On May 11 and 12, 2009, JRF’s Rabbi Shawn Zevit, Rabbi Nancy Epstein, Rabbi Jeff Eisenstat, JRF affiliate Adat Shalom’s Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb represented the JRF at a meeting of more than 40 leaders from across the broad spectrum of the organized American Jewish community for the first national Jewish Sustainability Conference. We gathered at the incredible Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center outside Baltimore for two days of learning, workshops, and discussion on Judaism and sustainability.
One of the initial questions we grappled with was defining “sustainability”. Rachel Cohen, the intern for environmental issues for the Religious Action Center, with whom we partner on many social justice initiatives, stated in her post-conference blog entry that “sustainability means creating communities that meet the basic human needs of all of their members, (and the world we are part of), by rethinking and often limiting both what we take from the natural world and the by-products that we put into the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the public spaces we enjoy together. We came to understand how the American Jewish community can unite around the goal of building safer, healthier communities for ourselves and our children based on these fundamental principles.” We also shared an understanding from Jewish tradition and contemporary thought, that sustainability means living in a social, economic, political, environmental, culutral and spiritual balance and integrative manner. In this way the impact of our actions to meet our own needs and the needs of the planet today, are also measured against the impact on future generations (l'dor v'dor).
The Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), a program of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, along with 17 Jewish religious movements and national organizations, organized and sponsored this historic gathering. JRF was involved from the beginning of this effort as part of our movement wide commitment to the issue, dating back to our 1990 Resolution on the Environment, and the recent "Omer Learning and Sustainable Synagogue Initiatives.
We began the conversation by talking about buildings, a shared foundation for all of our organizations and the source of 30% of our operating costs and an equal percentage of our carbon emissions. The buildings owned and operated or rented by the JRF, the RRC and RRA, Camp JRF, with our 107 synagogues and havurot across the United States, Canada, Curacao and Prague, have a massive impact on the environment. We are already taking steps forward as a Movement – through our Sustainable Synagogue Initiative and extensive programs at many of our synagogues- to reducing our environmental impact and even leaving a positive footprint on our natural world.
We were proud to represent our movement and member communities in working with Rabbi Nina Cardin and Terry Gipps (presenter of the model of sustainability we focused on,“The Natural Step”), in the planning and facilitation of the event. Rabbi Shawn Zevit was invited to present on behalf of the religious movements the Reconstructionist movement’s approach to sustainability from local community to national and institutional approaches, congregational examples such as JRC, Adat Shalom, Camp JRF and RRC’s Green committee, as a model of how to respond, in a collaborative fashion, to the needs of our people, and the world of which we are a part.
Rabbi Zevit stated, “If we are to have a viable future as a Jewish People, we need to build on Kaplan’s formulation of Judaism as an evolving religious civilization to include a globally sustainable approach to living in faith community. A globally sustainable, evolving religious culture will also include interdependent and healthy economic, social, political, environmental and spiritual systems. There may be no more important issue to engage in and face than the issue of global sustainability in the 21st century. Our collective work is to raise awareness and encourage concrete action, with every JRF community being part of the tikkun of the planet across the sustainability spectrum.”
While the topic of 'greening' has become all the rage in recent years, rarely does the conversation extend beyond how we can reduce our carbon footprint and cut our energy bills by changing a few light bulbs or turning down the thermostat. However, at the Conference we learned about how to frame all of the choices we make as individuals and communities- from transportation choices to the type of food we eat (local, organic, vegetarian, etc) to the materials and labor practices that go into the products we purchase - with an eye toward investing in systems that are healthier for everyone. This means much more than just "greening" our facilities, though that is certainly a wonderful and important place to start. When we see environmental issues within the larger framework of building sustainable futures, we come to understand that we can all take steps toward a healthier world without decreasing our standard of living or further tightening our already short budgets.
Building communities and institutions that can coexist with our surroundings is not only essential for our long-term ecological survival, but also part of a Jewish imperative to protect vulnerable communities, refrain from activities that destroy our natural resources, and ensure opportunities for present and future generations to thrive in a healthy environment. This is true sustainability, and it is an idea that all the Jewish religious streams and organizations present we re in agreement on.
It was inspiring to join with leaders from so many Jewish organizations that are already taking steps toward sustainability in their own communities. The participants hope that by joining their efforts, the American Jewish community can become a leader in promoting sustainable communities. However, my colleagues and I understand that our meeting this week was only the first step on a long journey toward creating a more educated, aware, and active community of practice on this issue. We are committed to learning from each other and the efforts of our institutions, and working together as a unified Jewish community toward this common goal. We have much to be proud of, much to be concerned about, and while we cannot complete this task on our own, neither will we sit by even in the most challenging of economic times, and shine the light of inquiry and action only within. The future of the Jewish people and the world we are part of depends on us!
For more information on the Jewish Sustainability Conference, see the JCPA/JRF Press Release attached to this page.
With appreciation to Rachel Cohen of the RAC, and her blog on the conference for article content, as well as Rabbis Jeff Eisenstat, Nancy Epstein and Fred Dobb, who were engaged and committed members of the JRF conference leadership team present. Thanks to Dr. Carl Sheingold (JRF Executive Vice-President) for his support of our participation.
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