Tehran Conference on Environment Gives Rabbi Chance to Build Bridges

On Saturday night, the rabbi went to Iran. As soon as Shabbat ended May 7, Lawrence Troster, the rabbinic fellow at the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, rushed to the airport from his New Jersey home. The Conservative rabbi was on his way to Tehran for the two-day International Conference on Environment, Peace and the Dialogue Among Civilizations and Cultures, co-sponsored by the United Nations Environment Program and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

He was the only rabbi among the 50 invited guests, who included representatives of all the world’s major religions.

The environment creates a natural bridge among cultures, Troster said, and can be a good way of bringing together people who usually face off on opposite sides of issues.

“It transcends the usual political dichotomies of our age — right or left, capitalist or socialist, and so on — because it deals with issues that are basic and fundamental to all humanity,” Troster said.

Moreover, those issues aren’t always negative: There’s more to discuss about the environment than its degradation.

“The natural world is basic to our spirituality,” he said. “Therefore it’s an issue that can be discussed among civilizations. It’s something we can all agree to speak to from our own perspectives. I believe that our spirituality comes from a sense of appreciation and awe about the natural world.”

Still, Troster wasn’t naive about the invitation.

“There are obviously elements in the Iranian government who want to keep Iran involved with the rest of the world,” he said.

Iran’s environment minister is one of those people, Troster added, and she brought the conference to Iran.

When he first was invited, Troster wasn’t sure if he would go.

“I thought, ‘Riiiiight, I’m going to Iran,’ ” Troster said. “But then I discussed it with a number of people, and everyone said it would be a unique opportunity.”

And so it proved to be, he said.

Troster barely got out of the hotel that housed the convention, and so didn’t get to meet Tehran’s Jewish community.

But “as a Jew I was entirely comfortable there,” he said. “There was a lot of security at the conference, but it was unobtrusive. I never felt any hostility. And nobody asked me about Israel.”

Though he believes he was the only Jew registered at the conference, Troster did see two Chasidim there, fresh from a meeting with the country’s president, Mohammad Khatami.

He quickly realized that the two were members of the anti-Zionist Satmar sect.

“They weren’t participating in the conference, but they were welcome because they were anti-Zionist,” Troster said. “It was the last place I expected to see a Chasid, but you never know who you are going to run into at these things.”

Iran — or Persia, as it used to be known — was a tolerant place for much of its history, Troster said.

“The Persian Empire was very important in Jewish history. Cyrus the Great,” an ancient Persian ruler, “was referred to as the Lord’s anointed in the Book of Ezra, because he let the Jews go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple” following the Babylonian exile.

“I’m really glad I went,” Troster said. “It was really important for people to see a rabbi in this situation, speaking about the Jewish tradition.”

Conference-goers “really wanted to get the Jewish perspective,” he said. “There were a lot of genuinely sincere people there, who see the environmental crisis as a real human crisis.

“There’s a feeling that the U.N. doesn’t take religion into perspective when it discusses issues like the environment,” Troster said. “It would be good if it did, because religious groups can cut across boundaries. Religion can be the source of transnational dialogue.”

The conference put together a document, the Tehran Communique, that will be submitted to the United Nations and delivered to the Millennium Review Summit, a large-scale event that the United Nations is planning for September.

Troster is realistic about the long-term value of the conference.

“Everybody says all these nice things, but it’s what they do when push comes to shove that matters,” he said. Still, “at least everyone was talking the talk. Just the fact that they were saying those things at a public gathering of that sort is good. And that gives me hope.”

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