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Raising a Jewish Environmentalist?

This past weekend, I attended the Kayam Beit Midrash, an annual event at the Pearlstone Retreat Center in Baltimore. I was proud to attend for the second year with my family – my husband and my beautiful 7-year-old son. We spent the weekend learning about Shemittah, the amazing Jewish mitzvah to let the land rest every seven years.

I really appreciate the Kayam Beit Midrash. Through their passions for Jewish learning, farming and agriculture, they manage to bring together a really diverse and interesting group of people. I got to see a lot of old friends, strengthen existing connections, and also meet new people.

At some Jewish environmental conferences I feel like I’m “on” constantly, but at this conference my roles were the following:

  • Learn about shemittah and think critically about how this concept can inform the Jewish environmental movement
  • Teach a session based on a learning from the Canfei Nesharim/Jewcology Year of Jewish Learning on the Environment, and in so doing, let people know that an amazing new set of resources is becoming available for the Jewish environmental movement (see the source sheet from my lesson on Consumerism and Wealth, attached).
  • Be a mom, a wife, a colleague, and a friend for the various participants that I am privileged to know from so many different parts of my life. (This was the most fun part!)

One of the most delightful parts of the conference was noticing how my son is growing up. He came to the Beit Midrash last year as a six year old, and we spent quite a bit of time wondering where he was in the kids’ activities and whether he was safe roaming the halls (which seems to be a consistent part of a child’s experience at the Beit Midrash).

This year, at seven, he was much more able to take care of himself – to get his own food at meals, to go off to the bathroom or the activities himself and to spend hours playing soccer with the other children on the fields outside. We took comfort from the fact that when he needed us, he was able to find us! And of course many of us knew each others’ children and were able to call them by name and help them find their parents. That’s an experience that I’ve never had except in shul. And in fact, the Beit Midrash was kind of like being in shul all weekend long. (In a good way.) 🙂

My son is actually one of the reasons we came back to Kayam again this year. Last year he really enjoyed the Beit Midrash, and this year, one day, he asked, “Are we going back to the farm for that conference again this year?” We asked, “Would you like to?” and he said “Yes!”

This year we were in the middle of dinner on Saturday night when he asked: “Can we come back to this conference again next year?”

You may not know it if you usually see me dressed in green on Tu b’Shevat, but I’m not a typical Jewish environmental leader. I don’t spend much time at all on a farm or a camp, and my husband has a “regular job.” In fact, 40% of the time I have a “regular job” too – my position at EPA. When I’m settled into my Orthodox community, it’s true that my geothermal heating system and Prius cars distinguish me, but I’m really more of an Orthodox Jew that a Jewish enviro. When I’m ensconced in my EPA job working HTML code for the International Programs website, you might not even know that I am involved in Jewish environmental education.

And when it comes to my parenting, while my son knows to turn off the faucet and that Tu b'Shevat is a time to be grateful for trees, I've invested a lot more time and energy in teaching him about Torah and emunah. That's the right balance for me.

But in my heart, there is a world of Jewish environmentalism to which I’m inextricably connected. I go to Jewish environmental conferences and see friends that I’ve known for more than ten years – we’ve grown up together. When I teach lessons about Torah and the environment, people understand what I’m trying to say with little explanation. And there’s something about that Jewish-environmental conference version of Havdallah that is just beautiful to me. As I move into a different phase of life, I’m watching all the 20-somethings circulating from opportunities at Adamah to Teva, Urban Adamah, Kayam, etc. It’s beautiful.

And I guess it’s a part of my life that I want to allow my son to understand and appreciate, too. I’m not sure if he’ll want to go to Jewish environmental camp or work a season at Teva, but at least I want him to know these are options. I didn’t realize it until these two years at Kayam, but maybe – just maybe – I might be raising a Jewish environmentalist after all.

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