Passionate about Eco-Judaism

Environmental projects are infusing Jewish life with new energy and participants with a sense of spirituality and purpose.

by Elicia Brown

Julie Wolk traveled often for work, adhering to a schedule that was predictable, but far from routine.

 Julie Wolk

Julie Wolk

In the winter, she journeyed to the forest, enjoying the shade and size of the redwood trees, rejoicing in Tu B’shevat, the Jewish New Year for Trees. In the early spring, she headed south to the remote desert near Death Valley, Calif., where she reflected on Passover and the exodus from slavery to freedom. As summer approached, Wolk studied Torah from the hilltops near San Francisco, celebrating the holiday of Shavuot. in autumn? She camped on an organic farm, where she delighted in the festival of Sukkot.

“We Jews were once a land-based people,” says Wolk, 36, who says she has always savored the spirituality of the natural world, but as a younger adult wasn’t particularly captivated by Jewish practice. “There are so many agricultural and earth-based traditions embedded in our faith. We are unearthing those traditions and making them relevant to people today.”

Wolk is not alone in her travels, both physical and spiritual. As co-founder and former co-director of the organization known as Wilderness Torah, based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Wolk accompanied a cohort of like-minded Jews on each “pilgrimage.” Though she no longer works for the group (she started her own coaching bussiness committed to its work and serves as a member of its board.

Wilderness Torah, which has added a Hebrew school (called B’hootz, Hebrew for “outside”), and a b’nai mitzvah program (B’naiture), belongs to a burgeoning movement of environmental Judaism, with new followers, projects and programs sprouting up across the country.

Growing Like an (Edible) Weed

The roots of eco-Judaism stretch back at least a couple of decades. Ellen Bernstein, often considered the mother of the movement, founded Shomrei Adamah (Keepers of the Earth) in 1988. But the mindset has become more firmly grounded in the past decade. “I can’t think of a single area of Jewish life that’s exploded at this rate. Every year, new organizations are founded,” says Nigel Savage, who, as president, CEO and founder of Hazon, the largest Jewish organization in this realm, serves as a spokesman of sorts for the eco-Jewish world.

Hazon expanded further in December 2012 when it merged with the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center of Falls Village, Conn. “Every year, the existing organizations grow,” says Savage. Among its many programs, Hazon runs more than 65 Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs in North America, and holds the record for the largest number of CSAs of any faith-based group. Savage hypothesizes that these CSAs, which connect consumers with local organic farms, appeal to Jews accustomed to the concept of kashrut, of holding one’s food to a higher standard. In general, Savage says, “The American Jewish community has shrunk in the last 10 years, while this [Jewish environmental] movement has been growing sharply.”

Environmental Judaism, or earth-based Judaism, appeals to Jews of all stripes and ages, but seems to resonate particularly among younger adults, and also, according to Savage, attracts more women than men. For some Jews, the emergence of eco-Judaism in the past decade brings together two passions.

While working on her Ph.D., Rachel Berndtson, assistant academic director of Geographical Sciences at the University of Maryland, researched the impact of the Pearlstone Center, a Jewish farm and retreat center, on Jewish life in the Baltimore area. Berndtson, who was a fellow in a summer program at Pearlstone in 2010, says the community she found there felt “holistic.” She enjoyed learning about the moral aspects of Jewish agriculture—about how, for example, one is supposed to forgive all debts in the sabbatical year. She also treasured the quiet of the farmland itself, surrounded by woods and hills.

Slightly older adults than Berndtson remember a time when one couldn’t easily find such a community. Maya Shetreat-Klein, a pediatric neurologist in the Bronx, N.Y., recalls that when she graduated from Columbia College in 1995, she felt “a real divide” between her observant Jewish life and her interest in “how we treat the planet.” Now she describes herself as the mother of three children, eight chickens and a hive of bees. She also started an urban farm and says that while harvesting asparagus, she finds herself “believing in creation on a whole new level. I have faith in the essence of God being in everything.”

Shetreat-Klein’s interest in the natural world inspired her 2016 book, The Dirt Cure: Growing Healthy Kids with Food Straight from Soil. In the book, she explores the profound connections between food, nature, and health and shows parents how to stock healing foods to help children experiencing such chronic problems as allergies, ADHD, and obesity.

 
 Dr. Maya Shetreat-Klein; photo ©Tanya Malott

Dr. Maya Shetreat-Klein; photo ©Tanya Malott

 

Eco-Judaism is also luring otherwise disenchanted Jews into the fold. Wolk, for example, didn’t relish her Hebrew school days in suburban Detroit and recalls whispering in the pews with friends during synagogue services. She always felt uplifted by the natural world, however, and studied environmental ecology at the University of Michigan. Since moving to the Bay Area, she’s been thrilled to discover that “Judaism provides a framework to help people connect more deeply to the environment.”

Young Jews create, and are drawn in by, a colorful array of initiatives. At the Yiddish Farm in Goshen, N.Y., which opened in December 2010 and aims to serve as a bridge between Jews of various backgrounds, visitors can learn the mamaloshen ("mother tongue," a.k.a. Yiddish) and organic farming. At Urban Adamah, city “farmers” in Berkeley, Calif., harvest from a one-acre plot, manage a free weekly food stand and donate produce to local food banks while learning about the environment. In the Midwest, near Chicago, Pushing the Envelope Farm has been teaching visitors and volunteers about agriculture in accordance with Jewish ethics since 2007.

Happy Campers

Perhaps predictably, one of the most rapidly greening sectors of Jewish life is summer camp. And many longtime camps are drawing inspiration from Eden Village Camp, which enrolled its first campers in 2010 at its 248-acre site in Putnam Valley, N.Y.

Eden Village founders Vivian Stadlin Lehrer and her husband, Yoni Stadlin, have told the story before of how one evening, while Yoni stood over the sink washing dishes, he was struck by the vision of creating a Jewish eco-camp. They’ve also discussed the fortuitous news they received the night after their 2010 wedding: The Jim Joseph Foundation would deliver a $1.1 million grant to help them fulfill that fantasy.

And they’ve talked a lot about the camp’s organic farm and garden based on Jewish principles (each of the garden’s 12 spokes, for example, features foliage related to a different Hebrew month). Lehrer, says that she has received calls from more than 25 camps seeking to replicate or create similar designs.

What hasn’t been discussed as much is how Lehrer, a child of Chilean Jewish parents and the product of a suburban Chicago upbringing, has been transformed by eco-Jewish practice and philosophy.

 Vivian Stadlin Lehrer

Vivian Stadlin Lehrer

As a young girl, Lehrer says, “It didn’t ever occur to me that Judaism has a lot of wisdom, that it can answer a lot of big questions in my life.” As an undergraduate at Columbia College, Lehrer gravitated to the arty hipster scene, even co-hosting a radio show on the college station. But, she says, “It wasn’t providing the answers about community and purpose. There was not too much sentimentality” in that universe.

Lehrer attended Columbia Law School, planning to become a public interest attorney, but she stumbled upon a Jewish route to environmental work instead. She was particularly drawn to it when she learned how global climate change disproportionately hurts impoverished people.

“Environmental protection is a human and a moral issue,” says Lehrer, who adds that “the spirituality of Judaism brings us in greater harmony with each other.” And “you don’t need to delve deeply into obscure Midrashic sources” to find Jewish teachings on “taking care of the earth and taking care of each other.”

Money Doesn’t Grow on Trees

As a famous frog once sang, “It’s not easy being green.” There is a darker side to the story of exponential growth and the blooming of the Jewish community. “It has no installed capital base, no reserves, no endowment, no safety net,” says Savage, founder of Hazon. “These organizations are scrambling from month to month to raise money to pay the bills.”

Savage finds hope in new ventures funded by the mainstream Jewish community. The Jewish Greening Fellowship, supported by the UJA-Federation of New York, has already trained some 40 Jewish agencies in the New York area to reduce fossil fuels, waste and pollution while increasing Jewish environmental education.

The 14th Street Y in Manhattan, among the first recipients of the fellowship and the most ambitious, has overhauled its programming and examined its infrastructure. It has replaced lights and paint, added more recycling and eliminated all Styrofoam from the building. It has installed five-foot-high bins for composting and built a new theater of recycled wood, and it is creating a rooftop garden. In addition, it has integrated environmental teachings into its preschool curriculum, its after-school programming and its camps. The Y even conducted a Green Song Competition for children.

Savage says the world of Jewish environmental programs “is just starting to get interesting. The greatest growth will happen in the next five years.” He continues, “If you’re a Jewish woman of any age, coming up to bat mitzvah or 90-something, you have an incredible opportunity to help these organizations to grow.”

Some would add: If not now, when? “The climate crisis must be solved now, in our generation,” says Mirele B. Goldsmith, former director of the Jewish Greening Fellowship and founder of Green Strides Consulting. “There is a deadline beyond which it will be too late.”

(Originally published in spring 2013.)


Elicia Brown is a freelance writer who lives in Manhattan.