By Susan Josephs
Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin has always possessed an uncanny knack for identifying the hot-button issues of the day and making them relevant to Jewish life. “When there’s an emerging social issue that needs greater attention by the Jewish community, that’s where I am,” she says.
A trailblazer in the fields of Jewish feminism, healing and liturgy, the 57-year-old rabbi has most recently turned her attention to the environment. Since launching the Baltimore Jewish Environmental Network (BJEN) in 2006, she has made it her mission to teach how “environmentalism is a sacred imperative woven into the Jewish tradition. This is who we are, at root, as Jews,” she says.
So far, 11 Baltimore-area synagogues have formed a pact with BJEN to become environmentally friendly venues and pursue “green” activities such as creating community gardens, orchards or comprehensive recycling programs. Cardin also helped persuade her local Jewish community council to create an environmental policy subcommittee. Her blog on BJEN’s Web site (blog.bjen.org), which intertwines personal reflections with Jewish textual knowledge and political advocacy, has attracted a growing readership. “In 2006, the organized Jewish community hadn’t engaged in sustainability as deeply as it should have,” Cardin observes. “On the other hand, I saw that so many leaders in the general environmental movement were Jewish. I thought, ‘Wait, we’ve got to put this together.’”
Raised in Baltimore, Cardin grew up in a family devoted to weekly Friday night Shabbat dinners and Jewish communal work. Her mother, Shoshana Cardin, is a legendary Jewish and feminist activist who became the first female president of the Council of Jewish Federations. “I grew up thinking that everyone’s parents held meetings in their homes three nights a week,” she says.
Cardin studied anthropology at Connecticut College, founded the New York City–based Jewish Women’s Resource Center in 1978 and contemplated a number of careers that involved “helping to fix the world” before settling on the rabbinate. She belonged to the first class of women allowed to attend the Jewish Theological Seminary’s rabbinical school in 1984. “The press was there, and the lights from their cameras were flashing as we walked into the auditorium to register,” she recalls.
Eschewing the life of a pulpit rabbi, Cardin instead pursued a “broad definition” of what it means to be a spiritual leader, what she calls her “community pulpit.” Over the years, she has worked as advisor to students in the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary; served as editor of Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility; became the founding associate director of the National Center for Jewish Healing; worked as the director of Jewish life at the JCC of Greater Baltimore; and collaborated as writer or editor on more than 10 books. One of her best-known books, Tears of Sorrow, Seeds of Hope, addresses infertility and miscarriage and stems from Cardin’s personal experience with pregnancy loss.
“You can call it having professional ADD, but I’ve always been attracted to the edge of things, to broadening Jewish education beyond the classical structures,” she says of her multifaceted career. “I truly believe that as fewer and fewer Jews are joining synagogues, rabbis need to get out beyond the traditional walls of Jewish institutions.”
A vegetarian and a mother of five children, Cardin believes the key to her ongoing success lies in “finding ways to stay fresh. If I find I’m parking in the same spot day after day at work, then I know it’s time to move on.”