Jewish Environmental Coalition Starts Campaign to Involve Broad Community

The Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life wants to weave green threads throughout the fabric of the Jewish world.

A year after its formal launch, the coalition is promoting a major campaign to involve people from all parts of the American Jewish community — grass-roots activists, scholars, synagogue leaders and communal agency professionals — in environmental awareness, according to project coordinator Annette Lawrence.

A wide range of Jewish agencies has signed on to the coalition as participating organizations — from Shomrei Adamah, a grass-roots group teaching ecological ethics, to the Jewish War Veterans of America.

The coalition also includes the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, Hadassah and the Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Orthodox movements.

The National Religious Partnership for the Environment underwrites the coalition’s $200,000 annual budget and similar groups in the Protestant, Catholic and evangelical communities.

There is tremendous Jewish interest in environmental issues at the grass-roots level, according to Jerome Chanes, director for domestic concerns at the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council and a founder of the coalition.

“But that interest has not as yet been translated into programmatic initiative on the part of Jewish organizations,” he said. “The sad reality is that there are very few formal entities of the Jewish community that have the environment anywhere on their active agendas. We’re faced with turning around this inertia.”

The environment “doesn’t feel like the kind of parochial issue that the Jewish community is so heavily engaged in today,” said Lawrence. “It’s a great challenge for us” to get Jewish organizations involved.

The coalition also wants to bridge the gap between Jewish grass-roots activists who have long been interested in environmental issues but devoted their energy to the Sierra Club and other environmental defense agencies, and “professional Jews” who have the same concerns.

“We want to connect the people at the grass roots to Jewish tradition on this issue. We hope to bring some of them together to reinforce their work and learn from them at the national level,” said Lawrence.

“It also communicates to the Jewish national organizations that there really is interest at the grass-roots level,” she added.

There are signs of progress at some Jewish organizations, she said.

Jewish community relations councils “are beginning to see this issue as one around which to do intergroup, interreligious and interethnic work,” said Lawrence.

“It ties into social justice for organizations which are always looking for issues around which to approach other groups within urban settings,” she said.

‘THE IMPACT WILL BE GREATER IN COALITION’

The environment “is an issue around which people can build coalitions, and the impact will be greater in coalition. This issue cuts across all boundaries, certainly organizational ones,” she said.

The coalition is launching several projects which, it hopes, will catalyze interest among other parts of the Jewish community.

A “Guide to Jewish Environmental Study and Action” has been sent to 2,500 synagogues, national and regional Jewish organizations, campus and youth groups and schools, among others.

It includes essays by rabbis from all points on the religious spectrum, ideas for environmental-awareness programs and a guide to other resources.

Beginning this fall, the coalition will offer grants of $500 to $1,500 to synagogue, educational and other Jewish groups underwriting projects around “green” issues.

The money could go for buying crockery and flatware for use at synagogue Shabbat kiddushes, to replace plastic and paper goods, said Lawrence. Or the money could go to hire an educator to develop an environmental curriculum or to pay for a daylong consciousness-raising event.

There is no limit to what can be proposed, she said. Her coalition will support “anything that sends a message and helps a group of people be aware of the Jewish perspective on the earth and our responsibility to it.”

A coalition consultation last May brought together Jewish scholars to exchange views on what Judaism teaches about the relationship between people and the rest of God’s creation.

The coalition expects to bring the participants back together periodically to continue the discussion and to prepare material for sermons which will be distributed on a quarterly basis to rabbis across the movements and across the country.

Also in development is what Lawrence called a “flexible curriculum” linking Judaism and the environment that could be used in courses in degree-granting Jewish communal service programs and in rabbinical schools.

Another project being planned is a manual of model programs on the environment run by synagogues, havurot, Jewish community centers and schools.

In addition, the coalition is investigating cyberspace; it is exploring the possibility of bringing Jews together on environmental issues through an on-line network, according to Lawrence.

“If we can really connect people to the faith tradition about caring for God’s creation, the power of that message can speak for itself,” said Lawrence. “It’s got to be beyond the agencies and in the hearts of people in the community.”

NEXT STORY