Rabbis Draw Lessons From Spill


Rabbi Julie Schonfeld spent a few days around fishermen near the Gulf of Mexico last week and thought of the Israelites in the Sinai Desert.

Rabbi Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, was part of a 12-member, interfaith clergy group that toured the Gulf Coast area for 2½ days under the auspices of the Sierra Club and the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.

The group met with out-of-work fishermen, mostly from African-American, Native American or Vietnamese backgrounds, and boarded a skiff on the Gulf to see the physical and psychological effects of the environmental crisis caused by the oil spill that has polluted the area and devastated its economy since late April.

Rabbi Schonfeld says the aftermath of the oil spill reminds her of the episode in the Torah, read in synagogues last month, where Moses strikes a rock in the desert — disobeying God’s directions to speak to the rock — to bring forth water, and is barred from crossing the Jordan.

“Just as Moses’ failure to heed God’s command keeps him from enjoying the way of life to be found in the Promised Land, so too have the people of the Gulf and indeed, our entire society, been placed in a perilous position regarding the environment and the way of life of the people of the region,” she wrote to her Conservative colleagues.

Rabbi Schonfeld, and Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, the two Jewish participants in the mission, say their time in the Gulf area inspired them to reach out to the Jewish community. Their advice: reduce your carbon footprint at home at and synagogue; lobby for environmental legislation; send food or money to affected communities; “adopt” a church or some other needy community organization down there.

Rabbi Saperstein says his first-hand exposure to the damage caused by the oil spill gave him “an appreciation for the immensity of this disaster — it’s much harder than Katrina,” the 2005 hurricane that flooded New Orleans. “This requires a long-term response.”

Rabbi Schonfeld says she sees in the Conservative movement’s Magen Tzedek seal, an “ethical certification” for food, a model for “the corrective needed now for BP,” the oil company responsible for the oil spill.