Our responsibility for all that dwells in the earth and for the earth itself extends into the future. The earth is not ours to destroy (cf. Dt 20:19), but to hand on in trust to future generations. We cannot, therefore, recklessly consume its resources to satisfy needs that are artificially created and sustained by a society that tends to live only for the present. We also need to act, together whenever feasible, to assure that sound practices, guaranteed by law, are established in our countries and local communities for the future preservation of the environment…Respect for God’s creation, of which we are a part, must become a way of life.—International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee, “A Common Declaration on the Environment.” March 1998.
At Kol HaLev in Cleveland, Ohio, a group of members with a common urge to become more vigilant shomrei adamah (guardians of the earth) formed a task force this past February to identify environmental priorities for us to work on as a community.
Although many individual KHL members are already avid environmental advocates, we are at the very beginning of our focused work as a group. Perhaps this account of our initial debate, and first educational program, can both encourage other communities who have not yet wrestled together with these issues, and also garner helpful feedback from others who are further along the path.
Context: While we have a large, vibrant and diverse Jewish community in Northeast Ohio, with a strong social action history, environmental concerns don't seem to be on the Jewish communal radar. Issues such as urban sprawl, green building, gas-guzzling vehicles and other forms of over-consumption, lack of conservation—just to name a few—get virtually no attention from our Jewish leaders, press, institutions and the community at large. Many of us are frustrated by this situation, but are not sure how to counter it. To make matters worse, Ohio ranks third in the nation for air pollution, due primarily to coal-burning power plants; Cuyahoga County has the worst air pollution in the state.
Kol HaLev is a 126-household congregation, whose members primarily live in the eastern suburbs of Cleveland. We rent space for services from a local Jewish day school, and also hold many events in members' homes. Like everyone else, our members are dedicated, but often overcommitted and pulled in many directions. Moreover, as we lack a permanent space, many conservation options seem beyond our control.
From our very first meeting, it was clear that different members had different visions of where to place our energies. On the one hand, some feel strongly that since global warming is clearly a world crisis, we should focus our efforts on making alliances with other Jewish, spiritual, and environmental groups and work towards effecting change at the state and, possibly, national levels to reduce carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions. Individual efforts at reducing consumption and recycling might make us feel better, but they are not going to get to the root of the problem. What role does individual, small action have when the problem is monumental in nature?
On the other hand, many feel equally adamant that we must "clean up our own act" in terms of kiddush practices, mindful eating, office practices and recycling more generally, both because it's the right thing to do and because we will be more plausible advocates if we practice what we preach. How can we encourage other synagogues and Jewish institutions to reduce their ecological footprint if we don't make a similar effort ourselves?
A third question arose from our wrestling with these issues: When members of a community feel very strongly about an issue, and there is disagreement, how do we democratically reach a point of consensus that will honor that diversity and not squelch the passions of those involved?
After much discussion, we identified three areas of focus: internal practices, education and advocacy. Some of our activities, like "greening" up our kiddush practices, have a fairly short time-frame for implementation; others, like getting clean air legislation passed, may take years.
Our first initiative was an intergenerational education program held at a local nature center, designed to coincide with Lag B'Omer. (The program was supported by a Legacy Heritage Grant Kol HaLev received this year.) The first part of the afternoon was a hike around one of the small, human-made lakes adjacent to the Nature Center. We spotted wildlife and learned how to identify non-native, invasive species. We next convened a text-study centered on environmental themes in Torah and Talmud.
The afternoon culminated in an intergenerational "scavenger hunt," organized by Education Director Rabbi Estelle Mills, which utilized the Nature Center's green building and grounds itself as a text. Questions could be answered by searching the building for clues, and learning directly from Kol HaLev members, who demonstrated strategies such as composting, rainwater collection and newspaper recycling; additional activities included creating a song to "sell" an everyday part of nature, making a human pyramid of eco-friendly practices, and creating a web of interconnected parts of an ecosystem. We concluded by singing a song about protecting the earth entitled "Adamah v'Shamayim (Earth and Sky)."
Questions for thought and discussion:
Thanks for helping us wrestle with these questions. Learning what other JRF congregations are doing is inspiring to us all.
Beth Friedman-Romell is a member of Kol HaLev and also serves as Associate Spiritual Leader of Knesseth Israel Temple in Wooster, OH.