Focus on Issues: Environmental Issues Prompt Jews to Re-engage Communally
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Focus on Issues: Environmental Issues Prompt Jews to Re-engage Communally

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Rochelle Whiteman’s spiritual awakening began with a turnip.

The 61-year-old teacher and designer from Milwaukee was gardening when she experienced an environmental epiphany of sorts.

Working the earth with her hands, she says she discovered a connection between spirituality and ecology that has led her into the world of environmental activism — and back to her Jewish roots.

Whiteman was not looking for ways to connect Judaism and environmentalism; she says the parallels simply manifested themselves and showed her a path back into the Jewish fold.

“It showed me a way I could be valid again, that I had something to offer,” Whiteman said of her local Jewish community’s embracement of environmental programs.

“I have not been a practicing ritualistic person, but I feel that the synagogue has become meaningful for me again,” she said.

Whiteman is one of a growing number of Jews across the country whose environmental awareness and activism has helped spawn a deeper connection to Judaism.

She joined about 60 other regional leaders of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life in Washington this month to discuss the future of the Jewish environmental movement.

COEJL grew out of the 1992 Consultation on the Environment and Jewish life, convened by then-Sen. Al Gore and by astronomer Carl Sagan, who recently died.

Charged with integrating environmental education and action into the life and institutions of the American Jewish community, COEJL intertwines religious values, spirituality, science, public policy and community-building.

The coalition, established in 1993, is an umbrella group for 23 national Jewish organizations, including the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

About 600 activists, all volunteers, make up the coalition’s core, and 6,000 people across the country currently subscribe to COEJL’s newsletter.

At its Washington gathering, which was held in conjunction with the annual NJCRAC conference, COEJL activists brainstormed ways to organize grass-roots environmental education and action.

Gaining greater Jewish institutional recognition and support for the environmental cause remains a central part of the coalition’s agenda. The case activists make is simple: Jewish continuity and human continuity go hand in hand.

“For those of us who care about the continuity of the Jewish people, we must demonstrate our institutions as relevant to the issue that is of most concern to the youth of our country — the fate of humanity and the natural world,” said Mark Jacobs, director of COEJL.

Ted Eisenberg, a 47-year-old COEJL activist from Roseland, N.J., agrees that Jewish obligations “don’t end at the human border.”

“As people we’re facing a crisis in resources, in toxins, in the extinction of species,” he said. “The Jewish people as human beings cannot divorce themselves from a crisis of this magnitude.

“We can’t remain separate and apart from this calamity without moral complicity.”

Jewish environmental activists, moreover, see their work as an effective means of bringing more people like Rochelle Whiteman back into Jewish circles.

“I think we have to look at the Jewish population on the periphery of the organized community and see what is animating them, and use that as a tool to bring them back in,” Eisenberg said. “One of those issues is the environment.”

For her part, Ora Shinnar, a 20-year-old student at Stern College in New York, wants to increase awareness about environmentalism within the Orthodox Jewish community.

“The rest of the Jewish community is very wonderfully environmentally aware and incorporates it into their lives very nicely, and the Orthodox community really doesn’t,” said Shinnar, who heads an environmental club at her Orthodox women’s college.

In coming years, Shinnar said, she plans to set up an environmental curriculum for Orthodox day schools and synagogues laying out Jewish texts that testify to the biblical imperative to preserve and nurture the human habitat.

For Barak Gale, a 40-year-old COEJL activist from Walnut Creek, Calif., reading such texts strengthened his environmental awareness.

“I realized that our liturgy spoke so profoundly to the grandeur in creation, and I felt that definitely implies responsibility at the same time,” Gale said.

At the NJCRAC conference, delegates unanimously adopted two environmental policy positions drafted by COEJL. One calls for reauthorizing and strengthening the Endangered Species Act, and the other urges better standards as part of the Clean Air Act.

“Both resolutions deal with major pieces of environmental legislation and it is important for the Jewish community to be heard,” said Lawrence Rubin, NJCRAC executive vice chairman and a member of COEJL’s steering committee.

Meanwhile, over the next couple of years, COEJL plans to focus its efforts on strengthening ties between the Jewish environmental movement and the organized Jewish community, while working at the grass-roots level to create a permanent cadre of environmental activists for the next century.

At stake, Jewish environmentalists emphasize, is nothing short of an impending calamity.

“We have to deal with this from the vantage point of necessity, from the vantage point of morality and from the vantage point of the Jewish tradition,” Eisenberg said. “All of these things converge. It’s a no-brainer.”

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