure you’re in the right office?”

That question — “Are you sure you’re in the right office?” — is a question Gendler has faced throughout his career.

He begins “Judaism for Universalists” with an intended insult that was lobbed at him relatively early in his time as a rabbi: an essay in the American Jewish Year Book of 1972 in which he was mentioned as “Everett Gendler, a radical universalist with a rabbinical degree.”

He initially disliked that description, feeling it downplayed the validity of his rabbinic practice, but in time, Gendler embraced it. He is, after all, a universalist; a fundamental belief, as he writes in “Judaism for Universalists,” is that “G-d, the liberating redeemer, is concerned for all lands and all peoples, not only for Jews.”

That’s an idea that can, on its surface, seem obvious, but it gets complicated in practice.

“I think a persistent pain is the terrible discrepancy between the ideal and the actual,” he told me in our second phone conversation, “the sense that we are really divinely commanded to live with consideration for others and the avoidance of injury to others, at the same time we are commanded to live full lives and enjoy. Sometimes it’s so difficult to reconcile those.”

He’s learned a bit about achieving that reconciliation. Following through on the instinct to match actions to words — the same instinct that led him to King — he’s sought out residencies at interfaith, intercultural and interracial centers like the one established by Ivan Illich in Cuernavaca and Massachusetts’s Packard Manse, worked to create a movement of American Jewish environmentalism, and made efforts to meld American and Jewish cultural traditions without shortchanging either.He’s also, though, made a priority of pleasure. He and his wife have made a habit of traveling; they have five grandchildren, each of whom they take on a trip after that grandchild’s bar or bat mitzvah. (Later this summer, they’re taking a granddaughter to Machu Picchu.) He loves music, poetry and good tea. He likes to study, and his vegetable garden, along with his family, is his heart.

A Literal and Spiritual Meeting of Minds: Gendler with the Dalai Llama. Image by Courtesy of Everett Gendler

A guiding theme, it seems, is joy. Gendler sees it as a spiritual endeavor; over lunch he told me solemnly that he has tickets to 38 events at this year’s Tanglewood Music Festival, a number some might see as excessive, but that he sees as natural; the music is beautiful, and beauty is essential to the mind, soul and heart. Failing to pursue it would be nonsensical.

“One of the things I most love about Judaism and being Jewish is all of the resources we have for intensifying the appreciation of life and the enjoyment of it,” he told me. While serving at Temple Emanuel he linked Lag b’Omer with May Day, setting up a maypole and having a festival. When he speaks about the intersection of agriculture and Judaism, he speaks with an almost adoring reverence.

“I’ve had the blessing and the spiritual discipline of helping food grow organically, otherwise known as vegetable gardening,” he told me. “There, so many of the words of prayer come alive.”

The idea that nature is a conduit to prayer isn’t uncommon across religious practice as a whole, but when Gendler started advocating for it as an essential element of Judaism in the late 1950s, his ideas went — pardon the pun — against the grain.

It’s proof of the power of Gendler’s advocacy for a renewed Jewish focus on the environment that in the decades since he first began exploring them, Jewish environmental fellowship programs like Adamah and Urban Adamah have cropped up.

“He was the first rabbi in modern times in this country that I’m aware who took seriously both the connection between agricultural cycles and Jewish tradition,” said Adam Berman, founder of Adamah and Urban Adamah, “and the first rabbi to talk about our responsibility as stewards of creation in a mainstream Jewish reality and setting.”

When I spoke with Gendler, I tried to trick him into bragging by asking him what he saw as his greatest accomplishments. He demurred.

“I don’t do much of that summing up,” he said, “I’m really grateful for the opportunity to introduce people to simple ways to establish connection to the natural world through Jewish forms and texts. To contribute to bringing them back together.”

The novelist Shirley Hazzard has a wonderful line about anguish: “Grief had a painter’s eye,” she wrote in “The Transit of Venus,” “assigning arbitrary meaning at random — like God.”

The grief I felt over losing Ben turned its eye to nature. Community gardens I passed on the streets of New York would make me first wistful, then sad.

Over the phone, I asked Gendler to tell me about his favorite plants, feeling a bit abashed by the question, as if I had asked him to choose, from a lineup, his best friends. He meandered through an answer, contemplating his love for plants that grow vertically, for carrots, and ultimately declaring that a garden was worth nothing without sweet corn. My mind floated to the vegetable garden my childhood piano teacher’s husband kept behind their house, hot summer afternoons watching bees drift in the haze between tomato plants. I remembered finding a maple seed as a child, planting it in my family’s front lawn, and pouring water over the mound of dirt that covered it, until — miraculously — two small green leaves burst through. I remembered my despair when, days later, a friend who failed to grasp the monumental significance of those seedlings stepped on them, killing them. It was a signal of the joy and wonder I was capable of feeling without Ben, and a start, for me, of reaching past the grief.

Three months later, as I got off the bus in Stockbridge, I recognized Gendler, who was examining the garden of a local inn, from the window. He wore a brown plaid shirt and waist-high black pants; his eyes were deep and discerning, his face framed by a puffy halo of white hair. At his home, we spoke like friends. He and his wife gave me a tour of their house, which is filled with Balinese woodcarvings and features a library right out of a mystery novel. (One of the bookshelves actually is a door opening onto a secret passage; spoiler, it goes to the basement.) Mary guided me into her all-terrain vehicle and drove us, happily whooping, across their wide, rolling-front lawn. Everett plucked a stalk of fresh, purple-tinged asparagus from his vegetable garden and bid me to eat it raw. It was sweet, grassy and tender. Months earlier, I’d spoken with Rabbi Moshe Waldoks of Temple Beth Zion in Brookline, Massachusetts, one of Gendler’s friends and former students. He’d told me that Gendler “was the kind of father you always wanted to have.” I understood what he meant; in Gendler’s company I felt a rare, familial kind of safety.

Just before I left Stockbridge, I told Gendler about the day two weeks before the end of my relationship with Ben when a speeding truck uprooted a fully grown tree I’d walked under only minutes earlier. I told him about the seemingly clear day, three weeks after that, when I waited at a bus stop in the first flush of heartbreak, felt a raindrop, and looked up to find myself sitting directly underneath a rainbow. When I told him what I saw in those events — a promise of unexpected disaster, followed by one of unexpected grace — he didn’t treat me like I was silly, impressionable or desperate. He told me that what I’d seen had power, that it was, in some sense, divine.

The opening lines of one of Gendler’s favorite Lawrence poems, “We Are Transmitters,” make the simple declaration: “As we live, we are transmitters of life / And when we fail to transmit life, life fails to flow through us.” Perhaps that’s what Gendler’s philosophy comes down to: openness and care. Simple words, but powerful enough to motivate — with willpower and time — a great deal of change.

We sat at the bus stop in the April sun, and I thought back to that September rainbow, arcing right above my head. I looked at Gendler and he looked at me, his blue eyes glinting. It seemed like a portent of good things to come.

Talya Zax is the Forward’s culture intern. Contact her at [email protected] or on Twitter, @TalyaZax

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