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Jews and the Environment

by:  Rachel Druck

American Jewish organizations in New York City, Falls Village, CT, and Berkeley, CA that work to promote environmental awareness and activism within a Jewish context

The Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shvat, the “New Year of the Trees,” places a particular emphasis on the relationship between Jews and the natural world. As the world has grown more environmentally conscious, Jews have been at the forefront of incorporating environmental awareness and activism into Jewish life throughout the year. From the very beginning of humanity, when God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden “to till it and watch over it,” Jews have felt compelled to help and protect the environment around them and, indeed, from sustainability to animal rights to local activism, Jews have been proving for decades that environmental values are Jewish values.

Some of the most prominent environmental activists are Jews, or have Jewish ancestry. Princeton professor Peter Singer, the controversial ethicist and philosopher from a Viennese Jewish family that fled to Melbourne, Australia in 1938, is one of the leading figures in the animal rights movement. Jill Stein, a physician from Lexington, Massachusetts, who grew up in Chicago’s Reform Jewish community, was the presidential candidate during the 2012 and 2016 elections for the Green Party, which explicitly describes itself as an “eco-socialist” party.

However, there are a number of Jewish environmentalists and environmental organizations that highlight their commitment to Jewish values and practice. One of the leading Jewish environmental groups in the United States is Hazon, which is partly based in New York City, with other branches in Detroit, San Diego, Boulder, Philadelphia, and Denver. While Hazon welcomes anyone to its programs and events, regardless of religious or denominational affiliation (or lack thereof), its goal is to strengthen Jewish life in America with a focus on the community’s relationship with food, the outdoors, and the environment. It offers a widely diverse array of programming, from Jewish Outdoor, Food, Farming, and Environmental Education (JOFEE) retreats, community-supported agriculture (CSA) networks, in which members pay local farmers for a share of their harvests, and annual bike rides in San Diego, New York, and Israel that promote, among other things, the importance of bicycle networks.

In 2013, Hazon merged with the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, in Falls Village, CT. Originally founded as the Jewish Working Girls Vacation Society in 1893 as a summer camp where Jewish women, primarily immigrants, could take an affordable vacation out of New York City, Isabella Freedman grew to become a nexus for Jewish environmentalism. Located on 400 acres of land, Isabella Freedman’s programs include the Teva Learning Center for Jewish elementary school students that combines ecology, environmental activism, and Jewish spirituality.  ADAMAH: The Jewish Environmental Fellowship, is an immersive experience integrating Jewish learning with organic farming and sustainable living.  Isabella Friedman also hosts Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot retreats that combine prayer, outdoor activities, and Jewish learning.

California has become a hotbed of Jewish environmental programming. In addition to the Hazon chapter based out of San Diego, the state is home to Wilderness Torah, which describes itself as a “Center for Earth-Based Judaism” and is based out of Berkeley. Programs include nature-based education for Jewish children from kindergarten through high school, as well as holiday programming for Passover, Sukkot, Shavuot, and Tu B’Shvat, the latter of which includes singing, meditation, Jewish learning, and a walk through California’s redwood groves.

Jewish environmental activism proves that Jewish life and Jewish learning can take place anywhere, and can be edifying for the individual and their surroundings. Whether participating in a Tu B’Shvat seder, a CSA, or prayer in the woods, Jews can forge their own unique connections to the environment, while taking care to watch over it.

Beit Hatfutsot