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Jewish response to climate change

There is a classic Midrash from Ecclesiastes that describes the time when God created Adam. God led him around the Garden of Eden and said: "Look at My works! How beautiful and praiseworthy they are. Everything that I have created, I created for you. Take care not to damage and destroy My world, for if you destroy it, there is no one to repair it after you." (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah 7:13).

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There is a classic Midrash from Ecclesiastes that describes the time when God created Adam. God led him around the Garden of Eden and said: "Look at My works! How beautiful and praiseworthy they are. Everything that I have created, I created for you. Take care not to damage and destroy My world, for if you destroy it, there is no one to repair it after you." (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah 7:13).

"[The Midrash] was written at a time when no one could imagine destroying the world, so now I find that a really frightening precautionary imperative," says Evonne Marzouk, director of Canfei Nesharim, an organization that educates the Orthodox community about environmental issues.

Today scientists are saying there could come a time when the effects of climate change will be catastrophic and irreversible. Some 300,000 people per year could suffer deaths related to global warming. Everyone could be feeling the heat of more frequent and intense heat waves. Coastal areas could be diminished due to the loss of shelf ice in Greenland and Antarctica. And the list goes on.

The vast majority of scientists agree that global warming is already happening as a result of human activities. And dire consequences may not be so far off—2050 by many estimates. Environmental campaigns are no longer about saving the Earth for future generations; they are about preserving the environment for this generation.

Once an issue associated mostly with liberals and even considered fringe, today concern for the environment is widespread. Hybrid cars pepper the roadways, and major stores carry energy efficient electronics and light bulbs. The media are highlighting the issues more and more, while former Vice President Al Gore put the global warming crisis on the radar for many Americans with his movie "An Inconvenient Truth." In late November the Supreme Court stepped into the national debate over climate change, in the first case about global warming to reach the high court.

For more than 10 years, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) has been providing a Jewish spin on concern for the environment. The group, which operates under the Jewish Council for Public Affairs—an umbrella group of Jewish community relations councils, educates the Jewish community about environmental issues, advocates for the environment and provides a vehicle for Jews to take action.

Four years ago, Canfei Nesharim entered the scene with the goal of educating the Orthodox community about protecting the environment from the perspective of Torah and Jewish law. The group, which means "wings of eagles," works in consultation with COEJL, sharing materials, and even has received some financial support. Representatives from both organizations say you don't have to look too hard in Jewish sources to find evidence of Jewish concern for the environment.

"We are a people who care about environmental stewardship because it's all over our liturgy," says Barbara Lerman Golomb, executive director of COEJL.
The basic source of Jewish environmental law is Deuteronomy 20:19-20. There the Torah prohibits ba'al tashchit—the destruction of fruit trees when the Jewish people wage war against a city.

Maimonides, the 12th-century sage, philosopher, and physician, extends that prohibition when he writes: "Anyone who breaks utensils, tears garments, destroys buildings, stops up a stream, or ruins food with destructive intent transgresses the command 'Do not destroy.'"

In Deuteronomy 22 6:7, the Torah gives the mitzvah of shiluach hakain, sending away the mother bird. "If a bird's nest happens to be before you on the road, on any tree or on the ground young birds or eggs—and the mother is roosting on the young birds or the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young. You shall surely send away the mother and take the young for yourself…"

Nachmanides writes on this verse, "This is related to the prohibition against slaughtering an animal and its kid in one day. The reason for these two [prohibitions] is that we should not have a cruel and merciless heart, or that the Torah should not permit us to destroy and uproot a species, even though [the Torah] permits ritual slaughter of this species. One who kills a mother [animal] and her children in one day or who takes them it is as if he has annihilated that species."

The book of Leviticus in 25:2-5 commands the Jewish people to let the land in Israel lay fallow every seventh year, a mitzvah that Jews still keep in Israel today.

"What grows by itself do not reap, and the grapes of your untrimmed vine do not gather; it will be a year of complete rest for the land."

Canfei Nesharim's work has been about highlighting these kinds of sources to demonstrate that concern for the environment should be a priority among the Orthodox community. "The issue is not at the top of the Orthodox community's radar screen, but mostly I've been really gratified with the response, that people are saying they felt that it was an important issue and are happy to have an Orthodox organization putting it in context," says Marzouk.

For COEJL, Torah connections to the environment have been a source of engaging some people in Judaism, says Lerman Golomb. "The younger generation has been hearing about the environmental problem for their whole lives, and COEJL has given a vehicle for them to take action with a Jewish twist. COEJL allows people to look through a Jewish lens to make a difference in the environment."

In what has been perhaps its most popular campaign yet, COEJL recently initiated A Light Among the Nations, also known as "How many Jews Does It Take to Change a Light Bulb?" The four-part campaign, which is meant to be a Jewish response to global warming, began on Chanukah when some 450 synagogues and their member families replaced the incandescent light bulbs in their shuls and homes with energy-efficient, cost-effective compact fluorescent (CFL) light bulbs.

What has made the CFL campaign so successful, says Lerman Golomb, is that changing light bulbs gives people something tangible to do. She estimates that COEJL will sell 20,000 bulbs, which is equal to 8,250 tons of carbon dioxide that will be prevented from entering the atmosphere.

Locally, some 12 synagogues are participating in the campaign run by JUF's Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), which is providing the CFL bulbs to congregations at a discounted price. Jesse Greenberg, JCRC domestic affairs associate, says that at this point, JCRC work related to the environment is all about encouraging people to become more sensitive to environmental concerns and to introduce it to people as a Jewish issue. Greenberg hopes that active participation in JCRC's light bulb campaign will help accomplish those goals.

In mid-Dec., JCRC's Domestic Affairs Commission, chaired by Ilene Novack and Michael Perry, met to discuss the Jewish interest in environmental issues. Speakers included Rabbis Herbert Bronstein, rabbi emeritus at North Shore Congregation Israel and Brant Rosen, rabbi at Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston. Illinois State Representative Elaine Nekritz, a leader in the state legislature on environmental issues, provided insight into possibilities to improving environmental practices at the state level, hightlighting the chemical component to environmental issues. The last speaker, Joe Shacter of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, discussed the economic benefits that accompany improving environmental standards.

The next step in COEJL's campaign is Greening Synagogues by encouraging congregations to conserve energy in other ways as well—by educating members and by making synagogues more energy-efficient.

The Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston is at the forefront of this initiative in building a new structure that will be the first certified "green" synagogue in the nation. By using energy-efficient means to build and manage the building—such as salvaged brick, efficient landscaping, low-flow toilets and solar-powered lights—the congregation plans to meet the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) gold standards. The only other house of worship to do so is a Unitarian church in Ohio. "Our environmental task force advocated to build a building that would be a model of sustainability, and that became a par of our community consensus," says Rabbi Brant Rosen. "We hope to be a model of other houses of worship, not just Jews'."

Lerman Golomb hopes that "Taking Senators to Synagogue" to demonstrate what the Jewish community is doing to counter global warming will be effective advocacy for the environment. The final campaign stage is the "Climate Challenge," a worldwide youth initiative to become "carbon neutral." This means educating young people about conservation and engaging them in carbon-offsetting activities such as planting shrubs and ground cover that act as mini "carbon sinks."

That so many synagogues are interested in COEJL's climate change campaign demonstrates to Lerman Golomb that the Jewish community has come a long way on environmental issues since COEJL got started more than a decade ago. "It used to be a hard sell to convince people that the environment is a social justice issue, but now we're seeing the intensity of hurricanes and the effects on the Arctic. People didn't quite get it, but now I speak to synagogues all the time and see a difference in the response I am getting.

Go to or for more information. To learn more about the local Jewish response to environmental issues or to purchase CFL bulbs at a discount, contact Jesse Greenberg in JCRC at

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