by Basia Yoffe
From the Autumn, 2011 issue of Jewish Currents
ONE AUTUMN AFTERNOON three years ago, as I was leaving the Jewish Community Center of the Upper West Side, I noticed a parked truck across the street emblazoned with the words, “Young Jewish Farmers: Changing the World One Pickle at a Time.” I was becoming increasingly concerned about climate change and the droughts and famines that will probably be among its most devastating consequences, so I wondered: Who were these silly young Jews and what did their pickles have to do with changing the world?
Many “green Jews” have provided me with answers to variants of that question over the past three years, during which I have visited, taken courses, and volunteered at a range of Jewish farms and environmental centers. Such centers are popping up in many places; I listed ten of them in the Winter, 2010-’11 edition of this column, and there are more than that.
Recently, I surveyed more than fifty green Jews with the following questions: “What inspires Jews to be green? Is it an expression of Jewish values? Is it a form of community-building? Is it a way of adapting to a changing world? Is it for survival?” Approximately twenty-five folks have responded, each uniquely, yet all with a unifying thread: a very perceptible love of humanity and of the Earth itself. One very thoughtful young person defined “green” for me as follows: “Green means: 1) consideration for the needs of others, 2) a sensibility that abhors pointless waste, 3) a recognition that all creatures (including me!) rely on each other to sustain themselves, and 4) and the knowledge that all living things participate in and are subject to large planetary systems (sun, soil, water, and air).”
Here is a sampling of their responses:
As an Expression of Jewish Values
• “Judaism very strongly has agrarian roots and our holidays are very strongly agrarian, so part of being on a Jewish farm is a return to something that was very visceral and part of our Jewish identity.”
• “The concept of “peah” (“gleanings,” from Leviticus) — not to harvest the corners of your fields or pick up whatever you drop, but to allow the poor, orphans, widows, etc. to gather it — can easily be translated into a modern context. One in six Americans is hungry, lacking sufficient food to function well. As Jews we have a responsibility to help not only hungry Jews, but anyone who needs nutritious food.”
• “Jewish children have become distanced from where their food comes from. We need to teach them about the miracle of a seed. Saying a brokhe (blessing) helps us contemplate the origin of what we put in our mouths as well as to enjoy and savor the taste and nurturing of our bodies.”
• “When I think of my perspectives on environment, I think more about spending childhood time in my backyard with caterpillars. I think of driving home through the midnight fog after a high school party, stopping to admire a brown rabbit by the curb. I think about my college courses in ecology and environmental engineering. I think of rock-climbing, and stargazing, and walking barefoot through the grass. I would not say any of this is specifically an expression of Jewish values.”
• “Jewish law just assumes environmental sustainability, so it only addresses the issue tangentially. The world wasn’t in such dire need in ancient times, so the laws (with the exception of baal tashkhit, the prohibition against waste, and tzar balei khayim, prohibition against cruelty to animals) seem to focus much more on creating ideal societies.”
As an Expression of Community-Building
• “I think that much of the funding and institutional power behind the Jewish green movement comes because it is a cause to unite around. Temple boards are interested in greening their buildings because it draws a lot of new members and passion.”
• “Building Jewish community doesn’t inspire me to be green. Rather, my values and my need for a living community — for life partners, friends, and living models of excellence — inspire my desire to be part of this community. For me, the sense of community is vital for making Judaism relevant, since sharing and living these values with allies is a great deal more empowering than trying to express, share, and remain committed to a life expressing these values alone.”
• “One of the main things that brought me into the Jewish environmental world was social connections. A new friend in my freshman year at college brought me simultaneously into a deeper connection with Judaism and with nature. The social networks I have explored since have been huge factors in my continuous engagement in the movement — through Kayam Farm, the Teva Learning Center, Hazon, Isabella Freedman Retreat Center, Jews in the Woods, Moishe Kavod House (Boston), and more casual, unnamed networks of friends and acquaintances.”
As an Adaptation to a Changing World
• “With the world changing so rapidly, I find the nature-based rhythms of Judaism reassuring. It’s a relief to be encouraged by my ancient tradition to sloooooow down one day a week — to turn off the Internet, the phone, the car, and just live more simply. It keeps me from feeling like I need to run away and do that forever, living in the woods somewhere as a completely Luddite hermit monk. I do ponder the day when a person will either be in the Matrix or in the Real World. And I will choose to be in the Real World.”
• “Adapting to a changing world isn’t inspiring me ‘as a Jew’ to be green — the challenges of local environmental devastation and global changes to natural systems inspire me as a human being to find allies wherever I can to push back.”
As a Means of Survival
• “For generational survival, yes. Jews have planned and thought in terms of grandchildren for many generations. When I have grandchildren someday, I want them to be able to connect with their natural world. This also makes me think of the Native American wisdom to consider the seventh generation. I also want to hear birds chirping and see beautiful skies and waters when I am older, in my own lifetime. I am not worried about things on a catastrophic scale. I do think about the so-called ‘end of the world’ (or the end of humanity, really — how species-centric), but that doesn’t make me fearful, and it’s not what makes me act, or even care.”
Jewish farms will never be able to feed the Jewish population or the rest of the population. Their green practices won’t make a large dent in carbon emissions, either. They don’t necessarily undertake political lobbying or protest, and they are not particularly steeped in radical Jewish history or culture. Instead, the green lifestyle — including organic gardening, urban composting, heirloom seed cultivation, the slow food movement, off-the-grid energy, and more — is the “Sixties counterculture” for young people today. It expresses, as one respondent put it, “a deep desire to be helping” — and that desire cannot be taken for granted among young people in today’s America.
Whether the green counterculture will have political impact on the broader world really depends on the work of political organizers. Until those organizers appear and coalesce, however, green Jews, in all of their variety, are priming the pump by cultivating sensitivity to environmental issues — and, inevitably, to issues of corporate power — and by “changing the world one pickle at a time.”
Basia Yoffe, a member of our editorial board, is a Jewish environmental activist in upstate New York who edits Jewish Currents‘ “Notes from a Small Planet.”