Jewcology’s “Our Leaders Today,” is a monthly colum interviewing environmental leaders and activists in Jewish communities near and far. Through personal stories, the columnm, like Jewcology.com, serves not only to generate exposure for important initiatives, but in helping you and I reflect, re-invest, and connect our own efforts, values and goals among our communities.
"Awe Was My First Religion" – Rabbi Alyson Solomon
Q: How did you come to see the connection between Judaism and the environment?
A: The connection between Judaism and the environment starts with Torah, and actually first, with G-d as the Creator. The relationship between Judaism and the environment is a simultaneous phenomenon. People often ask me, “So what was your “torah” before your Torah?" because I didn’t grow up with a very religious background. So at first it was awe in the world, in nature, beauty, in cooking, a rainbow, or the feel of my grandparents’ hands. I think awe was my first religion, and much of this came early from my parents, each in their own ways. What I find now after having studied and learned, is that this awe, it is what Rabbi Abraham Joshua calls “radical amazement.”
Q: What organizational and/or outreach approaches have you found to be most effective in supporting your environmental efforts?
A: I would start with the awe factor again. Go outside, find places in nature that are inspiring. The next step is finding community and friends to share that love for whatever it is. Then hone in on what are the needs of that place.
For example, here at CBB, I gave a sermon on Rosh Hashanah about Jews and the earth. Following on that, I re-instituted the congregation's Green Team. I met with the current leaders, and realized I really wanted to take this on as a project. We gathered everyone around the table, and asked 2 questions. What do we love most about the earth, about nature? And then we asked, what do we want to do about it as a group, as a congregation, as a community? And now this group of about 20 are mobilized; it's really exciting.
Q: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced that might have come from the Jewish community in your environmental work? How did/are you overcome these?
A: No, if anything it's been a source of inspiration and guidance. I still have so much more to learn about our tradition, about how to be an environmentalist. The Torah is all about recycling, letting our fields rest. Even its core concept of Shabbat, resting on the 7th day. If the Jews could give the world one thing to help save the earth, for everything and everyone, it would be Shabbat. It would be for us to stop for 24 hours – this is radical environmentalism. It is embedded so deeply in our tradition; I’m just scratching the surface.
Q: How do you view your particular efforts and goals in light of the larger Jewish environmental movement and, “the global environmental movement?”
A: Santa Barbara is kind of a tricky place that's sometimes challenging as a smaller Jewish community. Jewishly, fewer people have experienced what I call “Jewcy Judaism,” preying on a mountain top or a mountain bike. For young people it can be a challenge living here in our smaller community, especially since our generation is a real power and force behind [the environmental movement]. We don’t see “going green” as an option or choice.
That said, there is magnificent nature beauty here – lots of feul for radical amazement. There are also promising national movements that people of all backgrounds can link into. For example, COEJL which is one of the oldest Jewish environmental organizations and Hazon, probably the newest and quickest growing, each are each doing great work. Along with these there are so many outstanding new organizations: the Jewish Farm School, TEVA Learning Center, ADAMAH, Wilderness Torah, Torah Trek, Adventure Rabbi to name a few. CSAs (community supported agricultural programs) are gaining more popularity. Hazon is now the largest faith-based organizer of CSAs in the country.
There is a lot of work we can do as a Jewish community, and in partnership with other faith communities. Though we still have a long way to go, we are also taking leaps and bounds. Hazon’s 2015 goals set out a green agenda for communities to focus on how we can make significant changes by the end of the next Shmita 7 year cycle. To join in working towards these goals go to: http://www.hazon.org/go.php?q=/food/jewishFoodMovement.html.
Q: The environment and its threats often have no borders, and environmental organizations might wonder at what scale or target population they should focus on. What lessons have you gleaned from both Judaism and your experience about where our responsibility might lie geographically, socially, or otherwise?
A: Tiers of obligation … Judaism teaches us that the value of Tzedakah, giving a minimum of 10% and up to 20% of your earnings is a very strong guideline. Whether that means giving of time, money or attention, Judaism teaches us that we start at home, really even within our own bodies, and we spread out to our families, very immediate neighbors, communities and the spheres starts to widen…like an onion of obligation.
In practice it might mean starting to recycle and compost at home. Meanwhile, it's true that children are starving and disease is rampant in parts of the world. This is why I support American Jewish World Service which does excellent work with our Tzedakah there. This tension is real – between local and global needs and obligations. It is a good reminder that we have to negotiate this constant balance that yes, you have to start with your self, but the tiers of obligation simultaneously extend outward.
Rabbi Alyson Solomon
You are welcome to contact Rabbi Alyson Solomon directly with your questions at email@example.com
Congregation B'nai Brith (Santa Barbara, California, USA) http://www.cbbsb.org/
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Brian is based in Beijing at Bluepath City Consulting. If you know someone you think should be interviewed, please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.