Modern American culture doesn’t have much to say about the importance of place. Of course, we have landmarks: the Statue of Liberty, the Washington Monument, Mount Rushmore, to name a few. But what is important about those places is what is there, or what once happened there. It’s not the place itself that claims us. It’s a combination of monument and memory.
As Jews we are more likely to have a real sense of what place means. We’ve been to Israel, a land that has been a part of our history for millennia, and that today represents all sorts of dreams and magic and meanings. A land infused with holiness. I believe Israel is a truly special place. And yet I do not believe it is the only place where the shechina (divine presence) rests. I don’t believe it’s the only place where you can feel G-d in the air around you.
The very first place that I felt that divine presence was in perhaps an unlikely place – a B’nai B’rith camp in the Northeastern part of Pennsylvania, called Perlman Camp, in a very special place called Starlight, Pennsylvania.
In an International Leadership Training Conference hosted each year for BBYO leaders, in Starlight, PA, I felt the presence of G-d for the first time. I’m not sure if I was looking before that, but it came upon me there. Wandering the camp’s grounds on Shabbat, tromping through an overgrown field of wildflowers, talking to an Israeli shaliach about G-d and religion, experiencing Tisha b’Av for the first time, endless singing of songs on Friday night and endless Israeli dancing on the blacktop on Saturday night after sunset. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I discovered I am a Jew in Starlight, PA.
On Friday I first heard the news that Perlman Camp is one of four camps in that part of Pennsylvania that have signed contracts to allow hydro-fracturing on their land. I don’t fully understand hydro-fracturing (or "fracking" as it is sometimes known), but it seems that there is drilling and horizontal cracking of rocks underground to get at precious natural gas. It also seems that it may cause environmental problems including the possibility of local water pollution.
Listen: I don’t want to fight. I don’t even know if we should. These camps have signed contracts. There’s a significant amount of money involved. There are apparently environmental safeguards in place. Not signing the contracts might have left the camps more vulnerable to environmental damage caused by others who did sign; in this case, they are legally protected from harm.
And most important, if our country is going to use energy the way that it does – if these camps indeed use energy drawn from the grid – it has to come from somewhere. I have heard that natural gas is better than some fossil fuels. There’s not enough renewable energy to supply all that we need now. What right do I have to protect my land because the Jewish community might be better at organizing? If it’s not in our backyard, it’s going to happen somewhere. Why should my land be protected at the expense of someone else?
Few could argue this is what we might call “holy land” and should be protected like Yucca Mountain. It’s not even a place where people live.
There will be time later for position papers and for discussions about approach. I will turn to trusted rabbis and scientists to get their opinions. I am grateful to have these objective arbiters of truth, since my emotions are so likely to get in the way. I feel it’s critical to turn to these people especially in times like this, because if we allow our emotions to rule in these debates, the first and most important victim is truth itself. And we need truth most of all when dealing with environmental challenges — whether it supports our emotions or not.
But now is a different time; a time for sadness. A time for accepting and internalizing the consequences of the light I left on in the bathroom, or the car that I left running too long. A time for remembering that our energy use has a huge and significant cost, whether in the potential disruption of a beautiful and special place, or in the clean air and water of people who are already suffering in too many ways. In the small islands going underwater, leaving innocent people homeless. My inability to teach people to use less; my inability to use less myself; our inability as a society to find a better way. Our actions have consequences and we must live with them.
Rosh Hashanah is coming. Let this posting be your first reminder that it’s time to do teshuva, to repent of our ways. It’s not about the fracking in four camps in Pennsylvania. There is so much more for us to fight, and so much more for us to learn.