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Focus on Issues: Jewish Environmentalists Find ‘enormous Source of Inspiration’

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They come from every corner of the country and from across denominational and generational lines.

Some are affiliated with the Jewish community, some are religious, others are not.

But what they all have in common is an abiding respect for God’s creations and an unrelenting commitment to environmental stewardship.

In recent years a growing number of Jews have been developing a deeper connection to Judaism and the Jewish community through environmental activism. They are part of a larger movement of faith-based environmentalists who are seeking to reshape the environmental debate along theological lines.

Discovering links between their own spiritual and environmentalist roots and the religious mandate to care for creation, Jewish environmental activists have come to see the cause of environmental protection as nothing less than sacred.

“Judaism teaches us that above and beyond everything we have a responsibility to protect life, not only when we know for sure it’s at risk, but when it may be at risk,” said Mark Jacobs, director of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, a national coordinating body for the Jewish environmental movement.

“Our work is creating an opportunity for people who care about the environment and are Jewish to exercise environmental commitment through a Jewish framework.”

COEJL grew out of the 1992 Consultation on the Environment and Jewish Life, convened by then-Sen. Al Gore and the late astronomer Carl Sagan.

Charged with integrating environmental education and action into the life and institutions of the American Jewish community, COEJL was initially conceived as a temporary project to jumpstart Jewish environmental activity.

Six years later, Jewish officials now want to make it a permanent fixture in the Jewish organizational world and in American Jewish life.

The response to COEJL has in many ways exceeded expectations. Thousands of Jews around the country have participated in COEJL’s conferences, campaigns and other outreach efforts.

The group, which now has 15 regional affiliates, has become overwhelmed by requests from synagogues and federations seeking speakers and ways to integrate environmental themes into their activities.

Together with the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, COEJL has been working to develop a distinctively Jewish response to pressing environmental issues including clean water, nuclear waste, biological diversity, climate change and sustainable development. It has also sought to raise awareness of Israel’s environmental problems.

Some 135 of the group’s activists gathered in Washington this week for COEJL’s fourth annual conference on environmental leadership training.

The gathering was held in conjunction with the annual plenum of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a Jewish umbrella group that works in partnership with COEJL.

The activists participated in a Shabbat retreat in Maryland to study Jewish texts on the connections between Judaism and ecology, and most took part in a series of meetings and lobbying activities in Washington throughout the week.

“The energy of the activists from all over the country affirmed my sense that Jewish environmentalism is an enormous, fecund source of inspiration and motivation and joy for people,” Jacobs said.

The meetings with a number of high-level government officials, including Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner, served as a testament to the inroads the group has made.

In an interview, Browner said that groups like COEJL play an integral role in efforts to preserve the environment and raise awareness.

“They involve people, they educate people, they hold our feet to the fire,” she said. “It takes each and every one of us, and we couldn’t do it without groups like this.”

Evan Eisenberg of New York, author of “The Ecology of Eden,” agreed that the religious perspective carries resonance in the environmental debate.

“The kind of passion that faith communities bring to the debate is very important, the kind of conviction, the sense that this is God’s work — I think that’s very powerful,” said the 43-year-old Eisenberg.

For most Jewish environmentalists, the connection between Judaism and ecology comes naturally.

Adam Block, a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of New Hampshire, said he became involved in the environmental activist community on campus at the same time he was becoming involved with Hillel, “and as time progressed, they found their link.”

“One of the most important things that we can take away from Judaism is the dedication to social justice,” said Block. “In my life and in my experience I’ve found that the best way I can channel my energies into social justice Jewishly is through environmental preservation.”

Batya Kagan, a 39-year-old environmental activist from Santa Cruz, Calif., said the sense that “we are one, as God’s creations, with not just each other but with all species” is “inherent in our nature as human beings.”

Kagan traces the roots of her environmentalism back to the Jewish summer camp she attended in Northern California, which she said was surrounded by Redwood trees.

“Once I connected with being outside and praying, there was a much larger and beautiful feeling,” she said. “The combination of community and being in the outdoors was such a great feeling.”

In her adult life, as she started going to services, she said she realized that Judaism had “something to offer as an environmental platform” with holidays like Sukkot to celebrate the harvest, Tu B’Shevat as Jewish Arbor Day, and even Shabbat as “a day to not drive our cars around or turn on house lights.”

As Jewish environmentalists look to bring their message to others in the community, Eisenberg said there are two groups activists need to reach out to.

“One is the alienated Jews who care about the environment and who are probably thirsting for this sort of Jewish wisdom,” he said. “And then there are the Jews who drive to synagogue every Shabbos and do kiddush in the disposable cups and never give it a second thought.”

“It’s a lot easier to reach the first group,” he added, because “it’s just a matter of getting the information out there.

“The second group is a lot harder. It’s a question of building on the things in the Bible and the liturgy and Jewish tradition” and “tying that to an understanding of what’s going on ecologically.”

For its part, the organized Jewish community is looking to COEJL to continue to foster environmental awareness in the community.

Toward that end, the JCPA plenum was expected to adopt a strategic plan this week that would create an ongoing relationship between COEJL and JCPA, with the idea that it will move toward becoming an independent agency in the next few years.

“There’s a real desire to keep COEJL not only alive but growing,” Jacobs said, adding that a national coalition remains the best way to provide visibility for Jewish environmentalism and a forum for Jews to continue expressing their environmental commitment.

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