Honors thesis on the beginnings of Jewish environmental and vegetarian activism in the 1970s and 1980s

Renewing and Recycling:

The Formation of American Jewish Environmentalism

in the 1970s and 1980s

Gabrielle Plotkin


Keith Woodhouse

B.A. Thesis for Honors in History

Northwestern University

May 3, 2021



Few environmental historians have considered how American Jews interacted with the

postwar environmental movement. Those that have, often characterize American Jews as

“urban” and separate from nature. However, I demonstrate that American Jewry’s involvement

in left-leaning politics and inclination to both assimilate and remain committed to Judaism

primed the community for participation in environmentalism. In the 1960s through 1980s,

American Jews revitalized centuries-old Judaic environmental ethics and agricultural practices

for a modern era. Environmental causes gained traction in the Jewish community when political

interests and religious tenets aligned. From the conservation of forests in tandem with the

destruction of trees during the Vietnam War, to the protection of animal rights and religiously

motivated vegetarianism, to the development of alternative energies during the Arab Oil

Embargo to bolster support for Israel, Jewish environmentalists emphasized issues of relevance

to their community while also redeveloping liturgies, holidays, and values for American Jews

more broadly. While Jewish environmentalists highlighted similar issues as the larger

environmental movement, they approached them with a Jewish lens on justice, sustainability,

and community. The environmental movement has never held a single set of meanings for all

people, and in the late twentieth century, American Jews made it their own.


Table of Contents

Acknowledgments | iv

Introduction | 1

Chapter 1: “For the Sake of Heaven”: The Origins of Jewish Environmentalism | 12

The Story of Assimilation | 14

The Environmental Movement | 22

Closer to Nature | 24

The Jewish Counterculture | 31

Chapter 2: “To Till and To Tend”: The Emergence of Ideas and Institutions | 39

The Philosophical Foundations | 39

The Greening of Judaism | 49

Building a Movement | 62

Chapter 3: “A Tree of Life”: Evaluating the Movement | 69

The Identity of the Jewish Environmentalist | 70

A Grassroots Structure | 72

Judaism in the Modern Moment | 79

Conclusion | 93

Bibliography | 96

Interviews | 96

Periodicals Consulted | 96

Document Collections | 96

Primary Sources | 97

Secondary Sources | 99



Thank you to my advisor, Professor Woodhouse, for your guidance and feedback this

last year. I have thoroughly enjoyed working with you. I am also grateful for the help of

Professor Muir who believed in my ideas and vision for this topic. As well, I would like to extend

a thank you to Dr. Sufrin, Professor Burns, and the other history, environmental policy, and

religious studies faculty who helped me brainstorm ideas and sources, connect with Jewish

environmentalists, and test out my interview questions. In addition, I appreciate the support I

received from Professor Shwom and the Writing Place. Given the extra challenges that came

with writing a thesis during a pandemic, my community of fellow thesis-writers in the history

seminar, my thesis writing groups, and my friends kept me grounded and provided

accountability for my research. Furthermore, I would like to thank each person whom I

interviewed for dedicating their time to talk about their work, send files, and answer my

questions. I feel so lucky to share your stories with others who, like myself, see their passion for

environmental causes as inextricably linked to their Jewish identity. Lastly, none of this would

have been possible without the love and support from my mom, my dad, and my brother.



In the American popular imagination, a conventional story persists about how the

postwar environmental movement came to be, who influenced it, and what the main issues

were. When Americans imagine environmentalism, they tend to think first about early twentiethcentury

fights over national parks and forests, wilderness areas, and the damming of major

rivers.1 In thinking about the late twentieth century, Americans might picture oil-slicked beaches,

smoggy cities, and the recycling symbol. And they would probably call to mind Earth Day, 1970,

in which millions of Americans came together in what appeared to be widespread agreement

about what was wrong and what had to be done. However, this ubiquitous account cannot

possibly encompass all of the complexities of the American environmental movement. For

example, David Seidenberg forged his own path among environmentalists and in the Jewish

community as an eco-conscious rabbi: “When I got into Judaism. It seemed obvious to me. …All

of this was very much related to how we are in relation to the land and relation to the earth. All

[emphasis added] of Judaism seemed to be about that.”2 Whether or not Americans are aware

of this story, Jewish environmentalists formed their own environmental narrative.

Meanwhile, historians remain skeptical of singular truths, so they have started

challenging the dominant narrative of environmentalism. They have analyzed how social

dimensions like race, class, and gender shape how Americans experience and conceptualize

the relationship between the human and nonhuman.3 Yet few scholars have written at length

1 See Mark Harvey, A Symbol of Wilderness: Echo Park and the American Conservation Movement, 1st ed. (Albuquerque: University

of New Mexico Press, 1994); Tom Turner, David Brower: The Making of the Environmental Movement (Oakland: University of

California Press, 2015); Michael P. Cohen, The History of the Sierra Club, 1892-1970 (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988).

2 David Mevorach Seidenberg, Zoom interview by the author, September 8, 2020.

3 Much of this recent scholarship has centered on race and class. For a narration on the relationship between African Americans

and the outdoors see Brian McCammack, Landscapes of Hope: Nature and the Great Migration in Chicago (Cambridge, MA:

Harvard University Press, 2017); Carolyn Finney, Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to

the Great Outdoors (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014); Lauret Savoy, Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the

American Landscape (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press, 2015). On the environmental justice movement and environmentalism

concerned especially with toxic chemicals in urban and working-class spaces and in communities of color, see Ellen Griffith

Spears, Baptized in PCBs: Race, Pollution, and Justice in an All-American Town (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press,

2014); Julie Sze, Noxious New York: The Racial Politics of Urban Health and Environmental Justice (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press,

2007); and David N. Pellow, Garbage Wars: The Struggle for Environmental Justice in Chicago (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002).


about how different faith communities have interacted with and responded to environmentalism.

That research is even more limited outside of the Christian faith.

Despite the lack of published scholarship related to this subject, some environmental

studies scholars and religious leaders combine environmentalism with religion in their work. Dr.

Rachel Havrelock, a Jewish professor of English, environmental studies, and biblical studies,

makes clear how environmentalism extends into religious beliefs: “how do we live in a way that

promotes, you know, survival and stability and diversity of life forms and cultural forms? How do

we inhabit? How do we live in place? …But I really do see this question of how we inhabit the

world, as being, you know, also at once a really deeply religious one.”4 Havrelock frames the

delicate balance of ecosystems as a religious consideration about one’s behavior and morals.

Questions of mutually beneficial coexistence are not solely scientific but also humanistic and

theological in nature. Put differently, religion can take on an environmental tinge. Daniel Swartz,

a former scientific assistant turned rabbi and the current head of the Coalition on the

Environment and Jewish Life, defines a Judaic approach to environmentalism: “you’re really

talking about how things are connected, how we affect each other. And from the standpoint of

Jewish values at least, how we’re responsible for one another, what do we owe to each other?”5

Whether from a scholarly or rabbinic perspective, religion and ecology intertwine.

Faith-based communities have espoused environmentalism in distinct ways. In Judaism

and Christianity, religious thinkers from the seventies onward have framed the environmental

crisis as a spiritual crisis that ruptured humanity from nature, which in turn fostered

environmental degradation. Concern for exploitation of the earth translated into new religious

ideologies, “ecotheologies.” While American environmental thought wove in threads of

Christianity since the transcendentalists of the 19th century, a visible strain of Jewish

environmentalism, also known as Jewish ecology or eco-Judaism, appeared in the 1970s.

4 Rachel Havrelock, Zoom interview by the author, September 29, 2020.

5 Daniel Swartz, Zoom interview by the author, October 8, 2020.


American Jews looked inward to reinterpret precepts and texts to formulate a Jewish ecology

that reflected contemporary politics. They took environmentalism and made it their own with

religious liturgies, faith-based activism, and environmentally themed holidays.

Before the 1970s, there were Jews who brought environmental ideals into their religious

practice and ideology; however, they were not part of an organized movement. Yiddish women

poets, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Martin Buber, Zionist pioneers of the modern state of Israel,

and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote about how humanity and nature fit together.6

Likewise, Jews participated in earlier US environmental activism, but they did not participate in

an explicitly religious capacity. These environmentalists seem incidentally Jewish. For Dr.

Robert Marshall, a wilderness advocate in the US Forest Service, his Jewishness was not a

defining factor in his conservation work. Historians like Mark Stoll and Paul Sutter nod to

Marshall’s Jewish heritage but do not connect his environmental philosophy to Judaism even as

they recognize his socialist roots.7

But religiosity was never wholly separate from ideas about wild, outdoor spaces,

especially when the religion in question was Christianity. Historian Thomas Dunlap quotes

wilderness activist Dave Foreman: “preservation of wilderness was ‘an ethical and moral matter.

A religious mandate.’”8 Scholars who have written about John Muir—a devout Christian,

naturalist, conservationist, and co-founder of the Sierra Club, who lobbied for the establishment

of Yosemite as a national park—have described his motivations as partially stemming from his

Christian faith.9 Among Americans that care about the environment, Muir was recognizably

6 Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, “Judaism,” in The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Ecology, ed. Roger Gottlieb (Oxford: Oxford

University Press, 2006), 48-52; Fred Scherlinder Dobb, Zoom interview by the author, November 10, 2020; Jamie Korngold, Zoom

interview by the author, October 6, 2020; Edward K. Kaplan, “Reverence and Responsibility: Abraham Joshua Heschel on Nature

and the Self,” in Judaism and Ecology: Created World and Revealed Word, ed. Hava Tirosh-Samuelson (Cambridge: Harvard

University Press, 2002), 407-422.

7 Mark Stoll, Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism (New York: Oxford University Press,

2015), 259, https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190230869.001.0001; Paul Sutter, “The Freedom of the Wilderness: Bob

Marshall,” in Driven Wild: How the Fight Against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement (Seattle: University of

Washington Press, 2002), 194-238.

8 Thomas R. Dunlap, Faith in Nature: Environmentalism as Religious Quest, Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books (Seattle:

University of Washington Press, 2004), 11.

9 John Muir, The Story of My Boyhood and Youth (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1913); Sally R. Miller, ed., John Muir in Historical

Perspective (New York: Peter Lang, 1999).


Christian; his writing dripped with the language of the Divine and biblical references. Muir

biographer Steven J. Holmes identified him as “one of the patron saints of twentieth-century

environmental activity.”10 Even present-day environmentalists, such as Wendell Berry and Bill

McKibben, connect their work with their faith, while Christian leaders like H. Paul Santmire and

Pope Francis speak on environmental damage. Religious Christians and Catholics readily

acknowledge the relationship with the environment in these scholars’ work.11

Historians have considered how the environment became not only a political issue but

also an ethical and religious one,12 yet their reference point has largely been Christianity. Stoll

has written about why various denominations within Christianity produced so many figures in the

conservation and environmental movements in the United States. He identifies how several

churches and branches of Christianity contributed to famous environmentalists’ philosophies.13

Even though Stoll dedicates some space in his book to look at the role of Jewish people in

American environmentalism since the 1990s, he only briefly ruminates on topics like Jewish

contributions to organic agriculture, thus missing the underpinnings of American Jewish


Despite the lack of scholarly attention to the relationship between Judaism and

environmentalism, by the late-twentieth century, an overlapping movement had emerged. How

did this come about, and what can it tell us about the environmental movement more broadly?

In the 1970s and 1980s, a critical mass of individuals mobilized around American Jewish

10 Steven J. Holmes, The Young John Muir: An Environmental Biography (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999), 3.

11 Wendell Berry, Essays 1969-1990, ed. Jack Shoemaker (New York: The Library of America, 2019); Bill McKibben, The

Comforting Whirlwind: God, Job, and the Scale of Creation (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 2005); H. Paul Santmire, The

Travail of Nature: The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1985); Sean

McDonagh, On Care for Our Common Home = Laudato Si: The Encyclical of Pope Francis on the Environment (Maryknoll, New

York: Orbis Books, 2016).

12 Donald Worster, Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Roderick

Frazier Nash, The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989); Roderick

Frazier Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind, 5th ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014); Stoll, Inherit the Holy

Mountain; Dunlap, Faith in Nature; Max Oelschlaeger, The Idea of Wilderness: From Prehistory to the Age of Ecology (New Haven,

CT: Yale University Press, 1991); Max Oelschlaeger, Caring for Creation: An Ecumenical Approach to the Environmental Crisis

(New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994); Bron Taylor, Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future

(Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010); Mary Evelyn Tucker and John A. Grim, ed., “Religion and Ecology: Can the Climate

Change?” Dædalus 130, no. 4 (Fall 2001).

13 Stoll.


environmentalism, a “bio-centric way of understanding” and practicing Judaism, as Seidenberg

explained.14 Jews who cared about the environment plus environmentalists who were ethnically

Jewish and looking for spiritual grounding saw a confluence of their ideas represented in both

ideologies. Increasing engagement with Jewish ecological ethics reflected a shift in American

Jewish politics, traditions, and prayers. As the Jewish community navigated oscillating

assimilationist tendencies, Jewish leaders reinvented their practices to engage the younger

generation. Within the broader political landscape and environmental zeitgeist, eco-conscious

practices resonated for the politically engaged Jewish community. Jewish environmentalists

looked to Judaism for teachings about agriculture to inform current events and experiences.

Even though these individuals and their views were peripheral to the Jewish establishment, their

organizations gained traction when specific ecological concerns matched up with existing

American Jewish political priorities or religious practices. Jewish environmentalists built up

momentum when they communicated their work as either pertaining to Israel or tied to Jewish

values. In an era of increasing environmental consciousness, I argue that Jewish

environmentalism aimed to modernize Judaism for a politicized and assimilated community as

well as reconnect American Judaism with its historical roots.

In my research, I seek to bridge the scholarship in Christian environmental history,

Jewish environmental studies, and American Jewish history while putting the appearance of

American Jewish environmentalism’s theological and political elements in context. These three

disciplines need more overlap for a more complete picture of American religious, environmental


In 1967, Lynn White, a historian of medieval technology, sparked an ongoing debate

within American religious and environmental history by asserting that Christianity, which was

based on Judaism, led to the ruin of nature. He blamed Genesis 1:28 from the Old Testament

14 Seidenberg, interview.


for giving humanity permission to “master” the earth.15 White viewed this line as evidence that

the Bible grants people supremacy over nature, and this hierarchy will inevitably lead to

exploitation.16 Many scholars have contested White’s thesis; they took issue with his

interpretation of that biblical verse and claimed that it did not reflect the historical or literary

context.17 As a result, historians have viewed White’s overarching claim as a challenge, to rehistoricize

the moral and religious origins of environmentalism.

More recently, environmental historians such as Dunlap and Stoll have rejected White’s

claim that the line in Genesis indirectly perpetuated environmental harm. Dunlap surveyed

ecological movements of the 20th century, delving into the ways that ecologists’ praxis

overlapped with theories and practices surrounding the Divine. Calling attention to the inherent

religiosity of conservation and environmentalism, he argues that advocates ascribed value to

the wilderness by deifying it. He probed the overlooked reality that environmentalists “ask

religious questions: what purpose do humans have in the universe, and what must they do to

fulfill it?”18 Despite Dunlap and Stoll’s repudiation of White’s extreme thesis, they still

unquestionably grant some of his basic assumptions. While these scholars do not believe that

Judaism and Christianity are fundamentally responsible for the destruction of nature, they

accept White’s translation of a line that characterizes the Hebrew Bible as asserting that people

should dominate nature.

Other scholars, especially within the Jewish community, have disagreed with the

premises of White’s argument but have nonetheless continued to reinforce narratives about the

15 Many different translations modify the word choice and meaning of the text. For example, “God blessed them and said to them,

‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every

living creature that moves on the ground.” Genesis 1:28.

16 Lynn White Jr., “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” Science 155, no. 3767 (March 10, 1967): 1203–7,


17 Elspeth Whitney, “Lynn White, Ecotheology, and History,” Environmental Ethics 15, no. 2 (Summer 1993): 151-169; Jeremy

Cohen, “On Classical Judaism and Environmental Crisis” 1990, in Judaism and Environmental Ethics, ed. Martin Yaffe (Lanham,

MD: Lexington Books, 2001), 73-79; David Ehrenfeld and Philip J. Bentley, “Judaism and the Practice of Stewardship” (1985), in

Yaffe, 125-135; Evan Eisenberg, The Ecology of Eden: An Inquiry into the Dream of Paradise and a New Vision of Our Role in

Nature (New York: Vintage, 1998).

18 Dunlap, 13.


historical absence of Jews involved in modern American environmental movements.19 Jewish

intellectual historian Hava Tirosh-Samuelson has researched the biblical and postbiblical history

of Jewish environmental ethics. She has clarified that the term “Judeo-Christian,” which White

and other Christian environmental historians have used, wrongly limits the scope of what

Judaism has to offer and that the Tanakh (Torah, Hebrew Bible, Hebrew scriptures, Written

Torah) is not the only indicator of what Judaism says about environmental stewardship. After

the fall of the second temple, rabbis wrote commentaries, creating prescriptions about how to

observe Judaism without the temple. Tirosh-Samuelson has asserted that scholars need to

analyze the Oral Torah, the Talmud (Jewish law and commentaries), in addition to, or even in

place of, the Written Torah to find a more accurate depiction of Jewish environmental ethics.

After surveying that evidence, she ironically arrived at the same conclusion—Jews have had

limited spiritual experiences with the environment—but for reasons other than the Genesis line.

According to Tirosh-Samuelson, during the height of rabbinic Judaism in the postbiblical era,

Jews were interested in natural spaces not because of their beauty, practicality, or spirituality

but because they were an extension of God’s creation. This distorted orientation created tension

between Judaism and environmentalism. She has credited this period as the inception of what

rabbi and theologian Steven Schwarzschild called the figure of the “unnatural Jew,”

disconnected from nature.20 Moreover, Tirosh-Samuelson has explored how continued exile and

persecution kept Jews from owning land or tending crops, which led to their increasing urbanity

throughout modern history.21

US history offers a somewhat different view of Tirosh-Samuelson’s argument. While

American Jews formed urban, ethnic enclaves at the turn of the 20th century, by the 1960s, they

participated in mass suburbanization and had access to nature through summer camps. Tirosh-

Samuelson has even recognized the efforts of the grassroots Jewish environmental movement

19 Andrew Furman, “No Trees Please, We’re Jewish,” ISLE 7, no. 2 (2007): 115-136.

20 Tirosh-Samuelson, “Judaism,” 25-64; Steven S. Schwarzschild, “The Unnatural Jew” (1984), in Yaffe, 267-282.

21 Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, “Judaism and the Natural World,” in Tirosh-Samuelson, Judaism and Ecology.


in her writings, but she has only hinted at the key players and organizations in the movement.

Whereas Tirosh-Samuelson proposes that acculturation of Jews into American society created

conditions such that Jews cared less about ecology, my evidence demonstrates that the

process of assimilation primed Jews for involvement in political movements and social justice,

which bridged environmentalism with Judaism.

Non-historians, meanwhile, have compiled some evidence of the Jewish American

environmental movement.22 In a subsequent review of the late twentieth-century literature of

Jewish environmental ethics, sociologist Manfred Gerstenfeld created a taxonomy of intellectual

ideologies based on the authors’ perspective.23 Since Gerstenfeld constructed an intellectual

history of Jewish environmentalism, I explore the political motivations and historical background

that caused American Jews to engage in environmental thought during the seventies and

eighties. In his later work, Gerstenfeld called for the expansion of Jewish Environmental

Studies. Within the realm of Jewish environmental history, he recommended that historians

figure out whether Jews related to the environment in different ways across time. He also

recognized the lack of current literature that reviewed Jewish environmental activism.24 While

writings on the moral intersections between Judaism and ecology have flourished in recent

years, they have tended to focus on conceptualizing a Jewish environmental ethic rather than

crediting people who laid the groundwork for the mainstream Jewish environmentalism that

exists today. In the first attempt at an accounting of a movement, Rabbi David Seidenberg wrote

a short passage on notable individuals and their organizations in The Encyclopedia of Religion

and Nature.25 Thus far, the scholarship on Judaism and the environment has not produced a

comprehensive narrative on the activism that spurred the Jewish environmental movement.

22 Arthur Waskow, “The Emergence of Eco-Judaism,” special issue on Judaism and the environment, CCAR Journal: Reform Jewish

Quarterly (Winter 2001): 27-37.

23 Manfred Gerstenfeld, Judaism, Environmentalism and the Environment: Mapping and Analysis (Jerusalem: Rubin Mass, 1999),


24 Manfred Gerstenfeld, “Jewish Environmental Studies: A New Field,” Jewish Political Studies Review 13, no. 1-2 (Spring 2001): 3-


25 The Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, s.v. “Jewish Environmentalism in North America,” by David Seidenberg, accessed June

23, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1093/acref/9780199754670.001.0001.


Compared to the lack of historical scholarship on Jewish ecology, historians have written

extensively on the Jewish experience of the sixties and early seventies.26 Intellectual and

political histories of American Jewry have neglected the topic of environmentalism altogether

but have emphasized postwar Jewish identity formation and political alignment. Jewish

environmental subjectivity shifted during this period of social and political change, so an on-theground

understanding of environmental activism depicts how and why ecotheologies became

popular in the Jewish community at this time.

In my methodology, the tradition of oral storytelling within Judaism informs my historical

approach. I conducted a dozen oral history interviews via Zoom with rabbis, nonprofit leaders,

activists, writers, and scholars who were involved in the Jewish environmental movement.27

These oral histories allowed me to ascertain Jewish environmentalists’ values and ways of

finding meaning in Judaism and the environment. As this project lasted a year and a half, I was

fortunate to be able to celebrate all of the Jewish holidays as I was learning about them. The

cycles of time and the lunar calendar are integral to the work that Jewish environmentalists do,

so each season I got to observe the changing of sacred space and time. Interacting with this

living history afforded me a more intimate understanding of how Jewish environmental practices

have evolved and endured. Today, environmentalism is on the cutting edge within Judaism.

Dozens of organizations dedicate their work to climate action, urban farming, earth-based

Goddess worship, and outdoor retreats.28

26 Marc Dollinger, Quest for Inclusion: Jews and Liberalism in Modern America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000);

Michael E. Staub, Torn at the Roots: The Crisis of Jewish Liberalism in Postwar America (New York: Columbia University Press,

2002); Sara Yael Hirschhorn, City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement (Cambridge: Harvard University

Press, 2017); Hasia Diner, The Jews of the United States, 1654-2000 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004); Edward S.

Shapiro, The Jewish People in America, vol. 5, A Time for Healing: American Jewry Since World War II (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins

University Press, 1992).

27 In semi-structured 45-minute interviews, I put together a template of open-ended questions and then added or subtracted based

on the interviewee’s demographics and had them direct the flow. When I created the questions, I intended to find out how

participants defined Jewish environmentalism and whether they drew a link between Judaism and the environment as well as to

understand how they participated in the American Jewish environmental movement. The interviewees were as follows: Richard

Schwartz, Arthur Waskow, Gerald Serotta, David Mevorach Seidenberg, Ellen Bernstein, Evonne Marzouk, David Saperstein,

Rachel Havrelock, Jamie Korngold, Daniel Swartz, Everett Gendler, and Fred Scherlinder Dobb. Quotes are edited for clarity but

retain their original meaning.

28 See Hazon, “Seeds of Opportunity: A National Study of Immersive Jewish Outdoor, Food, and Environmental Education,” March

2014, accessed April 12, 2021, hazon.org/jofee.


For a holistic view of Jewish environmental activism and theology in the 1970s and

1980s, I analyzed a multitude of sources. To verify dates and events, I utilized ProQuest Index

to Jewish Periodicals. This database granted me access to newspapers such as Commentary

(right-leaning nationally focused), the Jewish Exponent (Philadelphia-based), and the Jewish

Advocate (Boston-based). I also separately looked at two other national news sources, Jewish

Currents (left leaning) and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. To understand Jewish academics

and Jewish radicals’ awareness of and involvement in Jewish environmentalism during the

sixties and seventies, I browsed through the Jack Nusan Porter Papers at the Northwestern

University Archives. I also reviewed personal archival files from Jonathan Wolf, Gerald Serotta,

and Ellen Bernstein to gain access to relevant documents.29

In my first chapter, I examine how 1960s political organizing acquainted American Jews

with the politically progressive and socially countercultural climate. Rising concerns of losing

younger Jews to assimilation caused the Jewish establishment to look outside mainstream

Judaism for how to engage Jewish youth. Progressive strains of American Jewry started putting

a greater emphasis on living one’s Jewish values rather than on a stringent following of Jewish

law while more observant Jews began to experiment with spirituality and add new twists on old

traditions. In addition, summer camps and trips to Israel became vital parts of a Jewish

upbringing in suburbia. Through such experiences, young Jewish Americans had increased

exposure to nature and raised their environmental awareness. Even as Jews assimilated into

American society and clashed with other leftist groups who protested Israel, Jews remained

committed to left-leaning politics during this contentious period. Each of these experiences

primed American Jews for involvement in the imminent environmental movement.

In the early seventies, Jewish studies scholars, rabbis, and theologians began writing

essays on Judaism’s environmental laws and values in response to modern environmental and

29 Since many libraries and archives were closed throughout the year and travel was off-limits, I was limited to one, three-hour visit

to the Northwestern University archives. Thus, I relied on the kindness of several Jewish environmentalists to send me their files and

was not able to focus on any one periodical in particular because of the gaps in what was available online.


political events. During the Vietnam War, Jews connected concerns about defoliation to bal

taschit (prohibition against destroying the enemy’s trees during war). With the Arab Oil

Embargo, Jews advocated for Israel’s preservation through conversations around alternative

energies. As well, the animal rights movement and Jewish laws about the kosher diet translated

into religious vegetarianism. By the end of the seventies and turn of the eighties, American Jews

began calling for organizations to focus on Judaism’s connections to ecology. In my second

chapter, I explore how leaders of the movement expanded intellectual ideas around Jewish

ecology into a formalized Jewish environmentalism with organizations and conferences.

The Jewish environmental movement was successful at situating environmental ideas in

traditional rituals and modes of Judaic thought, while also engaging with contemporary debates.

In my third chapter, I take a step back to analyze the accomplishments and challenges of

American Jewish environmentalism throughout the seventies and eighties. I move away from

periodicals and instead utilize interviews to flash back to the processes behind intellectual

developments and institution building described in chapter two. Rabbi Arthur Waskow, an

activist, scholar, and revolutionary, explains that Jewish environmentalists refracted ancient

Jewish law through the present-day by “applying the best insights of mostly biblical Judaism,

which was very closely connected with the earth to a totally different society, to a worldwide

crisis.”30 Since those precepts originated from an agricultural time, Jewish environmentalists had

to grapple with modern norms like denominational differences, the lack of gender parity in

leadership, the presence of arguments about overpopulation myths, and the role of eclecticism

in their work.

30 Arthur Waskow, Zoom interview by the author, July 30, 2020.


Chapter 1: “For the Sake of Heaven”1: The Origins of Jewish Environmentalism

During the early 1970s, observers heralded the grassroots environmental movement as

a civic achievement. An estimated 20 million Americans participated in the first Earth Day on

April 22, 1970, at the same time that Congress passed some of the nation’s key environmental

laws by overwhelming majorities.2 Having garnered widespread bipartisan approval,

environmentalism seemed to be a creed which all Americans supported. Despite this apparently

universal embrace by the public, scholars have tended to either describe environmental thought

as incompatible with American Jewry or else ignore Jewish Americans altogether in their

analyses of the movement. Sociologists and historians alike have characterized Jews as urban

people, detached from nature; because of ongoing migration, exile, and persecution, Jews

diverged from their agricultural origins.3

It is not surprising that scholars have tended to disconnect Jewish Americans from the

environment. Within the Jewish community itself, religious and lay leaders minimized

environmentalists’ concerns that Judaism must reckon with environmental problems. Despite

American Jews’ non-religious involvement in the environmental movement, Jewish leaders tried

to emphasize that the tenets of environmentalism ran counter to the priorities of American Jews.

Clergy associated belief in an environmental Judaism with blasphemy, pagan worship, and

idolatry. Even into the mid-1980s, an anonymous Reform Jew asked a gathering of rabbis

whether environmental concerns were of “relatively little importance” to Judaism. A rabbi

responded with overwhelming textual support for environmentalism but then qualified his claims

by establishing that the environment was inconsequential to Judaism; it did not play a “dominant

1 Pirkei Avot 5:17.

2 Adam Rome, The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-In Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation, 1st ed. (New York:

Hill and Wang, 2013).

3 Andrew Furman, “No Trees Please, We’re Jewish,” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 7, no. 2 (July 1, 2000):

115-136, https://doi.org/10.1093/isle/7.2.115; Steven S. Schwarzschild, “The Unnatural Jew” (1984), in Judaism and Environmental

Ethics: A Reader, ed. Martin D. Yaffe (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2001), 267-282; Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, “Judaism,” in The

Oxford Handbook of Religion and Ecology, ed. Roger S. Gottlieb (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 25-64.


role” in Jewish life.4 In its nascent form, American environmentalism was peripheral for

American Jewry.

In the late 1960s, it was not obvious that American Jews would engage with

environmentalism because of two major factors that restricted their communal momentum. First,

many Jewish Americans had immigrated within the last century and thus had to overcome the

barriers of assimilation. Living in relatively insular communities led American Jews to prioritize

political causes that directly affected them such as Israel and Soviet Jewry. Second—as

scholars have emphasized—American Jews lived overwhelmingly in cities. Clustered in urban

areas, Jewish Americans were not obvious candidates to take a lead role in the environmental


But these complicating factors were never decisive. By the 1970s, a new generation of

Jews whose families had instilled them with Jewish values was primed to get involved in the

next important issue. They grew up immersed in left-wing politics, which became an

instrumental driver of Jewish environmentalism. That political atmosphere shifted throughout the

twentieth century but stayed much to the left of the center. Moreover, Jews moved in droves to

leafy suburbs where their homes were often close to parks and woods, and the protection of

green spaces became all the more personal. Even though urban centers profoundly shaped the

Jewish immigrant experience in various countries for centuries, Jews began to have greater

access to the outdoors after World War II.

Furthermore, whether Jews lived in urban or suburban areas, they experienced a distinct

connection to place and land. Well before the environmental movement, American Jews

interacted with natural spaces through religious observance and cultural practices. In the US,

the rise of Jewish summer camps provided exposure to the wilderness. Abroad, planting trees

and visiting Kibbutzim (agricultural communities) in Israel led to personal and religious

4 Central Conference of American Rabbis, “Judaism and the Environment,” CCAR Contemporary American Reform Responsa, last

modified November 1984, accessed August 19, 2020, https://www.ccarnet.org/ccar-responsa/carr-17-19/.


interventions in the natural environment. These experiences allowed American Jews to envision

nature as a site of religious exploration and a core part of their Jewish identity and thus worth

protecting with local and national policies.

Alongside the postwar environmental movement, the appearance of the counterculture

created shockwaves in American Judaism. As the 1960s/70s counterculture changed the US

social climate, Jewish identity evolved simultaneously. American Jews weaved Jewish

spirituality into subversive ideas about harmony with the land and communal living. These

changes in American Jewish practice dovetailed with changing notions of how religion could

intersect with politics. American Jewish activists, innovators, and zealots who were bold enough

to adjust religious observance to match political affairs made possible the emergence of

American Jewish environmentalism. In this chapter, I argue that the Jewish community’s

alignment with environmental issues was a slow and fragmented process, but a formative one.

Responding to environmentalism required a renegotiation of American Jewish values and


The Story of Assimilation

To fully understand the emergence of Jewish environmentalism, it is important to first

understand how a generation of younger Jews in the 1960s and 1970s contended with

assimilation and political radicalism on college campuses, and how this experience shaped that

generation’s eventual engagement with environmentalism as a political issue.

From American Jew to Jewish American

After their arrival to the United States in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth

centuries, Jews clustered in urban enclaves. Living and working in poor conditions, Jews sought

success by sticking together, just as other ethnic groups did. Shared language, culture, and


networks of support created comfort and stability in a hostile new country. This necessitated a

period of social and political insularity for the Jewish community.

In the early- and mid-twentieth century, the politicization of the Jewish community was

evident through their involvement in “Old Left” causes from labor organizing to the Communist

Party and other left-wing socialist parties. Poor Jewish families had largely emigrated from

Eastern Europe at the turn of the century and had reason to organize around economic and

social conditions that directly affected them. They transported their religious practices and

translated their socialist politics, rooted in Judaic legal codes and European social movements,

into American causes. American Jewish political leanings became inextricably linked with

devotional morals.5

Progressive movements established better working and living conditions for immigrants,

and World War II paved the way for a postwar economic boom, allowing American Jews to

move up the social ladder. Soon they were in a position of relative affluence. This second

generation of Jewish Americans valued assimilation and attempted to get rid of the vestiges of

their ethnic heritage; white Jews began to assume a degree of invisibility. They believed that

fitting into society was the key to prosperity. Norman Podhoretz, the editor of the

neoconservative Jewish magazine Commentary, reflected that the most poignant advice he was

given when entering college in the 1940s was to “‘become a facsimile WASP’” to achieve

success.6 Many families took this idea to heart, not speaking the Yiddish of their parents’

generation, not observing the Sabbath, and generally rejecting lifestyle choices that were

considered markers of observant, traditional Judaism.

By the 1950s, Jews were supposedly living the American dream. They had contributed

to the melting pot by giving up their cultural and linguistic identities. Their consistently growing

5 Gerald Sorin, The Prophetic Minority: American Jewish Immigrant Radicals, 1880-1920 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press,


6 Michael E. Staub, Torn at the Roots: The Crisis of Jewish Liberalism in Postwar America (New York: Columbia University Press,

2002), 11.


rates of college matriculation were also notable. Sociologists estimated that by the mid-1960s,

80 percent of eligible Jewish youth attended college.7 Still, pervasive anti-Semitism hindered

Jews’ ability to fit seamlessly into society. Even as Jews saw themselves as wholly American,

gentiles called into question whether Jews could be loyal to their American nationality. Age-old

prejudices manifested as stereotypes of Jews both wielding disproportionate influence over

domestic or international politics and not shedding their religious ethos enough.8

The Politicization of College Students

Neither class mobility nor anti-Semitism redefined American Jewish politics: left-wing

commitments remained a core characteristic. The Jewish community remained dedicated to civil

rights and human rights causes. Firsthand experiences with anti-Semitism and an

intergenerational understanding of historical marginalization played a strong role in determining

Jewish political and cultural attitudes. While anti-Semitism was a thorn that prevented Jews from

entering the upper echelons of gentile society, it acted as a motivator for young Jews entering

college to lead the primary movements of the day and put themselves at the center of

contemporary American politics.9

In the sixties and seventies, the “New Left” arose as a channel for student activism.

Participating in protests and demonstrations, 20-year-olds began to reckon with what they

considered to be the façade of America’s benevolence. Composed of white university students

and intellectuals, the New Left was generally synonymous with the creation of the activist

organization Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which had chapters at 300 colleges.

SDS elevated student voices on issues of racial inequality, poverty, and American warfare.

7 Irving Greenberg, “Jewish Survival and the College Campus,” Judaism 12, no. 3 (Summer 1968): 259-281.

8 W. Christoph Schmauch, “Anti-Semitism: Global Phenomenon,” Jewish Currents 32 (November 1978): 22-24.

9 Marc Dollinger, Quest for Inclusion: Jews and Liberalism in Modern America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).


Fighting for the liberation of oppressed people within the United States and around the world,

activists called attention to economic, political, and militaristic imperialism.10

An uptick in political radicalism correlated with an expanding Jewish presence on

campuses. Compared to their population size, Jews formed an outsized contingent of the New

Left. Sociologist and self-proclaimed Jewish radical Jack Nusan Porter estimated that at least

30 percent of the New Left was Jewish.11 The statistically significant involvement of Jews in

New Left activism arose, in part, from upbringings based on Jewish values like tzedek (justice).

Jewish members of SDS were not just participants; in fact, they were often leaders in the

movements. Mark Rudd, an infamous SDS organizer at Columbia University, reflected years

later on the involvement of American Jews in SDS. He observed that the university viewed

Jewish students as outsiders on campus even if they were white. (While quotas limiting the

number of Jewish students and professors ended in the early 1960s, administrators remained

overwhelmingly non-Jewish.) Rudd and other SDS members connected their ethnoreligious

background to the civil rights movement: “Identifying with the oppressed seemed to me at

Columbia and since a natural Jewish value…we were all anti-racists. We saw American racism

as akin to German racism toward the Jews.” Even though Rudd grew up comfortably in New

Jersey, he and his contemporaries were familiar with the previous generation’s experiences in

the Holocaust. Mass demonstrations with the New Left provided an outlet for young Jews to

voice the struggles of their ancestors. These Jewish college students saw left-wing causes as

noble pursuits that aligned with their broader communal history and intergenerational memory:

“in my social activism,” Rudd said, “I am one of thousands working in the grand tradition of

Jewish leftists.”12 Jewish students like Rudd were inserting themselves directly into political

10 Dollinger.

11 Jack Nusan Porter and Peter Dreier, MS, “Jewish Radicals and Radical Jews,” August 1971, p.10, series 55/10, Jack Nusan

Porter Papers, Northwestern University Archives, Evanston, IL.

12 Mark Rudd, “Why Were there so Many Jews in SDS? (Or, The Ordeal of Civility)” (speech, New Mexico Jewish Historical Society,

November 2005), accessed October 13, 2020, https://www.markrudd.com/indexcd39.html?about-mark-rudd/why-were-there-somany-

jews-in-sds-or-the-ordeal-of-civility.html. For more on the involvement of American Jews in civil rights, see Marc Dollinger,

Black Power, Jewish Politics: Reinventing the Alliance in the 1960s, Brandeis Series in American Jewish History, Culture, and Life

(Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press: 2018).


battles of the day but never completely forgetting or leaving behind their identity as American


The Growing Generational Gap

Activism may have linked this college-aged generation to the trials and tribulations of

their elders, but the previous generation looked down upon the ways that these students

organized, protested, and spoke out. In the early seventies, Porter conducted surveys and

research studies on the demographic and ideological makeup of this third generation of collegeaged,

American Jews. Porter asserted that there was a remarkable difference in the way that

American Jews were involved in the New Left versus the Old Left. He posited that early

twentieth-century Jewish organizers were “acutely aware of their Jewishness” whereas Jews in

SDS were “Radical Jew(s)” who were faithfully American and “incidentally Jewish.”13 While

younger Jews became estranged from religious observance, Porter’s depictions fail to account

for the complexities of assimilation. Replacing one’s culture with an entirely new one was not a

simple process. Adolescent Jews tried to reclaim their Jewish identity, but the community did

not always welcome the turn back to religious observance. Post-World War II affluence for

American Jewry came at the price of a growing generational gap.

Many older Jewish Americans did not approve of the ways that younger Jews flaunted

their Americanness, and eventually their Jewishness. Intersections between religion and politics

were a given for newly arrived Jewish immigrants, yet a half-century later, the next generation

preferred the politics of civility, a genteel civic engagement. Third and fourth-generation,

college-aged Jews challenged expectations of what they supposedly should or should not say

or do. When younger members of the community participated in public protest or tried to

sabotage the racist, classist systems that well-off, white Jews benefited from, the Jewish

13 Porter and Dreier, 10, 14.


establishment would proclaim those dissidents to be self-hating Jews. However, Michael Staub

a historian of American Jewry, notes that it was never entirely clear who was “displaying selfhatred

and who was properly honoring Jewish tradition.”14 For younger Jews who grew up in a

politically charged moment, their Jewish upbringing was inseparable from their progressive

politics. Staub goes on, “Sometimes it was New Left-affiliated student radicals who insisted on

making Jewishness more visible, and it was their elders who were resistant to visibility and

confrontation with the gentile power elite.”15 Members of the community, especially those of an

older generation, sought to be the arbiters of who was authentically Jewish.16 This reticence to

public displays of a politicized Judaism was a response to anti-Semitism and assimilation.

Jewish sociologist Marshall Sklare observed in 1974 that the backlash stemmed from secondgeneration

immigrants’ “excessive fear of seeming out of place in American life, or too

‘different.’”17 They did not want American Jewish posterity to be defined only by their Jewish

heritage as they were.

While parents and grandparents fretted over their children’s radicalization in college,

other members of the Jewish community were concerned about universities producing a

different result—the total assimilation of Jews. Alarmist reactionaries framed the socioeconomic

success story of American Jewry as a self-defeating phenomenon. Growing conservatism within

certain sects in Judaism led to the spread of warnings about the ultimate disappearance of Jews

in America, not due to genocide but instead due to assimilation. This fear of a shrinking

community inspired the idea of Jewish continuity, the desire to maintain the vibrancy of the

Jewish community and the imperative to bring Jews back to Judaism. Jewish journals began

publishing monthly debates pondering whether and to what degree Jews should shed their

14 Staub, 6.

15 Ibid, 6.

16 Ibid., 12-13.

17 Marshall Sklare, “The Greening of Judaism,” Commentary 58, no. 6 (December 1974),



ethnoreligious identity and assume an American one.18 Countless opinion articles debated the

subject. Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg, an orthodox rabbi, offered in the journal Judaism an

interesting angle on the question by positing, ironically, that the rise of college-educated Jews

was the major problem confronted by the Jewish community in 1968. He theorized that younger

Jews welcomed secularization and rejected Judaism as old-fashioned and restrictive.

Greenberg diagnosed the issue as one of religious education: in contrast to basic Jewish

education constrained to Sunday school classes once a week, young Jews yearned for the

same intellectual depth that non-religious schools provided.19 While Greenberg and others had

good intentions in problem solving, their condescending tone may have been partly responsible

for younger Jews’ disillusionment with the religion. Questions of identity and authenticity

alongside debates over modern innovation versus Jewish tradition would remain paramount

throughout the rest of the twentieth century.

Shifting Politics

In reality, Rabbi Greenberg and the Jewish establishment’s concerns about losing a

vibrant, Jewish culture would not come to fruition; other issues took precedence over Jewish

continuity. Political events would begin to shift the priorities of the Jewish community in another

direction. Despite pressure towards both particularism and universalism, American Jews

created a middle path where they engaged with current events through a Jewish lens.

Addressing American Jews’ competing identification with either social justice or Israel,

historian Sara Hirschhorn complicates the idea of what a Jewish political belief was in the

aftermath of the Six-Day War. According to Hirschhorn, “The 1967 Moment” marked a turning

point for American Jews. After the Six-Day War between Israel and its bordering countries,

18 See Alfred Jospe, “The Jew on the College Campus,” Judaism 25, no. 3 (Summer 1976): 270-280; Marshall Sklare, “Intermarriage

and Jewish Survival,” Commentary 49 no. 3 (March 1, 1970): 51-58; Sam Pevzner, “Jewish Values and ‘Jewish Currents,’” Jewish

Currents 25 (October 1971): 16-14.

19 Greenberg, “Jewish Survival,” 259-281.


American Jews increasingly and, in some ways, paradoxically had a dueling reverence for

American liberalism and Israeli nationalism. During and after the war, large percentages of

Jewish Americans began to specifically identify as Zionist and advocated for the protection of a

Jewish homeland in the Middle East. While Israel became a formal state in 1948, it took this

swift, violent event to cement the cultural identification of American Jews with the land of Israel.

Moreover, Hirschhorn argues that 1967 “prompted a profound reorientation” of American Jewish

priorities.20 Israel became a motivator of Jewish engagement and pride as well as a roadblock

for Jewish involvement in the New Left. Adhering to politics of the left and right became

complicated by this liberal-illiberal perspective and led to the fracturing of coalitional organizing

between the Jewish community and other groups, especially African Americans. American Jews

began to distance themselves particularly from the Black internationalist and anti-imperialist

movements. Reprinted in Jewish Currents, a left-leaning Jewish publication, Huey Newton

spoke on behalf of the Black Panther Party to strongly condemn the state of Israel as an engine

of “Western Imperialism,” which created a dilemma for American Jews—would they continue to

push for Black liberation, or would they seek self-determination instead?21 These movements

were not mutually exclusive for left-leaning American Jews; regardless, pro-Israel American

Jews no longer felt welcome in the New Left and had to create their own organizations and


The Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ) was one example of a grassroots

campaign that emerged out of this contentious moment. Modeled after civil rights organizations

and fused with a pro-Israel ideology, SSSJ wanted to secure a peaceful exit for Jews living

under the Soviet Union.22 Practicing Judaism was restricted in Russia during the Cold War, so

the US and Israeli Jewish communities lobbied Congress and the Soviet premier to allow for the

20 Sara Yael Hirschhorn, City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement (Cambridge: Harvard University Press,

2017), 32.

21 Albert S. Axelrad, Robert E. Goldburg, Huey Newton, Morris U. Schappes, and George Wald, “The Black Panthers, Jews and

Israel,” Jewish Currents 25 (February 1971): 13-20.

22 Staub, 195-196.


safe passage of Jews out of the Soviet Union. For third-generation American Jews who were

interested in cultural revival, SSSJ tied together their desire to be politically active in a uniquely

Jewish way. Their slogan, “My heart is in the east, but I am in the west,” came from a famous

poem by Yehuda Ha-Levi, an 11th-century Spanish poet who wrote about yearning for the return

to Zion.23 This intentional imagery invoked both the beloved Zionist writings of a Sephardi poet

and the transnational desire to preserve and protect world Jewry. Fighting for Soviet Jews’

ability to immigrate to Israel was evocative of how Israel began to motivate and mobilize

American Jews around particular political causes.

As American Jews juggled competing priorities within and outside the community,

assimilationist tendencies throughout each successive generation both inspired and inhibited

Jews’ involvement in leftist movements. Whether or not Jewish youth were more passionate

about religious or secular causes, their continued history of political participation and their

expanding engagement with contemporary American politics made it all the more likely that they

would care about and advocate for the next significant cause—the environmental movement. In

contrast, the changing dynamics of liberalism in the United States and abroad forced other

issues to the forefront of an American Jewish political agenda. American Jews would ultimately

meld these concerns together and discover how several Jewish values were rooted in

environmental philosophies.

The Environmental Movement

The American environmental movement in the late sixties and early seventies united a

conglomeration of environmental concerns and doctrines. One strain of environmentalism that

gained prominence in the early sixties was the fight to safeguard sublime outdoor areas from

23 Hirschhorn, 274n31.


development. Debates over the economic versus the personal worth of a site became etched in

the minds of Americans.

In 1962, Rachel Carson’s landmark book Silent Spring exposed a younger generation to

the threats facing nature and the consequences of unfettered economic growth and

technological advances. In her first chapter, Carson situated her argument in the rural and

suburban areas that border forests and green spaces when she appealed to those living in the

“heart” of America, the countryside.24 She revealed that pesticides did not just eliminate insects

but also seeped into the landscape, killing birds and creating toxins that remained in animals’

bodies. Historian Mark Stoll lauded Carson’s ability to establish an ethical obligation to act:

“Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence that backed the book’s argument, it was as a

moral indictment that the book succeeded so powerfully.”25 Carson’s book provided a foundation

of ethos and pathos for Americans to understand and organize around environmental issues.

While Carson warned against a bleak future, she emphasized that environmental disasters were

already happening in towns across the country. This firsthand exposure to nature and its

destruction was a crucial step for Americans as they came to value the environment.

Grassroots environmentalism targeted specific issue areas, but it also brought forth an

ecological, social norm. Mothers worried about the presence of toxins in their children’s bodies,

while communities of color organized against the dumping of hazardous waste in their

neighborhoods. Depending on one’s location, some worried about chemicals in bodies of water

nearby, and others feared clouds of pollution emitting into the air. What united these disparate

groups was their universal concern for the health of the human and nonhuman. People became

environmentalists as they “applied an ecological perspective to their lives and society, seeing

the world as webs of relationships rather than separate things,”26 Dunlap asserts. This new way

24 Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962), 13.

25 Mark Stoll, Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism (New York: Oxford University Press,

2015), 198, https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190230869.001.0001.

26 Thomas Dunlap, Faith in Nature: Environmentalism as Religious Quest, Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books (Seattle: University

of Washington Press, 2004), 95. Dunlap’s divisions of sacred space, place, and time have resonated with Jewish theologians’


of viewing the world and one’s self in it was particularly important in raising environmental

awareness for people moving out of the urban core.

As Americans moved into the suburbs, they often embraced environmentalism.27

Christopher Sellers, an environmental historian, delves into the ways that suburbia catapulted

environmentalism into the spotlight. Suburbanites experienced a “hybrid landscape”—a semibuilt,

semi-natural area. Divisions between the wild and the human-made environment flattened,

and suburbia created a middle ground where people could see their active role in nature. While

residents gleaned the benefits of access to trees, plants, and animals, they also saw the

problems wrought on the environment. They engaged in anti-sprawl campaigns to prevent the

encroachment of urban spaces into their neighborhoods, and they wanted to prevent DDT and

pollutants from reaching the suburbs. As Sellers explains, this “‘new conservation’” of suburbia

was integral to the postwar American environmental movement.28

Closer to Nature

Middle-class, Christian, white Americans were not the only environmental subjects to

transform their relationship with nature during the twentieth century. The Great Migration

prompted African Americans from the rural South to seek refuge in the bustling cities of the

Northern and Midwestern US. The African American outdoor experience in the South was tied

to a violent history of displacement, chattel slavery, a largely failed era of Reconstruction, and

Jim Crow segregation, yet African Americans fostered new associations (both positive and

negative) with natural spaces in the North. Brian McCammack, an environmental historian,

questions the common perception of African Americans in Chicago and New York as

illustrations of a Jewish ecology. See Ellen Bernstein, ed. Ecology and the Jewish Spirit: Where Nature and the Sacred Meet

(Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1998).

27 For more on the connection between suburbanization and environmentalism, see Adam Ward Rome, The Bulldozer in the

Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001);

Samuel Hays, Beauty, Health, and Permanence: Environmental Politics in the United States, 1955-1985 (Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press, 1987).

28 Christopher Sellers, Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in Twentieth-Century America

(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 243-284.


overwhelmingly urban. McCammack tells the esoteric story of how African American families

regularly spent time in green spaces. From segregated YMCA summer camps; to vacation

retreats like Idlewild, Michigan; to hard labor with the Civilian Conservation Corps in Skokie,

Illinois; he reveals the complex relationship to the outdoors that African Americans built in the

twentieth century.29

Historians have also characterized the Jewish American experience as heavily urban.

Even though nineteenth-century Ashkenazi European Jews lived in rural areas,30 they were

unable to own land. Just as the romanticized assumption that Black Americans lived

harmoniously with the land in the antebellum and postbellum South can gloss over the racial

hierarchy that structured that world, the notion that European Jews subscribed to environmental

ideals during the nineteenth century ignores the ways that non-Jews forced Jews into an

impoverished lifestyle. When Jews immigrated to the United States, they often moved into

ethnic enclaves in cities.

In the same way that McCammack unpacks untold stories of twentieth-century African

American environmental subjectivity, I contend that American Jews had a robust history of

natural experiences even if they lived in cities for years. Urbanity profoundly shaped American

Jewish communities, yet shared Judaic moments related to the outdoors invigorated Jewish life.

First and foremost, white Jews moved out into the suburbs in droves, which heightened their

awareness of nature. Moreover, summer camps played a role in children’s and teens’ Jewish

identity formation. As American Jews developed an appreciation for the sacred in any place,

they were also taught to remain rooted in their Jewishness and connection to the Holy Land,

Israel. The Jewish community prized young adults who traveled to Israel when they came of age

and who contributed to the pioneering and growth of the young country. Thus, the American

29 Brian McCammack, Landscapes of Hope: Nature and the Great Migration in Chicago (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,


30 Though Jews of many ethnic backgrounds live in the United States, Ashkenazi European Jews receive the most attention and

scholars feature them most prominently in historical discussions because they make up the largest population of American Jews.


Jewish community could readily embrace the outdoors because of prior psychological,

emotional, and physical attachments to land.

From Urban Jews to Suburban Jews

In the 1950s, American Jews had the chance to regain their age-old affinity for land.

Able to take advantage of the expansion of government home loans after the Second World

War, white Jews contributed to white flight, moving in droves out to the suburbs. Given the

backdrop of ongoing assimilation, the geographic distribution of Jews persisted in ethnic

enclaves, just in a new location. Suburban life allowed them to remain connected to the

intellectual institutions in cities and create new institutions closer to home. It also provided an

opportunity for an increased ecological sensibility as Jews were homeowners in closer proximity

to nature.

Historian Paul Sabin details how scientist, environmentalist, and Jewish American Paul

Ehrlich came to appreciate nature and become politicized by living in the suburbs. After moving

with his family from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Maplewood, New Jersey in the 1940s, Ehrlich

became an avid collector of butterflies. Yet, suburban development destroyed the fields of his

childhood. He observed that the plants had absorbed toxic chemicals from pesticide

deployment. These experiences informed Ehrlich’s graduate research where he studied fruit

flies’ resistance to DDT in the 1950s and his later work on population growth in the 1960s.31


A site for study, recreation, and identity growth, summer camps were integral to the

Jewish experience in the United States. At the end of the nineteenth century, wealthier Jews

31 Paul Sabin, The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013),



opened retreat centers for impoverished, urban Jews to provide respite from city conditions. In

the postwar era, Jewish professionals recognized that summer camps instilled a strong sense of

Jewish communal identity in youth. Jewish camps continued to expand across the United States

throughout the 1950s; the Conservative and Reform movements created networks of camps

across the Northeast and Midwest to engage secularized youth. These Jewish denominational

camps were successful in training and educating a generation of future leaders. Hebrew

classes, Israel programming, and Israeli counselors fostered a Zionist ideology among Jewish

youth.32 Moreover, Sklare came to recognize another unanticipated by-product of Jewish

camps, the development of a Jewish counterculture.

Arising from Conservative Jewry, the Ramah Camps combined an “intellectual

seriousness and Jewish commitment” with “progressive liberal culture,” Sklare observed, which

became highly popular among young, progressive Jews and appeased older members of the

Jewish establishment.33 While Ramah was not without controversy due to financial issues,

radical campers, and widespread marijuana use, it created formative experiences for young

Jews that cemented their Jewish identities. Ramah campers exemplified the ways that younger

Jews became both more observant and more daring with their religious methods: they followed

Jewish rituals but modernized them.34 After leaving Ramah, campers began to wear brightly

colored kippot (head coverings) at all times, which followed Jewish law but was not

commonplace among affluent, suburban Jews outside of a congregational setting. Even

secluded camps’ traditions were not immune from the broader social and political trends of the

1960s and bled into the ongoing debates around assimilation in the Jewish community.

Jewish camps also provided direct experiences with the natural world for American

Jews. While historian Thomas Dunlap considered the religious reasons why Christian

Americans began to care about the environment, his reasoning rings true for the Jewish

32 Encyclopedia Judaica, 2nd ed. (2006), s.v. “Jewish camping,” accessed December 1, 2020, GALE.

33 Sklare, “The Greening of Judaism.”

34 Stephen C. Lerner, “Ramah and Its Critics,” Conservative Judaism 25, no. 4 (Spring 1971): 1-28.


community as well: “formal and informal nature education made them familiar with ecology

and…aware of their involvement with nature.”35 Although camps did not generally associate with

the American environmental movement, they provided a space for Jews to visualize themselves

within the fragile ecosystems of the outdoors. As adults, Jewish environmentalists frequently

drew upon their experiences in the wilderness at camp as the origin of their passion for the


Green Zionism

While summer camps provided American Jews with a cultural introduction to Israel,

environmentalism linked American Jewry to Israel year-round. The Six-Day War imprinted Israel

into the minds of American Jews who looked to Israel for guidance on how to support the

country. In turn, environmental Zionism became a transnational dogma rather than just a sense

of place for Jews after 1967. The relationship between people and the nonhuman landscape

became a central reason why American Jews gave money to and advocated politically for

Israel.37 Defending their connection to the Holy Land, American Jews supported Israeli national

affairs through “environmentalism.”

Whether American Jews prioritized environmentalism or not, they funneled their

contributions to Israel through organizations that marketed themselves as ecologically sensitive.

Families raised money and donated it to the Jewish National Fund (JNF), an ostensibly

environmental organization that planted trees throughout the Holy Land. By 1973, JNF had

planted 115 million trees; its mission was the development and “reclamation of the land.” The

Knesset’s Committee for Ecology, an agency within the Israeli government, asserted that JNF’s

purpose was afforestation to curb pollution; however, JNF worked to further the national project

35 Dunlap, 95.

36 One of the first Jewish camps in the United States, the Jewish Working Girls Vacation Society, known as Isabella Freedom Jewish

Retreat Center, later became associated with the Jewish environmental movement spearheaded by Hazon. See “History,” Isabella

Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, accessed July 2, 2020, https://hazon.org/isabella-freedman/history/.

37 Hirschhorn, 35.


of displacing Palestinians and building new settlements for Jewish immigrants. Given the kind of

language that American Jewish periodicals were using in the 1970s such as “bringing under

control the destructive action of sand dunes in the Gaza Strip and Northern Sinai,” tree planting

appears to have been a means to restructure the ecosystem for political ends.38 Dr. Rachel

Havrelock, an expert in environmental humanities, asserts that many of Israel’s early and

ongoing environmental projects had disastrous, overlooked consequences such as water

insecurity, fossil fuel use, and natural resource exploitation.39

Scholars have recognized that even the very definition of environmentalism is politicized

in Israel. For left-leaning Israelis, environmentalism means sustainable development through the

preservation of the natural world. On the other hand, right-leaning settlers see environmentalism

as an active intervention in nature to protect it. Either way, both groups see their

environmentalism in relation to their national identity.40 The politics of the Israeli state have been

fused to the condition of the Israeli landscape since its modern inception but became more

pronounced with global environmental movements in the second half of the twentieth century.

Despite the difference in interpretation, Americans saw all aspects of Israeli

environmentalism through a distinct, political lens, which can be called Green Zionism after the

Israeli political party of a similar name. Green Zionism—a fusion of Israeli-specific

environmental concerns with support for the existence of a Jewish state41—inspired and

reinforced the importance of Israel in the political imagination of Americans. Summer trips,

study, and volunteer opportunities in Israel often involved meditation on landscape and natural

resources and became paramount to a well-rounded education for Jewish youth.42 Americans

would spend time on Kibbutzim, communities where families lived and worked together, raised

38 Jacob Cohen, “Jewish National Fund News,” The Jewish Advocate (Sep 13, 1973): 24.

39 Rachel Havrelock, Zoom interview by the author, September 29, 2020.

40 Shai M. Dromi and Liron Shani, “Love of Land: Nature Protection, Nationalism, and the Struggle over the Establishment of New

Communities in Israel,” Rural Sociology 45, no. 1 (March 2020), https://doi.org/10.1111/ruso.12274.

41 “Green Zionist Alliance,” Aytzim, accessed December 8, 2020, https://aytzim.org/greenisrael; Micha Odenheimer, “Environmental

Organizations in Israel: Retrieving the Garden of Eden,” The Melton Journal, no. 24 (Spring 1991): 12-14, 20.

42 Hirschhorn, 42.


one another’s children, and shared each other’s profits. Kibbutzim also often employed its

members in one or two main businesses or industries such as the cultivation of certain crops or

goods. For American Jews who had grown up in middle-class suburbia, working the land at a

Kibbutz was transformative in the way they related to Israel and the land more broadly.

Finding Other Holy Lands

The back-to-land movement shared the assumption with the environmental movement in

the United States that economic development harmed society but had a distinct objective: it

promoted the ideology that “less is more”—people could live without the burdens of technology

and find beauty in the natural world. In 1954, homesteaders Helen Knothe Nearing and her

husband Scott Nearing wrote a book on living outside of a capitalist system, Living the Good

Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World, which became a model for

communes.43 The Nearings’ ideas about decisions as simple as where one lives and what one

consumes developed a powerful hold on others who read their book. Everett Gendler, a

Conservative rabbi, and his wife, Mary, became close with the Nearings. According to Rabbi

Gendler, Living the Good Life’s popularity stemmed from “economic radicalism and example of

really subsistence living that created a foundation for independent expression of opinions and

living by one’s inner direction, rather than by economic or corporate considerations.” After

spending time with the Nearings, Gendler had a spiritual awakening of how cultivating and

harvesting food allowed him to insert himself into the “growth cycle…that cosmic cycle.”44

The back-to-land movement was not Jewish per se, although American Jewish radicals

identified a potential Jewish orientation to the movement’s social and political goals. In 1972 a

few American Jews, headed by Michael Tabor, attempted to build an explicitly Jewish commune

43 Helen Nearing and Scott Nearing, Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World, 5th ed. (New York:

Schocken Books, 1970); Stoll, 215-218.

44 Everett Gendler, Zoom interview by the author, Zoom, October 29, 2020.


in the States. According to Arthur Waskow, a rebellious rabbi who pushed the boundaries

against keeping politics out of religion, “one of our folks owned a farm there and he was

interested in making a collective” in Pennsylvania, not very far from Washington DC.45 This rural

commune, nicknamed the “Diaspora Kibbutz,” was unsuccessful but was a precursor to the

emergence of Jewish organic farming, the revolutionizing of Kosher food, and Jewish vegetarian

societies. The environment was not the first priority for the founders, but they saw potential for

the elevation of Jewish spirituality in nature.46 For Waskow, Tabor, and others, this Jewish

countercultural experiment was intimately tied to ideas of environmentalism within Judaism.

Tapping into previous knowledge of working the land in Israel, Jews found ways to delve into

themes of physical connection with the land, religious innovation, and societal nonconformity.

The Jewish Counterculture

Along with the back-to-land movement, the American counterculture initiated another set

of attitudes that took hold among young adults and provided a point of entry into

environmentalism more generally. The counterculture was, in the words of historian Andrew

Kirk, a “catchall for ‘1960s era political, social, or cultural dissent,’” and its followers practiced

“communal living, returning to the land, relearning the abilities and joys of ‘making it yourself,’” in

the words of one contemporary publication.47 Counterculturalists used these tools to call

attention to the growing consumerist excesses of the United States. Although the counterculture

is rarely associated with Judaism, American Jews participated in it and gained an even greater

appreciation for the environmental critique of the modern United States.

45 Arthur Waskow, Zoom interview by the author, July 30, 2020.

46 Mark X. Jacobs, “Jewish Environmentalism: Past Accomplishments and Future Challenges,” in Judaism and Ecology: Created

World and Revealed Word, ed. Hava Tirosh-Samuelson (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002): 452.

47 Andrew G. Kirk, Counterculture Green: The Whole Earth Catalog and American Environmentalism (Lawrence: University Press of

Kansas, 2007), ixn1; Richard Siegel, Michael Strassfeld, and Sharon Strassfeld, eds., The Jewish Catalog: A Do-It-Yourself Kit, 1st

ed. (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1973), 8.


Audacious Jews, many of whom went to a Ramah camp, found that the American

countercultural framework accorded well with Judaism. Values of kehillah kedoshah (sacred

community), hakarat ha-aretz (knowing the land), and disagreements for the “sake of Heaven”

have precedent in Jewish texts.48 As a product of this eco-conscious period, Jews fresh out of

rabbinical school translated these ideas into their religious practice, teachings, and writings.

Putting politics at the forefront of one’s Judaism was not commonplace among secondgeneration

Jewish immigrants, but it proliferated among third-generation, countercultural Jews.

While the 1960s brought several years of tumultuous change in the United States, it also

equipped a generation to heal the fractures in the American Jewish community. In the wake of

growing concerns about whether or not Judaism would remain viable into the next decade,

adapting ancient concepts to modern culture began to reconcile the tensions between

traditionalism and assimilationism. The Jewish counterculture emphasized values-based

education, communal observance, deeper spirituality, and personal involvement in rituals. While

these changes were not strictly environmental, they coincided with the environmental movement

and laid the groundwork for Jewish environmental practices.


As the Jewish establishment began to recognize its failures in engaging Jewish youth,

progressive denominations worked to incorporate modern concerns into Jewish education. In

the late 1960s, clergy contemplated how to foster a “‘value-culture,’ where Jewish young people

would seek to ‘concretize Jewish values in a meaningful way in contemporary culture.’”49 Jewish

organizations and synagogues understood that Jewish youth were attracted to the nexus of

Judaism and social justice. Jonathan Krasner, a historian of American Judaism, analyzed the

48 Sara Hirschhorn, email to Keith Woodhouse, October 2, 2020; Jonathan Kligler, “Judaism and Civil Discourse” Jewish Currents,

April 2, 2017, accessed April 16, 2021, https://archive.jewishcurrents.org/judaism-and-civil-discourse/.

49 Jonathan Krasner, “The Place of Tikkun Olam in American Jewish Life,” Jewish Political Studies Review 25, no. 3/4 (2013): 76,

accessed August 20, 2020, JSTOR.


appearance of tikkun olam (repairing the world) within Judaism in the 1970s. He argued that

Jewish educators and counterculturalists, in particular, relied on this phrase because of “its

emphasis on human agency in bringing about God’s kingdom on Earth, [which] represents both

a synthesis and reinterpretation of earlier conceptual frameworks and a response to the

perceived failure of the modern Jewish experiment.”50

This definition has remarkable similarities to what the counterculture attempted—to

respond to the failures of modern society—and helped to bridge the divide for secular Jews from

traditional Judaism into a newly interpreted Judaism that was full of contemporary references

and ethical teachings. Even though connections between social justice and environmentalism

did not become prominent until the nineties, the very idea of repairing the world echoed the

priorities of Earth Day activists that younger Jews were familiar with and began to give exposure

to the overlap between Judaism and environmentalism. For Jewish educators, choosing to

emphasize tikkun olam (out of the thousands of phrases from Jewish texts they could have

picked) allowed adults to meet adolescents “where they were at” in a way that corresponded to

the philosophy from Proverbs 22: “Educate the child according to her way; when she grows up,

she will not depart from it.”51 Tikkun olam was one channel that secular Jewish youth could

easily connect to Judaism through that also benefited Jewish continuity because youth would

continue to rely on their background to inform their worldview.

Community and Spirituality

Beyond general Judaic education for young children, a new version of a congregation

developed around the same time. The 1960s marked a move away from traditional houses of

worship into a flexible community style. In Orthodox and Conservative synagogues, less

50 Krasner, 60.

51 Gabe Greenberg, “The DIY Approach to Jewish Education,” eJP, June 23, 2013, accessed April 16, 2021,



observant American Jews felt restricted by the Hebrew chanting and unwelcomed if they were

unfamiliar with the prayers,52 whereas in more liberal synagogues, Jews curious about

deepening their relationship to their religion found the Reform movement of Prophetic Judaism

to be lacking depth in observance. The ornate style of Reform synagogues and its English

liturgies were reminiscent of Protestant churches. Often synagogues of all shades were located

in beautiful sites such as by the ocean, but the architecture of the buildings kept people from

seeing or relating to the natural world.53 In general, young Jews were dissatisfied with shuls,

whether it was their exclusivity or their uninspired services. Yet for Jews who were pluralistic—

those who appreciated different practices of Judaism across denominations—their position on

the periphery was most pronounced. They could not find a spiritual home in any sect. While

some experimented with other religions, particularly East Asian religions, as was commonplace

during the late 1960s, several recognized their Jewish grounding and instead wanted to

facilitate new avenues for a modernized Judaism.54

Led by bold Jews who were looking for a new level of community engagement,

Reconstructionist Rabbi Arthur Green and several Conservative rabbis founded Havurat Shalom

(fellowship of peace) Community Seminary in 1968 in Somerville, Massachusetts, a suburb of

Boston. Havurot, groups of people who prayed and celebrated holidays together of their own

volition, existed outside of the synagogue framework. Although members of a Havurah did not

live together, these groups of families became very close knit. This enticing format gave them a

reason to engage in Jewish practices together that they normally would not observe. The rabbis

purposefully designed it without a formal hierarchy so that members led services, taught

classes, and participated in requisite activities to encourage community building.55

52 George Vecsey, “Havurah Offers Jews Religion in Commune Setting,” New York Times, September 13, 1977, accessed July 9,

2020, https://www.nytimes.com/1977/09/13/archives/havurah-offers-jews-religion-in-commune-setting-alternative-to.html.

53 Gendler, interview.

54 Ibid.

55 Stephen C. Lerner, “The Havurot,” Conservative Judaism 24, no. 3 (Spring 1970): 2-15.


This group was composed of pluralist intellectuals. In a 1970 interview with the journal

Conservative Judaism, Rabbi Green asserted that he welcomed “Jewish religious seekers

rather than…those with either an ‘Orthodox mentality’ or Jewish secularist orientation.”56 If

anything, Rabbi Green’s summary was an understatement. Havurat Shalom’s members became

influential rabbis, pushing the boundaries of denominational divisions and creating their own

Jewish movements. One such rabbi and teacher was Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. Concerned

with the polarization of the Jewish community and how “rites of passage got streamlined and

standard packed,” he sought to infuse Judaism with a new kind of spirituality.57 Formerly a

Chabad-Lubavitch Jew, Schachter-Shalomi took inspiration from 1960s social consciousness

and the involved group singing, dancing, and community participation in Hassidic Judaism to

create new ways of practicing progressive Judaism.58 Rabbi Waskow credited Schachter-

Shalomi with cutting-edge thinking that brought religiosity and a relationship with God to largely

secular, disconnected Jews.59 With members like rabbis Schachter-Shalomi, Green, and

Gendler, Dr. Porter accurately predicted in 1971 that in the community-driven experiment of

Jewish counterculture “lies the vanguard of a Jewish theology for the 1970s.”60

The Havurah’s methodology responded to the growing disenchantment with Judaism.

Rabbi Green recognized that the fellowship’s “‘spirit’” was “the ‘ethic of becoming a religious

human being through the sources of Judaism rather than through the ordinary concepts of

Jewish commitment.’”61 Instead of strictly following Jewish law, the participants concentrated on

elevating their understanding of and connection to emergent countercultural, societal ethics

through Judaism. Havurat Shalom’s emphasis on the communal and deemphasis on the

56 Lerner, 5.

57 Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, First Steps to a New Jewish Spirit: Reb Zalman’s Guide to Recapturing Intimacy and Ecstasy in Your

Relationship with God, 1st ed. (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2003), xxiv.

58 Jacob Flaws, “Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi: The Origins of Post-Holocaust American Judaism” (2018), in the Post-Holocaust

American Judaism Collections, accessed October 5, 2020,


59 Waskow, interview.

60 Porter and Dreier, 38.

61 Lerner, “The Havurot,” 5.


canonical offered a solution to the larger assimilation problem. It created a model for how

Jewish and American value-cultures could interweave.

DIY Judaism

Part of Havurat Shalom’s legacy was the idea that newly ordained rabbis and even

aspiring rabbis could push aside the existing well-renowned rabbis who were the authorities on

Judaism and recreate it anew. Three former members of Havurat Shalom, Richard Siegel and

Sharon and Michael Strassfeld, were so taken by the Havurah that they created the Jewish

Catalog to share with others the model of how to practice Judaism without a central authority

figure controlling the prayers, rituals, or spaces.62 Strassfeld, Strassfeld, and Siegel modeled the

Jewish Catalog after the Whole Earth Catalog, an overwhelming yet inviting reference book that

illustrated environmental problems and provided solutions.63 The Whole Earth Catalog listed

goods and resources that catered to an ecological worldview and fell in line with the

individualistic environmentalism of the era.64 As long as people had access to a list of

resources, they could make changes to their lifestyle, which theoretically improved the

environment. In a similar vein, the Jewish Catalog replicated this focus on personal

empowerment, but its objective was less about improving one’s relationship to the surrounding

environment than reconnecting with one’s higher purpose through the art of Jewish rituals.

The Catalog diminished the role of God and adherence to Halakha (Jewish law), which

was ubiquitous in this monotheistic religion, in favor of prioritizing the accessible, cultural

aspects of Judaism. It featured dozens of different authors, including current and former

members of Havurat Shalom, with competing notions of what Judaism was to show the breadth

and depth of options that American Jews had. Just one year after the catalog was published,

62 Siegel, M. Strassfeld, and S. Strassfeld.

63 Stewart Brand, ed., The Whole Earth Catalog: Access to Tools (New York: Portola Institute, 1968).

64 Kirk, 1-12.


Sklare recognized that it marked a turning point in American Judaism. He described it as a selfhelp

book that emphasized one’s role in the creation and execution of holidays and lifecycle

events to help one find meaning in their life. Even Irving Greenberg who had fretted about the

future of Jewish youth appreciated the book for its ability to engage the community.65

Beyond its Jewish nature, the Jewish Catalog was a direct product of the American

counterculture’s rejection of personal alienation from the distractions of consumption; the

solution was homemade items.66 Much of the Catalog highlighted step-by-step instructions of

how to make ritual objects for all holidays and lifecycle events such as candles, tallit (prayer

shawls), and matzah (unleavened bread). It even included some of the first written

acknowledgments to the intersection of Jewish and environmental practices like the agricultural

calendar, the harvest festival of Sukkot, Jewish burial, the four species, and vegetarian diets.

The other half of the catalog was similar to a phonebook, listing organizations, people, and

addresses that American Jews could call upon including a “reluctant guide” to “Using the Jewish

Establishment.”67 The authors’ mindset was “to move away from the prefabricated, spoon-fed,

nearsighted Judaism into the stream of possibilities for personal responsibility and physical


* * *

In 1971 Sklare postulated that the Jewish countercultural era created a “particular socialreligious

milieu within American Jewry and the [Jewish] Catalog is saturated with the attitudes

and values of that milieu.”69 He recognized the connections between changes in Jewish

education, spirituality, values, and methods of practice, and societal changes like politicization,

suburbanization, and environmentalism—changes that reinforced one another.

65 Blu Greenberg and Irving Greenberg, “Do-It-Yourself Judaism: The Jewish Catalogue,” Hadassah Magazine 55, no. 9 (May

1974): 14-15, 37.

66 Sklare, “The Greening of Judaism.”

67 Siegel, M. Strassfeld, and S. Strassfeld, 82, 262.

68 Ibid., 9.

69 Sklare, “The Greening of Judaism.”


The arc of twentieth-century American Jewry was a familiar story of immigration, but

political upheaval in the 1960s and 1970s compounded this process. The desires for and fears

of assimilation triggered a countermovement for religious and ethnic renewal. Ongoing

intracommunity debates about how to practice Judaism authentically gave way to innovation

among radicals and counterculturalists. As a result, young Jews took aspects of American

culture and combined them with uniquely Jewish features in order to create new avenues for

being Jewish. This was a pivotal moment where allegedly “urban” Jews embraced the politics

and practices of the counterculture while adding their own religious spin. Those developments,

along with experiences in the natural world, created opportunities for American Jewish

environmentalism to emerge in the 1970s.


Chapter 2: “To Till and To Tend”1: The Emergence of Ideas and Institutions

The mainstream story of environmentalism often obscures the work of Jewish

environmentalists during the 1970s and 1980s. A more comprehensive analysis reveals that

American Jews developed avenues for environmental activism and spiritual practice in their

communities. Although Jewish laws and commentaries contained prescriptions for agricultural

stewardship, it was not until the early 1970s that theologians began to reinterpret those texts to

reflect modern environmental concerns. Jewish scholars first debated whether or not

contemporary environmentalism was compatible with traditional Judaism. Jewish leaders

simultaneously faced pressure to become politically active and make Judaism a viable religion

for the countercultural age, so the possibilities of what religion could and should do dramatically


In turn, a new, distinct identity that I call the “Jewish environmentalist” appeared through

a fusion of various elements of American counterculture, environmentalism, and Judaism.

Jewish environmentalists developed new practices rooted in traditional theology and historical

Judaism. As such, those philosophical ponderings morphed into lasting religious practices over

the course of two decades. During the seventies and eighties, the American Jewish

environmental movement became visible through a conglomeration of religious and political

ideas that started as marginal intellectual debates and blossomed into institutions dedicated to

Jewish ecology.

The Philosophical Foundations

In the early 1970s, Jewish leaders from various denominations began to draw links

between Judaism’s laws and the American environmental movement’s objectives. Jewish

1 “God took humanity and placed them in the garden of Eden, to till it and tend it,” Genesis 2:15.


thinkers wrote articles exploring the minutiae of ecology within Judaism. These articles set the

stage for the kinds of theological debates that would persist in the coming decades.

Some of the earliest scholarly papers from American Jews were direct responses to

Lynn White’s controversial theory. White’s charge that the “Judeo-Christian” tradition was

responsible for rupturing humanity’s relationship with the environment sent the religious

community into an uproar.2 Although White directed his attacks toward the hegemonic influence

of Christianity, he implicated Judaism in his groundbreaking article. Immediate scholarly

reactions to White’s thesis contained either an apologetic tone or an outright rejection of his

claim and assumptions about Judaism.

Even if Jews found White’s claims to be unsupported by evidence, a few admitted that

he made some useful points, notably that scholars should be attuned to how cultural attitudes

stem from religious texts. Robert Gordis, Jonathan Helfand,3 Eric G. Freudenstein, and Norman

Lamm, for instance—rabbis from sects that follow Jewish law—emphasized a small portion of

Judaism’s ample environmental teachings to assert Judaism’s overlap with environmentalism.

They also acknowledged that in practice, present-day American Judaism had not adequately

supported environmentalism. Freudenstein wrote, “Ancient Jewish tradition stressed the

maintenance of the biosphere over three and one half thousand years ago, but during the

centuries of the Diaspora, divorced from the land, that message of our venerable tradition

became weak. …Conditions are now propitious for the ancient Jewish message…to be once

again proclaimed loud and clear.”4 Freudenstein recognized that Judaism had a plethora of

environmental teachings to consider and espouse. Lamm furthered this point: “since [White’s

ideas] were given wide currency, they may at least serve as a convenient excuse to examine

2 Lynn White Jr., “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” Science 155, no. 3767 (March 10, 1967): 1203–1207,

https://doi.org/10.1126/science.155.3767.1203; Edward B. Fiske, “Christianity Linked to Pollution,” New York Times (May 1, 1970),

accessed August 26, 2020, www.nytimes.com/1970/05/01/archives/christianity-linked-to-pollution-scholars-cite-call-in-bible-for.html.

3 Robert Gordis, “Judaism and the Spoliation of Nature,” Congress Bi-Weekly 38, no. 5 (April 2, 1971): 9-12; Jonathan I. Helfand,

“Ecology and the Jewish Tradition: A Postscript,” Judaism 20, no. 3 (Summer 1971): 330-335.

4 Eric G. Freudenstein, “Ecology and the Jewish Tradition” (1970), in Judaism and Ecology, 1970-1986: A Sourcebook of Readings,

ed. Mark Swetlitz (n.p.: Shomrei Adamah, 1990), 29-33.


the sources of the Jewish tradition.”5 Therefore, White’s piece was effective at drawing attention

in the Jewish community to the possibility that Judaism overlapped with environmentalism. Few

Jewish thinkers had done that previously.

Jewish commentators and academics took issue with White’s framing of the issue as

one that originated in Judaism given that Christianity did not accept all of Judaism’s laws and

passages.6 In 1970 Dr. Trude Weiss-Rosmarin, an early Jewish feminist and the founder and

editor of the periodical the Jewish Spectator, resolutely claimed that “it will take ‘a very long time

and much theological work’ for Christians to catch up to Jewish law in the matter of preserving

and protecting natural resources.”7 Weiss-Rosmarin’s assertations to a popular audience in the

Los Angeles Times demonstrated that there was fertile ground for environmental ideals within

Judaism. Jewish scholars did not have to agree with White because of his academic clout but

instead could write about environmentalism from a Jewish perspective with strong credibility.

Environmentalism was one political cause among many with which Jewish Americans

chose to engage, albeit one that some Jewish thinkers believed was deeply connected to

Judaism. Writers like Miriam Wyman and Jeremy Benstein were already self-identified

environmentalists who wanted to find similarities in Judaism.8 Other writers cared less about

environmental kinship than about using the environment as a means for increasing Jewish

continuity. Still others like Aubrey Rose and Michael Wyschogrod wrote poetically to express

their emotional connections to firsthand experiences in the natural world.9 A select number of

Jewish day schools, synagogues, and seminaries began compiling their own text studies,

courses, and lecture series dedicated to finding the overlap between Judaism and ecology. As

early as 1971, Jewish newspapers like the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent featured

5 Norman Lamm, “Ecology and Jewish Law and Theology” (1971), in Swetlitz, 76-87.

6 Lawrence Troster, “From Apologetics to New Spirituality: Trends in Jewish Environmental Theology,” COEJL, November 2004,


7 Dan L. Thrapp, “Editor Cites Stand on Ecology in Jewish Law,” Los Angeles Times, December 20, 1970.

8 Miriam Wyman, “Derekh Eretz: A Personal Exploration,” Conservative Judaism 44, no.1 (Fall 1991): 5-13; Jeremy Benstein, “One

Walking and Studying…” Nature vs. Torah” (1995), in Yaffe, 206-229.

9 Aubrey Rose, ed. Judaism and Ecology (London: Cassell Publishers Limited, 1992); Michael Wyschogrod, “Judaism and the

Sanctification of Nature” (1991), in Yaffe, 289-296.


announcements and letters to the editor that highlighted individual and local efforts to look into

the question of whether Jewish religious observance was compatible with ecology.10

Notwithstanding Weiss-Rosmarin and Freudenstein’s conclusions, at the time it was

ambiguous as to whether or not Judaism had a singular position toward humanity’s role in the

environment.11 To respond to the modern issue, other scholars cherry-picked lines from the

Mishnah (source for Jewish law), Torah, and Psalms, and then wrote about their conclusions,

which produced haphazard responses.12 These writings embodied the ambivalence and unease

that Jews felt. Theologians approached topics ranging from Judaism’s agricultural laws about

ethical farming, to moral laws about the destruction of trees during warfare, to views on

humanity’s role in creationism.13 According to sociologist Manfred Gerstenfeld, these brief texts

“were incidental forays into a largely alien field.”14 Scholars like Albert Vorspan and Steven

Schwarzschild thought that the environment was an important issue and ought to be viewed

from a Jewish perspective as a thought experiment, yet Schwarzschild came to a definitive

conclusion that Jewish people were not akin to environmentalists.15 Even though early Jewish

responses to the environment were contradictory and somewhat lackluster, this period of

intellectual conversations was the genesis for Jewish environmentalists who began to meld their

passion for the environment with their religious background.

10 “Ecology Topic of NCJW,” The Atlanta Constitution, December 8, 1971; JTA, “Ecology to be taught in Hebrew Day Schools,” The

Jewish Exponent, May 21, 1971; C. Joseph Teichman, “Theology and Ecology,” The Jewish Exponent, May 5, 1972; B. Wind,

“Helping Ecology,” The Jewish Exponent, August 11, 1972; Joel M. Grossman, “Ecology and the Jewish Tradition,” The Jewish

Exponent, February 5, 1971.

11 “Hebrew Students Depart for Ecology,” The Jewish Exponent, February 18, 1972; “The Jew and the Modern Environment: A Case

of Conflicting Ethical Values,” Leaders Training Fellowship, Kallah Readings: Teacher’s Guide, Jewish Theological Seminary of

America, Spring 1971, Gerald Serotta, personal papers (hereafter “GS”).

12 Manfred Gerstenfeld, Judaism, Environmentalism and the Environment: Mapping and Analysis (Jerusalem: Rubin Mass, 1999),


13 Swetlitz.

14 Gerstenfeld, 85.

15 Albert Vorspan, “The Crisis of Ecology: Judaism and the Environment” (1974), in Swetlitz, 103-108; Steven S. Schwarzschild,

“The Unnatural Jew” (1984), in Judaism and Environmental Ethics: A Reader, ed. Martin D. Yaffe (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books,

2001), 267-282.


“The Earth is Alive”

Among those Jewish thinkers who began to engage with environmental thought, few

embraced it so fully as Rabbi Everett Gendler did. A product of the sixties and early seventies

do-it-yourself socioreligious climate, Rabbi Gendler participated in a mishmash of green groups

and protested nuclear energy facilities.16 Today many fondly know Gendler as the “father of

Jewish environmentalism.”17 But while Gendler’s pursuits eventually inspired others, Dr. Mary

Gendler said her husband’s inquiries were solo endeavors for many years.18

Gendler developed foundational Jewish environmental philosophies.19 In 1971 he

published an essay titled “On the Judaism of Nature” in which he urged the Jewish community

to reverse its historical alienation from nature. This article was both a plea and a demand to the

Jewish community to address its generational gaps and educational weaknesses. In particular,

Gendler noted how the younger generation connected to spirituality through the environment:

“contemporary Judaism, if it is to be a living religion, must respond to this need by a renewed

emphasis on those many nature elements which lie dormant, neglected, sublimated, and

suppressed within the tradition.”20 Gendler took this statement to heart and made Jewish

practices more meaningful by “bringing together in harmony those various elements that

contribute to the life of our own spirit.”21 For Gendler, such elements included natural cycles like

seasons and the phases of the moon. Outside of his emotional appeals, Gendler’s articles were

also in conversation with scholarship and scientific discoveries that surfaced during the era. In

1979, James Lovelock published a book about the Gaia hypothesis: “Earth’s living matter, air,

oceans, and land surface form a complex system which can be seen as a single organism and

16 Everett Gendler, Zoom interview by the author, October 29, 2020.

17 Jane Ulman, “What Would Noah Do?” Jewish Journal, January 4, 2008, accessed August 5, 2020,

18 Everett Gendler and Mary Gendler, interview by Jayne Guberman, “Jewish Counterculture History Project,” October 20,

2016, Oral Histories 22, https://repository.upenn.edu/jcchp_oralhistories/22.

19 Everett Gendler, “A Reflection on Environment, Sentience, and Jewish Liturgy,” in Worlds of Jewish Prayer, ed. Shohama Harris

Wiener and Jonathan Omer-Man (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1993); Everett Gendler, “The Tree that Sustains All Life,”

Menorah: Sparks of Jewish Renewal, no. 2 (January 1980): 1-2; Everett Gendler, “The Universal Chorus,” in Rabbis and

Vegetarianism: An Evolving Tradition, ed. Roberta Kalechofsky (Marblehead, MA: Micah Publications, 1995), 18-22.

20 Everett Gendler, “On the Judaism of Nature” (1971), in Swetlitz, 58.

21 Everett Gendler, autobiography, 2002, accessed August 5, 2020, https://www.gendlergrapevine.org/articles-teachings/.


which has the capacity to keep our planet a fit place for life.” This theory—that the earth was a

“self-regulating entity”22—took on a spiritual tone for Gendler. He wrote, “the earth is alive.”23

From that idea, he found evidence for how this trickled down to ecosystems and organisms.

Trees could be sentient beings, “living matter,”24 because the Genesis chapter underscores the

value of nephesh chaya (a living soul) for humanity and God’s creatures alike.25

Gendler did not just talk and write about the nonhuman world but also incorporated it into

his religious practice, tying in elements from the natural world for holiday celebrations and

everyday habits. He installed a solar-powered light as the Ner Tamid (eternal light in front of the

ark) for his synagogue. This reduced his reliance on fossil fuels and illuminated the Torah with

direct sunlight.26 Gendler also took both traditionally Jewish and non-Jewish events and infused

them into environmental practices in Judaism. For the Winter Solstice, Gendler created a

service with a combination of psalms, the Shehecheyanu (prayer for a special or new time), and

William Blake poetry to bring a religious twist to a secular occurrence.27 In the spring Gendler

put a potato on his Passover Seder plate instead of parsley to symbolize his upbringing on a

farm in Chariton, Iowa where potatoes were the “fruit” of the ground.28 Summers allowed

Gendler to lead Shabbat services outdoors during his congregational posts and create prayer

wheels to honor sunshine with Judaic designs.29 Fall brought Halloween, which meant retelling

stories about the sacred nature of pumpkins and centering prayers around new and full

moons.30 In each of these instances, Gendler took inspiration from eclecticism while rooting

celebrations in Jewish tradition.

22 James Lovelock, GAIA: A New Look at Life on Earth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979): vii, ix.

23 Everett Gendler, “A Sentient Universe,” in Ecology and the Jewish Spirit: Where Nature and the Sacred Meet, ed. Ellen Bernstein

(Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1998), 66.

24 Ibid., 58-59.

25 Everett Gendler, “The Life of His Beast,” in Tree of Life (n.d.), https://www.gendlergrapevine.org/articles-teachings/.

26 Cherie Brown, “Eternal Light Goes Solar,” special issue on science, Genesis 2 11, no. 7 (May 1980).

27 Everett Gendler, “A Ceremony for Winter Solstice,” n.d., accessed August 5, 2020, https://gendlergrapevine.org/wpcontent/


28 Gendler, “The Parsley versus the Potato: A Passover Reminiscence,” in Bernstein, Ecology and the Jewish Spirit, 153-154.

29 Gendler, interview; Everett Gendler, “Turn, turn, turn…” Response: A Contemporary Jewish Review 41-2 (Fall/Winter 1982): 69-


30 Everett Gendler, “Hay-stacks and Hay-bales, Pumpkins and Seeds: Transmitting the Treasures of Childhood,” Whole Terrain:

Reflective Environmental Practice 8 (1999/2000): 34-41.


Transformative Judaism

Gendler focused his energy on reviving spirituality through engaging with nature, while

other scholar-activists like Dr. Rabbi Arthur Waskow were more interested in identifying Jewish

teachings to address world problems. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Waskow discovered

how closely Jewish precepts and values aligned with his vision of social progress. Like Gendler,

Waskow began his activism with the civil rights movement through research and protests.

Waskow was always attuned to politics, sometimes to the consternation of others. After

developing the Freedom Seder in 1969 as a way of celebrating Passover and building Black-

Jewish solidarity,31 he explained that the Jewish establishment saw him as an “enfant terrible.”32

As he was initially unfamiliar with Jewish law, Waskow’s position as an outsider to Judaism, like

Gendler (who grew up in a small town), gave him a unique perspective and entry point for

helping other secular Jews identify with and return to Judaism.

Waskow began to think about environmental issues in Mount Airy, Pennsylvania at a

Germantown Jewish Center Shabbat service in 1970. One of the guests, an environmental

lawyer, showed up late and explained that he had spent all day trying to prevent a factory’s oilcontaminated

water from entering the Schuylkill River and polluting Philadelphia’s drinking water

supply. During the service, Waskow’s “heart and mind lit up” because he connected what he

had just heard from the lawyer with the Shema (prayer for the oneness of God). In the second

part of the prayer, Waskow translated, “if you act well, then the rain will fall and the waters will

run and the crops will grow and all will be well, and if you worship false gods, then the rain won’t

fall, and the rivers won’t run.” A Conservative rabbi had invited Waskow to speak about Jewish

radicalism after the service.33 In Waskow’s speech, he repeated the Shema and claimed with

conviction, “that is radical Judaism. It’s embedded in the most ancient of our texts. And it means

31 Arthur I. Waskow, “The Freedom Seder,” February 1969, accessed April 17, 2021, https://theshalomcenter.org/content/original-


32 Arthur Waskow, Zoom interview by the author, July 30, 2020.

33 “Waskow to Lecture on Radical Judaism,” The Jewish Exponent, October 30, 1970.


that what we do affects the earth and how it behaves toward us.” This experience was the first

of copious epiphanies for Waskow, which he called “transformative Judaism.”34 Not only did he

want to acclimate secular Jews into Judaism in a way that was meaningful for them, but he also

created Jewish practices to match what American Jews already valued.

In tandem with his philosophy towards eco-Judaism, Waskow popularized the notion of

eco-Kashrut, the idea that Jews should prioritize green consumption. Rebbe Zalman Schachter-

Shalomi coined the term and illustrated it through a contemporary example: was “electric power

generated by a nuclear plant eco-kosher?”35 Waskow took this idea one step further and argued

that reshaping the laws of ethical kashrut could protect the planet “by affirming and

strengthening Jewish life.”36 More than just a diet, eco-Kashrut was a framework for mediating

the human relationship to the nonhuman. Waskow knew that secular Jews cared more about

the environment than their Jewish identity, so environmental politics could be a vehicle for

Jewish continuity. Eco-kosher in particular was a “fusion of the ancient with the postmodern”

that fit with his vision to revitalize Judaism to serve a modern world.37

Tu B’Shevat

In the 1970s and 1980s, Jewish Americans, like Waskow, gradually tied ancient Jewish

teachings and abstract beliefs to environmental issues through a process of rediscovery of lost

traditions. The Tu B’Shevat (the fifteenth of the Hebrew month of Sh’vat) Seder (ritual order of

an event) was one such practice that American Jews adopted in this period. Tu B’Shevat, also

known as the Jewish Arbor Day or Earth Day, designated the beginning of the fiscal year for

taxing fruit-bearing trees. After the destruction of the second Temple, the date shed its financial

34 Waskow, interview.

35 Arthur Waskow, “What is ‘Eco-Kosher’?” Down-to-Earth Judaism: Food, Money, Sex, and the Rest of Life, 1st ed. (New York: W.

Morrow, 1995), 188.

36 Ibid., 120.

37 Ibid., 126.


purpose and instead took on a celebratory tone.38 Dr. Rabbi Miles Krassen, a specialist in

Jewish mysticism, clarified that in the 16th century, Kabbalists (Jewish mystics) developed a

Seder, the Peri Ez Hadar (the Fruit of the Tree of Splendor), to honor the “sacred cosmology” of

nature and its Divine manifestation.39 However, neither the holiday nor this practice was

observed for centuries among Askenazi peoples. In the United States, Tu B’Shevat was

peripheral to the Jewish experience until the 1970s. Rabbi Gerald Serotta, a retired interfaith

leader and former head of the Rutgers Jewish Environmental Project, reflects on his experience:

“When I was in Hebrew school, nobody knew anything about [Tu B’Shevat] or paid any attention

to it. It mostly would have been planting trees in Israel, and it had no connection with the


Enmeshed with the recovery of Jerusalem and the environmental movement, the Tu

B’Shevat Seder combined a spiritual, ecological, and emotional experience. Rabbi Serotta

remembered experiencing his first Tu B’Shevat Seder in February of 1972 as a journalist in

Israel. His fellow participants claimed that “it was the first Tu B’Shevat Seder in 400 years in

Jerusalem.” He was so taken with the experience that after coming back to the United States,

he and another participant in the Seder, Jonathan Wolf, began to lead a Tu B’Shevat Seder

every year. Serotta credits Wolf with developing the “Tu B’Shevat Seder in the way that it’s

observed” today:

He and I would take out a book from the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of

Religion library, an ancient book called Sefer Peri-Ez Hadar. …Jon began creating

environmental-based elements [for] that Seder, and every year we’d go down to the

Lower East Side to make sure we could get the carob…, pomegranates, and things that

were very hard to find. We would work very hard to have an authentic Seder to observe

Tu B’Shevat.41

38 Jonathan Wolf, “Tu B’Shvat: The First ‘Earth Day,’” bulletin, Lincoln Square Synagogue, February 1990, 10, Jonathan Wolf,

personal papers (hereafter “JW”).

39 Miles Krassen, trans., Peri Ez Hadar: The Fruit of the Tree of Splendor (Wyncote, PA: Shomrei Adamah, 1992), accessed July 9,

2020, http://www.ellenbernstein.org/shomrei-adamah.

40 Serotta, interview.

41 Ibid.


Since 1976, Wolf has hosted a Tu B’Shevat Seder every year.42

Beyond a solely religious observance, the holiday of Tu B’Shevat provided a way for

American Jews to gather and share ideas about the environment in a uniquely Jewish way. The

holiday continued to evolve, and people observed it by planting trees, participating in a Seder,

and having discussions about ecology.43 The rebirth of the Seder demonstrated the staying

power of Jewish environmental theology and liturgies throughout twentieth century.44 Rabbi

Ellen Bernstein, the leader of the first national Jewish environmental organization, popularized

the Tu B’Shevat Seder in the United States during the late 1980s.45 Bernstein introduced her

Haggadah (prayer book for the Seder), New Year for the Trees, with the following set up: “any

ordered ritual…can make an abstract idea tangible and even edible.”46 In this practice,

Bernstein said, participants would bless and consume the seven species of Israel, along with

other fruits, wine, and nuts to experience the “four worlds” in which humans and God dwell.47

Wolf, Serotta, and Bernstein’s actions helped bring Tu B’Shevat back into American Jews’

vocabulary and observance.

Nonetheless, the Seder did not just stay within the confines of the Jewish community.

Bernstein incorporated a variety of non-Jewish modern environmental thought leaders into her

Haggadah and hosted large Seders for Jews and gentiles. Just as Jewish environmentalists

were inspired by other religious views on the human and nonhuman world, Bernstein revised

the Seder for a non-specialist audience. She says that the Seder was “this way of reaching lots

of people” to help them see their life through an ecological lens. At her first Seder, 200 people

attended. In 1990, the National Earth Day Organization invited her to host a Seder in Boston;

42 Jonathan Wolf, A Seder for Tu B’Shvat, 1979, JW.

43 Mitch Smith, “Tu B’Shevat Ecology,” The Jewish Exponent, February 5, 1971; “Ecology and Tu B’Shevat Are Featured at Makom,”

The Jewish Exponent, January 28, 1972; “Judaism and the Environment: A Tu B’Shvat Forum and Celebration,” invitation, L’OLAM:

Coordinating Committee on Ecology and Judaism, February 4, 1990, JW.

44 For more on the developments of Tu B’Shevat’s theology and observance see Ari Elon, Naomi Mara Hyman, and Arthur Waskow,

eds., Trees, Earth, and Torah: A Tu B’Shvat Anthology (1999; repr., Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society, 2000).

45 Jim Remsen, “Scattering Seed for a ‘Mystical Seder,'” The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 31, 1999.

46 Ellen Bernstein, A New Year for the Trees: A Tu B’Sh’vat Seder for Everyone (1988; repr., n.p.: Ellen Bernstein, 2017), ii,

accessed July 9, 2020, http://www.ellenbernstein.org/shomrei-adamah.

47 Ellen Bernstein, “A History of Tu B’Sh’vat” and “The Tu B’Sh’vat Seder,” both in Bernstein, Ecology and the Jewish Spirit, 139-



Bernstein explains, “the only Jews at this event were me and the owner of the Park [Plaza

Hotel].”48 Bernstein’s accessible yet meaningful Haggadah for the Seder inspired other versions

across Jewish denominations.49

The Greening of Judaism

By the 1970s, Jewish thinkers had begun a sweeping review of Jewish texts and

commentary for any environmentally themed claims. Meanwhile, more politically inclined

American Jews turned toward Judaism to confront specific environmental problems. From antiwar

activism to the politics of energy, Jews began to frame prominent issues in a “green,” or

environmental, light. While Jewish thinkers considered the relationship between Judaism and

environmentalism in abstract and often enigmatic terms, politically active Jews advocated for

specific issues in particular contexts. As ecologically centered Jewish groups took on policy

niches, American Jews began to call for a more institutionalized and formalized Jewish ecology.


In the sixties and seventies, Jewish denominations created policy resolutions concerning

an amalgam of environmental issues. Even before Lynn White and long after, Jewish institutions

made public statements addressing how modern society harmed the environment. Mark X.

Jacobs, a Jewish environmentalist, explains that resolutions formalized environmentalism in the

Jewish community from a purely intellectual debate to a thoroughly political movement.50 The

Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) became the first major Jewish organization to pass resolutions

on environmental issues concurrently to the passage of national legislation and executive orders

48 Ellen Bernstein, Zoom interview by the author, September 10, 2020; “Boston Park Plaza Hotel Honored at Tu Bi Shvat Seder,”

The Jewish Advocate, January 31-February 6, 1992, Ellen Bernstein, personal papers (hereafter “EB”).

49 For example, see Adam Fisher, Seder Tu Bishevat: The Festival of the Trees (NYC: Central Conference of American Rabbis,


50 Mark X. Jacobs, “Jewish Environmentalism: Past Accomplishments and Future Challenges,” in Judaism and Ecology: Created

World and Revealed Word, ed. Hava Tirosh-Samuelson (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 455.


synonymous with the American environmental movement. In 1965, the URJ’s General

Assembly passed a resolution to encourage the government to address the exhaustion of

natural resources such as fresh water and timber and to develop new sources of energy.51

Furthermore, in 1969 the General Assembly adopted a resolution condemning environmental

pollution that called on the public, private, and nonprofit sectors to take measures to curb the

use of pesticides and the dumping of industrial waste.52 Ten years later, the URJ voted for

another resolution focused on the conservation of energy.53

Two reform leaders demonstrated how these resolutions were nascent signs of

environmentalism in the Jewish community. Rabbi Daniel Swartz, executive director of the

Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, explained that frequently one or two influential

people were responsible for the creation and enactment of a resolution. Communal consensus

on Judaism’s role in resolving environmental problems came much later. Resolutions were not

binding, but they provided an opportunity for synagogues to get involved in those issues.54 In

addition, Rabbi David Saperstein, head of the Religious Action Center, URJ’s political arm,

noted that Reform Jewish institutions like synagogues were preoccupied with issues like civil

rights during the sixties and did not truly get involved in the environment in a religious capacity

until the mid-to-late seventies.55

Other denominations trailed the Reform movement in their public advocacy, yet those

later resolutions still signified investment in environmental issues. In the Conservative

movement, the United Synagogue of Conservative Jewry, the Rabbinical Assembly, and the

Women’s League for Conservative Judaism all passed resolutions about energy conservation

51 “Conservation and Development of Natural Resources,” resolution, Union for Reform Judaism, November 1965, accessed August

19, 2020, https://urj.org/what-we-believe/resolutions/conservation-and-development-natural-resources.

52 “Environmental Pollution,” resolution, Union for Reform Judaism, 1969, accessed August 19, 2020, https://urj.org/what-webelieve/


53 “Energy,” resolution, Union for Reform Judaism, 1979, accessed February 11, 2021, https://urj.org/what-webelieve/


54 Daniel Swartz, Zoom interview by the author, October 8, 2020.

55 David Saperstein, Zoom interview by the author, September 23, 2020.


and recycling beginning in 1978.56 These resolutions were not religious in nature, but they

signaled how American Jews began to absorb environmental concerns into their priorities,

which later galvanized the community into further action.

The Vietnam War

The American environmental movement played out domestically amidst the backdrop of

the United States’ war in Vietnam internationally. Third-generation Jews who were active in the

protests of the sixties were staunch advocates of the pro-peace movement. For the most part,

the Jewish political establishment was reluctant to intervene, but some leaders who advocated

for intervention gained greater prominence as they focused on the sacred notion of trees within

Judaism as a way to protest the war. Since American Jewry was already familiar with tree

planting in Israel as a form of international assistance, it was not a difficult stretch to relate the

opposite phenomenon, the destruction of trees in Vietnam as a failed American foreign policy

that violated Jewish law. Anti-war Jewish engagement first evolved out of the People’s Peace

Treaty, which sought to awaken the US government to the majoritarian desire for the war to

end.57 Jewish signers of the declaration such as Michael Tabor took a step further and began to

plant trees symbolically to initiate the Jewish campaign to end the war, “Trees for Life,” also

known as “Trees for Vietnam.” Planting their first tree in 1971 at the US Capitol, leaders from

manifold Jewish religious and secular organizations saw this physical act as a direct form of

protest that linked them with the Vietnamese.

Invoking their “special responsibility” as Jews, members of the campaign started to call

attention to the value of trees in Judaism. The participants highlighted the value of bal taschit

(the law that when in war, one still could not destroy the trees of the enemy) from the Torah.58

56 “Human Environment,” resolution, Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, 1978, accessed December 1, 2020,


57 “Rabbis, Vietnam War Vets Plan to Plant Trees in Vietnam,” JTA, June 9, 1971, accessed February 11, 2021,


58 “Jews Launch ‘Trees for Vietnam’ Peace Campaign on Veterans’ Day,” The Jewish Advocate, Nov. 4, 1971.


Moreover, they chose auspicious dates to plant trees each year; they gathered on Veterans Day

and Tu B’Shevat. While the Tu B’Shevat Seder was not yet a widespread practice in the United

States, American Jews had a simplistic understanding that the holiday itself was about trees.

Waskow, although not a participant in Trees for Life, watched his contemporaries contribute to

the “partly anti-war and partly pro-tree” organization. He points to the synergy between the

political and the religious components: Trees for Life’s objectives “speak as much to the US

government not destroying trees and to Jews being committed to replace trees as an aspect, a

very Jewish aspect, of opposition to the war.”59

Over the course of the next year, the Trees for Life group fundraised and organized

community members to spread awareness about the US military’s use of Agent Orange, a

chemical defoliant, in Vietnam. The group sent representatives, or “American Jewish radicals”

according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, to Paris to meet with Vietnamese peace-seeking

Buddhist groups and social service workers from both South and North Vietnam. The

representatives agreed that American Jews would send tens of thousands of dollars to Vietnam

for “ecological reparations” to plant new trees in designated, hard-hit villages.60 American

Jewish periodicals reported that the Vietnamese representatives were thankful for the money for

both practical and cultural reasons. First, the destruction of forests was affecting the food

supply, increasing flooding, killing wildlife, and stymying the timber industry. Second, trees were

normally a part of the annual Tet New Year festival.61 This shared, cross-cultural value of trees

created a channel for American Jewish involvement in transnational environmental politics.

59 Waskow, interview.

60 “Jewish Radicals from US Meet Vietnamese in Paris; Donate Funds to Replace Trees,” JTA, March 14, 1972, accessed

December 2, 2020, https://www.jta.org/1972/03/14/archive/jewish-radicals-from-u-s-meet-vietnamese-in-paris-donate-funds-toreplace-

trees; “Jewish Group Says North Vietnamese Responded Favorably to Trees Project,” JTA, April 6, 1972, accessed

December 2, 2020, https://www.jta.org/1972/04/06/archive/jewish-group-says-north-vietnamese-responded-favorably-to-treesproject;

“Jewish Groups Plant Tree for Peace,” JTA, January 22, 1973, accessed December 2, 2020,


61 “Trees for Vietnam Delegates Meet,” The Jewish Exponent, April 14, 1972.


The Trees for Life campaign ended abruptly with the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.62 Although

defoliation was an easy topic to connect with Jewish law, the campaign had few members and

even fewer leaders, all of whom were concentrated in the Jewish left. Henceforth, bal taschit

was not used in anti-war activism, and ultimately Trees for Vietnam occupied a liminal space

among American Jewish priorities.

Jewish American and Israeli Environmental Alliances

While radical Jews seamlessly mixed environmentalism into their religious philosophies,

the institutional Jewish community entered the environmental movement through their

connection to the state of Israel. Predating religiously inspired Jewish environmentalism,

American Jews had ties to the sacred land of Israel. In a more secular, nationalist sense than a

spiritual sense, American Jews advocated alongside the environmental movement in Israel to

clean up toxic waste and pollution in cities, plant trees, and restore natural spaces to their

biblical landscapes. Israelis created organizations to lobby parliament while Americans created

counterpart organizations to provide monetary support and raise awareness among the Jewish

community.63 Fred Dobb, a reconstructionist rabbi and chair of the Coalition on the Environment

and Jewish Life, explained,

Every green organization in Israel became a natural partner. Imperfectly that included

the JNF, more perfectly the groups founded by American olim [immigrants to Israel]

bringing Western-style environmentalism to Israel, such as…SPNI. …At different times

that transatlantic partnership has loomed large.64

Responding to the unfettered development across Israel to accommodate immigration,

scientists, educators, and members of kibbutzim formed the Society for the Protection of Nature

62 Janis Johnson, “Yom Kippur War Ended Viet Project,” The Washington Post, February 14, 1975.

63 Rochelle Saidel Wolk, “Israel’s Other Enemies: Helping Israel Conquer Pollution,” Women’s American ORT Reporter, November/

December 1980, JW; Jack D. Lauber, “Toxic Time Bomb,” Jerusalem Post, December 12, 1979, JW; Reuven Rosenfelder, “Israel’s

Second Front – Ecology,” The Jewish Advocate, June 14, 1973; “Concern for Helping Animals in Israel,” brochure, n.d., JW.

64 Fred Scherlinder Dobb, Zoom interview by the author, November 10, 2020.


in Israel (SPNI) in 1953.65 SPNI launched public campaigns to preserve ecosystems, pass

environmental regulations, and establish agencies to enforce those laws.66 This organization

developed community education projects, information and field study centers, and public action

plans for Israeli Jewish, Arab, and Druze populations. To support conservation and educational

objectives financially and politically, the American Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel

(ASPNI) formed in 1986.67 The environmental angle was one of the ways American Jews

involved themselves in Israeli state building.

Other Israeli environmental pursuits were more directly related to the religious aspects of

the Holy Land. In 1965 volunteers and researchers started planning a park that would host flora

and fauna depicted in the Tanakh. Since much of the landscape had changed from the days of

Judea, scientists and politicians set aside a portion of land to form a nature reserve, Neot

Kedumim—the Gardens of Israel.68 One of the founders and directors of the botanical gardens,

Nogah Hareuveni, traveled to the United States in 1974 to help American Jewish children

cultivate a connection to Israel through environmental ideas. The Jewish Exponent reported that

Hareuveni viewed “the roots of Jewish traditions, symbolism and spiritual values” as essential to

“the environmental geography of the land of Israel.”69 Yet Israelis, like Hareuveni, were not

alone in their beliefs on the overlap between protected natural sites and religious tenets. The

partner organization “American Friends of Neot Kedumim” helped market the park as a biblical

landscape, a “living museum of green archaeology” that paid homage to the “symbols, prayers,

and holidays” of Judaism.70 Supported by Israeli politicians at home and Americans abroad, the

creation of Neot Kedumim was as much a religious statement about Jewish agricultural roots as

it was a political statement about Israel’s renewed existence.

65 SPNI is known as Hevra LeHaganat HaTeva in Hebrew. SPNI information sheet, n.d., JW.

66 “The Greening of Israel: SPNI In Action,” membership inquiry, American Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, 1990, JW.

67 “Membership in The American Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel,” pamphlet, 1988, JW.

68 Nogah Hareuveni, Ecology in the Bible, trans. Helen Frenkley (Modiin, Israel: Neot Kedumim: 1974), JW; “Neot Kedumim: Dream

and Reality,” n.d., JW.

69 “Gratz College Course Probes Ecology in the Bible,” The Jewish Exponent, October 30, 1970.

70 “Welcome to Neot Kedumim,” pamphlet, n.d., JW.


Beyond American financial support to environmental causes in Israel, Zionism became

an overtly “green” issue after 1973. The Yom Kippur War, like the Six-Day War, mobilized

American Jewish support and disrupted Middle Eastern politics. Even after Arab states lost the

war, they attempted to force the United States to sever ties with Israel to continue importing oil.

The resulting embargo led to energy crises domestically and a surge in discussions around how

the United States could continue its path of growth, given its dependency on foreign oil. At the

time, the Middle East contained the greatest quantity of proven oil reserves, so American

political and economic hegemony was at stake. The link between the Arab Oil Embargo and

energy shortages in the United States is hotly contested, but it is more important in recounting

this history to understand that the American population’s perception was that the two were

linked.71 In the wake of the conflict, American Jews assumed two major roles. They were

outspoken on rejecting the false equivalency between energy shortages and the US-Israel

alliance to curb a resurgence in anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism during the early 1970s.72 By the

end of the decade, American Jews inserted themselves into the political arena and lobbied for

alternative energies to shift the United States away from a reliance on Arab oil.73 As one article

in the Jewish Advocate put it, “The time has come for…US Jewry to take initiative and dispel

once and for all the myth of the oil connection” and “take upon itself the project of American

energy independence.”74

Involvement in energy policy was a natural progression for American Jews since Israel

was the number one priority among the Jewish establishment. The community had to first

maintain US foreign aid to Israel before they could address issues at home that affected

everyone, including outside of the Jewish community. Here, energy fused those goals. There

71 For more on the fabricated energy crisis see Timothy Mitchell, “The Crisis That Never Happened,” in Carbon Democracy (London:

Verso, 2011): 173-199.

72 Eliezer Whartman, “The Phony Energy Crisis,” The Jewish Exponent, January 4, 1974; Linda Charlton, “Jews List Causes of

Energy Crisis,” New York Times, February 18, 1974.

73 “American Jewish Committee Backs Carter Plan for Energy Agency,” The Jewish Exponent, March 25, 1977; “Nathan to Discuss

Jewish Side of Energy Crunch,” The Jewish Exponent, May 27, 1977; Pamela Weintraub, “Boston Energy Conference Ties Oil to

US-Mideast Diplomacy,” The Jewish Advocate, June 8, 1978.

74 “A Jewish Energy Lobby,” The Jewish Advocate, January 18, 1979.


was the risk that the US might decrease support for Israel to ensure smooth, continuous oil

exports from Arab states, while American citizens were facing energy shortages every day and

waiting in long lines for gasoline. The American Jewish establishment tried to do everything

within its power to shift the conversation away from the notion that Israel caused the US energy

crisis, which would have implicated American Jews as well.75

As a result, American Jews lobbied the legislative and the executive branches to pursue

alternative forms of energy. In a letter to President Jimmy Carter, American Jewish Committee

(AJC), a Jewish advocacy group, requested that alternative energy “programs be given the

same high priority that the nation gave to developing the Manhattan Project and to landing a

man on the moon.”76 AJC identified energy as a natural resource so important that the federal

government should invest as much into alternative energy research and development as it did

for the nuclear bomb and the Space Race. Underlying these projects was the Cold War context,

so AJC’s comparison played into the government’s logic and foreign policy priorities to try to

bring Carter on board. Geopolitical concerns determined energy policy in the seventies more

than did any scientific claims about finite resources.

Organizing around alternatives to oil energized American Jews and consequently

catalyzed other action around environmental protection. Rabbi Swartz notes, “the reason that

Jewish organizations started getting involved in energy issues was less green than worry about

undue political influence from oil.”77 Swartz homed in on how energy policy was a reactive

agenda for American Jews but still a vital one. It was a bridge issue for other environmental

concerns according to Saperstein:

The oil embargo and the oil crisis are what really kind of galvanized the Jewish

community and that had resonance with Israel as well. …“We had to cut back our

reliance on Arab oil” that was the linchpin phrase that the Jewish organizations involved

75 This is how anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism conflate and reinforce one another. American Jews feared that non-Jews would blame

American Jewry for the Israeli government’s actions even in this case when Israel did not cause the energy shortages.

76 “AJCommittee Speaks Out on Energy,” The Jewish Advocate, June 30, 1977; David Friedman, “Jewish Groups Take Energy

Stand; Send Letter on Subject to Carter,” The Jewish Advocate, July 5, 1979.

77 Swartz, interview.


would constantly be talking about. So, Israel back in ‘78 and ‘79 and ‘80 and ‘81…when

we were putting together ad hoc work on environmental and energy policy issues, you

know that was a real plus for us.78

Saperstein demonstrates how Israel was a motivator for engaging the Jewish community on

energy and other environmental priorities. The timing of the late seventies and early eighties

was not accidental; the American and Israeli context correlated with efforts on environmental

issues. Although energy and the environment were distinct and somewhat contradictory issues,

they overlapped and aligned in this situation. American Jewry lumped alternative energy in with

other environmental solutions, even though the Jewish community’s focus was less on clean

energy production than domestic energy production.

The transition away from oil was a national issue, though American Jews enacted

smaller actions on a local scale. Synagogues and Jewish nonprofits needed to conserve energy

and make their buildings more energy efficient. Jeffrey Dekro, a leader in the Jewish voice on

energy policy, coordinated the Jewish Energy Project, which began in 1978 to help consult

congregations on methods to cut back energy usage.79

By the beginning of the 1980s, Dekro and others called for formalized community action

in response to environmental matters in spite of their potential detriment to Israel. Dekro

scathingly argued, “legitimate concern for Israel has been manipulated to promote nuclear

power and minimize or ignore its health and safety dangers, its highly uneconomical nature and

its central role in facilitating the spread of nuclear weapons throughout the world.”80 While

ending nuclear energy or nuclear arms was previously a moot point for the Jewish community

because Israel likely had nuclear capabilities, that perspective began to flip because of the

Three Mile Island scare in 1979 and the intensification of the arms race under President Ronald

78 Saperstein, interview.

79 I.J. Blynn, “A Jewish Guide to Saving Energy,” The Jewish Exponent, December 28, 1979.

80 Jeffrey Dekro, “Energy Policy and Jewish Interests: Choosing the Safe Energy Alternative,” Jewish Currents 36 (June 1982): 4-9,



Reagan and Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin.81 In response, Dekro and others like Serotta formed

their own organization—New Jewish Agenda, a progressive, Jewish voice on political issues—

to create an alternative to the existing, increasingly conservative, Jewish advocacy groups.82

Dekro led the Energy and Environment Committee for New Jewish Agenda. The

Committee’s platform highlighted the need for the United States to decentralize control of

energy production and distribution while ensuring clean air and water. The committee marked

the first official attempt to tie diversifying American energy portfolios and limiting energy use with

Jewish values like tikkun olam (repairing the world).83 However, the multi-issue organization was

short lived, and the Energy and Environment Committee was more of an umbrella term that

appears to have focused just on energy efficiency.84 Hence, American Jews’ connection to

Israel facilitated Jewish involvement in environmental politics through the topic of energy, even

as new groups emerged questioning this logic.

Jewish Vegetarians

Another environmentally conscious branch of Judaism centered around a vegetarian

diet. During the seventies, growing awareness around world hunger and sustainable diets led to

a rise in Western vegetarianism and vegetarian advocacy networks. For observant Jews,

vegetarianism was a logical choice given that Jewish law already stressed what people should

eat. Brought together by the World Vegetarian Congress, American Jewish vegetarians wanted

to create an organization with frequent gatherings for Jewish holidays, the study of Jewish texts,

and monthly newsletters with Judaic reading recommendations.85 As a counterpart to the

London-based International Jewish Vegetarian Society founded 10 years earlier, Jonathan Wolf

81 Waskow, interview.

82 Jeffrey Dekro, “Energy and Communal Responsibility,” The Jewish Exponent, October 30, 1981.

83 New Jewish Agenda, “Dec 1980 Founding Conference Unity Statement,” New Jewish Agenda Chapter Handbook, 1981, 28.

84 Ezra Berkley Nepon, “New Jewish Agenda National Platform: Energy and Environment,” Justice Justice You Shall Pursue: A

History of New Jewish Agenda (Philadelphia, PA: Thread Makes Blanket Press, 2012), 122-123.

85 Judah Grosberg and Jonathan Wolf, The Jewish Vegetarian Sprout 1, no. 1 (July/ August 1976), JW.


created the Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA) in 1975.86 According to a summary of

the organization’s history, JVNA had “a desire to show that Jewish teachings [were] most

consistent with plant-based diets.”87 These teachings were as familiar to Jews as the laws of

kashrut (kosher) and as nuanced as the belief that all people would become vegetarians when

the Messiah arrives. Wolf even taught the seminar “Judaism and Vegetarianism” on these ideas

at his synagogue in New York for several years.88

After taking Wolf’s course in 1977, Richard Schwartz, a mathematics professor, became

a Jewish vegetarian writer and activist.89 With the help of Wolf and other participants in the

course, Schwartz compiled teachings, frequently-asked-questions, and biographies into a book,

Judaism and Vegetarianism, to persuade fellow Jews to take up the cause.90 That book was just

the beginning of Schwartz’s numerous newspaper articles, books, and opinion pieces all about

Jewishly inspired vegetarianism. While his motivation was primarily environmental, it was also

doctrinal. Schwartz and Wolf believed that if they could share the vegetarian gospel with other

observant Jews, and especially rabbis, Orthodox communities would internalize that a

vegetarian diet was the most Halakhic (in line with Jewish law). Schwartz shares that JVNA’s

mission was “to shift as many Jews as possible towards vegetarianism.” Schwartz details that

JVNA did that by “get[ting] the message out to people that Judaism has very strong teachings

on compassion to animals.”91 He felt personally inspired to transmit this message to others and

present vegetarianism as Judaism’s best-kept secret.

While some Jewish vegetarianisms were Talmudic (Jewish law and commentaries)

devotees, others were ethically inclined by the animal rights movement. Animal rights were

central to the work of Dr. Roberta Kalechofsky, an English professor and editor. Kalechofsky

86 “A Brief History of US Vegetarianism,” last modified 1993, accessed July 9, 2020,


87 “History of Jewish Vegetarians of North America,” interview, n.d., accessed July 9, 2020,


88 “The Joseph Shapiro Institute of Jewish Studies,” pamphlet, Lincoln Square Synagogue, Fall 1977, JW.

89 Richard Schwartz, Zoom interview by the author, July 27, 2020.

90 Richard H. Schwartz, Judaism and Vegetarianism, 2nd ed. (Marblehead, MA: Micah Publications: 1988).

91 Schwartz, interview.


was part of the Jewish vegetarian network with Schwartz and Wolf. After giving a courtesy read

to Schwartz’s Judaism and Vegetarianism manuscript in 1983, she became a vegetarian that

same day. Kalechofsky called her butcher and found out that the kosher meat she ate still came

from animals raised in commercial factory farms; they were only slaughtered differently.92 Soon

Kalechofsky began exploring vegetarianism and writing several books on the topic such as the

Hagaddah for the Liberated Lamb for Passover, vegetarian and vegan cookbooks, and

nonfiction compilations of essays on ethical, educational, and nutritional perspectives on

vegetarianism.93 In her writing and advocacy, she focused on how vivisection, experimentation,

and mistreatment of animals violated Jewish law. Like many other Jews growing up in a time of

heightened concern for the destruction of nature and decimation of biodiversity, she

reinterpreted her Jewish upbringing on the sacred quality of life to mean a rejection of eating

meat later as an adult.94 The Jewish vegetarian position was a repurposing of religious values

into the politics of the day.

Wolf, Schwartz, and Kalechofsky were three influential Jewish vegetarians who found

shared community, but as lone voices, they had to navigate a tenuous position on the periphery

of American Jewry and the environmental movement. The dissemination of White’s hypothesis

bled into vegetarian causes and inaccurately depicted Judaism as environmentally destructive.

Kalechofsky summarized this idea: “The Animal Rights movement did not understand Judaism,

that the term, ‘Judeo-Christian’ create[d] a harmful confusion, to the detriment of understanding

the Jewish position, vis-à-vis animals.”95 Schwartz confirmed that White’s theory spawned

ambiguity among Christian vegetarian activists even regarding their faith. After the release of

Judaism and Vegetarianism, Christian vegetarians shared with Schwartz that they felt

92 Susan Schnur, “Veggie Pioneer: Dr. Roberta Kalechofsky, 76,” Lilith 32, no. 3 (Fall 2007), accessed August 21, 2020,


93 “Jews for Animal Rights,” pamphlet, n.d., Micah Publications, JW.

94 Roberta Kalechofsky, “Autobiography of a Revolutionary,” Autobiography of a Revolutionary: Essays on Animal and Human

Rights (Marblehead, MA: Micah Publications: 1991), 1-18.

95 Ibid., 16.


Christianity did not have “a strong enough case” to advocate for vegetarianism or animal

rights.96 Within the Jewish community as well, Schwartz faced plenty of “denial” on his position

that Judaism compelled Jews to be vegetarians.97 Jewish vegetarians had difficulty organizing

under the confines of existing Jewish or environmental organizations, so they created a singleissue

group to address the overlap of vegetarianism and Judaism. Although non-religious

environmentalists and non-environmentalist Jews considered Jewish vegetarians to be

outsiders, Jewish vegetarianism was a steppingstone for later Jewish environmental

developments particularly in the vein of food, consumption, and agriculture.

For many Jewish environmentalists including rabbis Serotta, Waskow, and Gendler,

vegetarianism became one factor in their spiritual practice and political advocacy. While Jews

adopted vegetarianism for different reasons, few were proselytizers like Schwartz but rather

chose the lifestyle for personal reasons. The ecological and health benefits of vegetarianism

motivated Gendler.98 For Serotta, the religious and political climate of the 1970s convinced him.

Waskow ate meat but practiced unorthodox vegetarianism on Shabbat. Serotta explains,

On Shabbat, [Waskow] wouldn’t eat meat, which was the opposite of…Jewish tradition,

which was [to] save these special things for Shabbat. But he saved his special things for

Shabbat by becoming vegetarian. He viewed it…as a taste of the world to come, which

is identified with the Garden of Eden when we didn’t eat animals. So, perfectly logical,

but not traditional to be vegetarian on only Shabbat.99

Waskow, Serotta, and Gendler demonstrate that vegetarianism was not the only issue of

concern for those who identified as Jewish environmentalists, but it was one of the means

through which they would innovate American practices while making them wholly Jewish.

96 “A Brief Recent History of US Vegetarianism,” last modified 1993, accessed July 9, 2020,


97 Schwartz, interview.

98 Arlene Pianko Groner, “The Greening of Kashrut,” The National Jewish Monthly 90 (April 1976): 12-14, JW.

99 Gerald Serotta, Zoom interview by the author, August 20, 2020.


Building a Movement

While environmentally inclined Jews had spent years in relative isolation from others

who shared their identity and concerns, by the 1980s they began to build a network. Some had

tried previously to spread awareness and engage other Jews on these topics, yet it was not until

this point that a critical mass of people situated their Judaism within environmentalism and vice

versa. This community hosted conferences to launch Jewish environmental initiatives and add

legitimacy to their work. Rather than the one-off articles on Jewish ecotheology or single-issue

groups of the 1970s, these figures wanted to create lasting organizations. The 1980s marked a

turn towards the creation of the Jewish environmentalist identity and the institution building of

Jewish environmentalism.


In 1979 the first national Jewish environmental conference almost came to fruition;

although it was canceled, it signified that there was energy and excitement brewing around

Jewish environmental topics. As Saperstein remembers, Jewish institutions had planned to

send representatives to the conference in Washington, DC, but a blizzard obstructed them: “We

pulled together a major conference that about 300 rabbis and heads of Jewish Community

Centers and other Jewish institutions signed up for, to bring them to Washington to talk about

energy efficiency standards, recycling, other practices that they could engage in that would

make them more responsible environmentally.”100 In the US political seat, American Jews

wanted to codify ideas about the environment nationally, to enact them locally.

A few years later another distinctly Jewish and ecological organization—and later a

conference—took shape in New Jersey. After taking a post as the associate director of Rutgers

Hillel, Serotta found contemporaries who shared a vision and passion for Judaism and the

100 Saperstein, interview.


earth. In particular, two ecologists, Joan Ehrenfeld (a member of ASPNI) and her husband

David Ehrenfeld were excited by the potential of this newly emerging subject. Together with

other faculty and students, the Ehrenfelds and Serotta founded the Jewish Environmental

Project in 1981. In a letter inviting people to join, the organization detailed their multi-disciplinary

approach to studying, discussing, and disseminating information towards “a holistic Jewish

community which can take from the best of contemporary environmentalism and from the best

of Jewish tradition.”101 The group was not just interested in environmental passages in Jewish

texts for the sake of a code of ethics; their mission revolved around “actually creating a Jewish

environmentally sustainable and small community,” according to Serotta.102 The founders had

alarmist views about the impending downfall of society and thought Jews were vulnerable to

ecological disasters because of their concentration in urban and suburban areas. They saw

Kibbutzim and the back-to-land movement as a potential solution. A description of the project

explained that the group wanted to research Judaic perspectives on green living to ultimately

“establish a Jewish fourth world synthesis.” The “fourth world” was a Cold War theory

referencing marginalized populations, especially Native peoples, who hoped to exist outside of

the State’s economic and political system.103 The Jewish Environmental Project connected this

to the Jewish “tribe,” which they hoped could unite as a people.104

In order to share their ideas beyond Rutgers and New York City, David Ehrenfeld and

Gerry Serotta hosted the Jewish Environmental Conference in 1982. Approximately 20 scholars,

rabbis, and students attended the conference as part of a growing network of Jewish

environmentalists. Participants such as Jonathan Wolf, Saul Berman, Phillip Bentley, Jeffrey

Dekro, Richard Schwartz, and Arthur Waskow who were doing Jewish environmental work

101 Gerald Serotta, letter about Jewish Environmental Project, B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundation at Rutgers University, October 30, 1981,


102 Serotta, interview.

103 Rudolph Ryser, Dina Gilio-Whitaker, and Heidi G. Bruce, “Fourth World Theory and Methods of Inquiry,” in Handbook of

Research on Theoretical Perspectives on Indigenous Knowledge Systems in Developing Countries, ed. Patrick Ngulube (Hershey,

PA: IGI Global, 2017), 50-84.

104 “The Jewish Environmental Project,” statement of purpose, n.d., GS.


simultaneously went on to become giants in the movement.105 A mover and shaker in his own

right, Rabbi David Seidenberg was the youngest attendee as a collegian at the conference: “I

got to see what people were doing and listen to what they were thinking about and there was a

lot of beauty. …Most of the work in this early environmental movement was [about] how do we

hold up what’s already right and true and say that this is really Judaism this good environmental

stuff.”106 While the central goal of the conference was to brainstorm ideas for sustainable Jewish

communes, Seidenberg recalls that it also involved discussions around how to persuade people

that environmentalism was embedded in Judaism rather than contradictory to it. The

participants worked on curricula and materials for educating the wider Jewish community about

Judaism’s environmentally based teachings.107

The 1979 called-off-conference, the Jewish Environmental Project, and the Jewish

Environmental Conference reflected a desire among American Jews for a permanent body to

address Jewish ecology. “One of the starting points of Jewish environmentalism as a

movement” was the 1982 conference, according to Seidenberg.108

The Shalom Center and its Affiliates

One year later, Waskow founded the Shalom Center to address the paucity of Jews

involved in deterring nuclear proliferation. Waskow recounts,

I had been publishing, editing, and even carrying to the post office every third month a

magazine called Menorah: Sparks of Jewish Renewal, and the last couple of issues I

focused on…the nuclear arms race and talked about it as a realization, a making real of

an old midrash about a flood of fire.109

105 Serotta, interview.

106 David Mevorach Seidenberg, Zoom interview by the author, September 8, 2020.

107 Letter from Gerald Serotta and David Ehrenfeld to Matthew J. Maryles, grant request for Jewish Environmental Conference, April

2, 1982, GS.

108 David Mevorach Seidenberg, “Introduction,” in Kabbalah and Ecology: God’s Image in the More-Than-Human World (New York:

Cambridge University Press, 2015), 10n33, https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139963046.

109 Waskow, interview.


Waskow’s writings spurred others to see how there was precedence within the rabbinic tradition

to fear God’s potential imposition of a “flood of fire,” which translated to a very real nuclear

winter in modern terms. Ira Silverman, the then-head of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical

College was also passionate about the issue, and after reading Waskow’s work, Silverman

contacted Waskow about creating a nonprofit dedicated to the topic. As environmentalists talked

about the science behind nuclear bombs, the Shalom Center framed the nuclear arms

discussion in eco-Jewish terms: the arms race could cause a nuclear holocaust.

While activism around nuclear non-proliferation expanded beyond environmental

concerns, the Shalom Center’s focus was first and foremost ecological. In his work, Waskow

subscribed to Reb. Zalman’s teachings: “The earth was part of it from the beginning for him

[Zalman]. And the notion of social action on behalf of the earth and on behalf of social justice,

both as part of the Jewish commitment, was absolutely his as well as mine.”110 In 1978 Zalman

started the B’nai Or (sons of light) Fellowship, which later changed its name to P’nai Or (faces of

light). Waskow served on the board of this Jewish learning program, which centered around

Zalman’s philosophy of deep ecumenism and the GAIA hypothesis.111 The fellowship later

merged with the Shalom Center to create ALEPH: the Alliance for Jewish Renewal, a

nondenominational Jewish movement that included environmentalism as one of its five tenets.

While the Shalom Center as a national organization focused exclusively on nuclear nonproliferation

in the eighties, a local branch called the New York Metropolitan Shalom Coalition

applied Jewish perspectives to a myriad of environmental concerns. This coalition developed

out of a conference in March 1988 called L’ovdah Ul’shomrah. In the fall of 1989, the Shalom

Coalition piloted Sukat Shalom, a region-wide initiative on observing Sukkot’s environmental

110 Waskow, interview.

111 “Arthur Waskow: Full Biography and Selected Bibliography,” The Shalom Center, last modified July 3, 2005, accessed July 9,

2020, https://theshalomcenter.org/node/1008; Shaul Magid, “Reb Zalman Married Counter Culture to Hasidic Judaism,” the

Forward, July 3, 2014, accessed July 9, 2020, https://forward.com/news/201430/reb-zalman-married-counter-culture-to-hasidicjuda/.


themes.112 Out of that energy, participants created L’OLAM: the Coordinating Committee for

Ecology and Judaism. L’OLAM combined members of Lincoln Square Synagogue with another

synagogue, Ansche Chesed. Jonathan Wolf, the director of Lincoln Square’s community action

program,113 wrote, “All of this organizing, programming and contacting on Environment and

Judaism is leading toward reaching and influencing Jewish organizations and institutions.”114

New York-area Jewish environmentalists viewed their grassroots work as not only for their own

sake, but also to invigorate American Jewry and normalize Jewish environmentalism within the

Jewish establishment.

Shomrei Adamah

After Rabbi Ellen Bernstein received positive feedback and enthusiasm from her Tu

B’Shevat Seder in Philadelphia,115 she launched the first national Jewish environmental

organization, Shomrei Adamah: Guardians of the Earth, or the Stewardship Center, in 1988.116

Bernstein created Shomrei Adamah in response to increasingly evident ecological challenges;

for her, one solution was to reconnect Jews with their environmental roots. In a grant proposal

explaining its purpose and objectives, Shomrei Adamah’s goals were centered around nurturing

a Jewish “land ethic” to enrich Jewish life, contribute to an urgent environmental movement, and

practice active stewardship.117

Similar to the Jewish environmental experiments of the early eighties, the organization

had to build its theological foundation, which precluded it from easily pivoting towards building a

political platform. Bernstein explains that for the “first 10 years of running Shomrei Adamah, so

112 “L’Ovdah Ul’Shomrah: Judaism and the Environment,” conference agenda, March 13, 1988, JW; “Sukat Shalom,” pamphlet, The

New York Metropolitan Shalom Coalition, 1989, JW; “All-Day Conference on Judaism and the Environment,” conference notes, June

25, 1989, JW.

113 “Community Action,” brochure, Lincoln Square Synagogue, n.d., JW.

114 Jonathan Wolf, list of Jewish environmental organizations, n.d., JW.

115 Sandra L. Sherman, “Nature is Star in a Seder for Trees’ Birthday,” The Jewish Exponent, February 12, 1988, JW.

116 Michael D. Schaffer, “A Jewish Mission: Environment,” The Philadelphia Inquirer Metro, February 14, 1989; Ellen Bernstein, “Tu

B’Sh’vat Matters: Celebrating Trees and Nature” (video of Seder, Hampshire College), posted January 9, 2018, accessed

September 18, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KKlkvnegBos.

117 Ellen Bernstein, “A Proposal for the Creation of Shomrei Adamah: The Stewardship Center,” August 12, 1988, JW.


much of the work was about content like developing the ecological messaging in Judaism, what

exactly does Judaism say” about humanity’s relationship to nature. She went on to add that this

involved “mining the tradition and developing ecological philosophy.”118

Detailed by its newsletter the Voice of the Trees, Shomrei Adamah “strengthens and

makes meaningful the work and commitment of Jewish environmentalists.”119 The organization

provided traditional sources, curricula, publications, and green synagogue suggestions for Jews

who either were already hungry for or had just begun to explore Jewish environmentalism.

Shomrei Adamah developed these educational resources for its affiliate groups, like L’OLAM,

spread across the United States, Canada, and even England.120 As Shomrei Adamah situated

Jewish environmental activists in a larger movement, it tasked its network with changing local

attitudes about how Judaism could play a mitigating role in the environmental crisis.

Shomrei Adamah distinguished itself from earlier Jewish environmental groups by

creating inroads into the broader Jewish community. It amassed a membership of 3,000 given

the dearth of previous channels for Jewish environmental engagement.121 Seidenberg voices

that Shomrei Adamah had the first “institutional backing” of any Jewish environmental

undertaking.122 The Stewardship Center notably acquired support from the Reform,

Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements along with adherents to Jewish Renewal and

orthodoxy.123 At the same time, Shomrei Adamah retained the support of Jewish environmental

pioneers who were marginalized by the Jewish establishment. Rabbi Dobb opines that at the

organization’s first conference in 1989, Shomrei Adamah was just a “fledging” project, but there

was tangible excitement and commitment from those in the room.124

118 Ellen Bernstein, Zoom interview by the author, September 10, 2020.

119 Voice of the Trees 1, no. 1 (Spring 1991): 1.

120 Ibid., 1-6.

121 Catherine Bell, “The Promise of Land: An Interview with Rabbi Ellen Bernstein,” February 11, 2020, accessed August 26, 2020,


122 Seidenberg, interview.

123 Bernstein, interview; Joseph B. Glaser, letter to Central Conference of American Rabbis, August 1, 1991, EB.

124 Dobb, interview.


Bernstein’s vision and messaging were at the heart of the organization.125 She edited

and contributed to its publications and, to a large extent, initiated the field of Jewish

environmental education.126 Fostering community was integral to her philosophy: “I am

convinced that arrogance and individualism, untempered by community, are at the core of the

ecological crisis.”127 Human connection was crucial to Shomrei Adamah’s approach to resolving

the planetary conundrum, a “crisis of values.”128 Another hallmark of Bernstein’s work was her

focus on creativity and the arts as a method of engaging people. Modeled after an all-species

parade in New Mexico, Bernstein led a one-thousand-person march for Earth Day from the

Philadelphia Zoo to Memorial Hall. Because Earth Day 1990 also fell on Yom HaShoah

(Holocaust Remembrance Day), Shomrei Adamah put together a caterpillar-themed float. Kids

dressed up in butterfly costumes to commemorate and allude to I Never Saw Another Butterfly,

a collection of poetry written by children at Theresienstadt, a concentration camp.129

Following the intensifying environmental spirit of the seventies and eighties, Bernstein

created a Jewish environmental organization on a national scale that addressed nationwide

calls for Jewish communal involvement in the environmental movement.

* * *

Jewish environmentalism started from short articles and peripheral conversations in the

late 1960s and early 1970s and developed into conferences and formalized organizations by the

end of the 1980s. American Jews drew inspiration from current events, environmentalism, and

Jewish teachings to create a new way of practicing Judaism. For some American Jews, their

Jewish identities became inseparable from their environmental expressions.

125 Vicki Brower, “Earth Sabbaths and Eco-Kosher,” Utne Reader, no. 58 (July/ August 1993).

126 Ellen Bernstein and Honey Vizer, Greening the Holidays (Wyncote, PA: Shomrei Adamah, 1989); David E. S. Stein, ed. A

Garden of Choice Fruits (Wyncote: PA, Shomrei Adamah, 1991); Ellen Bernstein and Dan Fink, Let the Earth Teach You Torah

(Philadelphia, PA: Shomrei Adamah, 1992); Review of Let the Earth Teach You Torah by Ellen Bernstein and Dan Fink, Central

Conference of American Rabbis News Letter 39, no. 1 (n.d.), EB; Rahel Musleah, “Reverence for Earth: A Jewish Tradition,”

Publishers Weekly, September 21, 1992.

127 Voice of the Trees 3, no. 1 (Fall 1993): 5.

128 Voice of the Trees 1, no. 1 (Spring 1991): 1.

129 L.E. Scott, “Under Brilliant Sky, 1,000 marchers affirm commitment to Mother Earth,” Jewish Exponent 187, no. 17 (April 27,

1990); Michael D. Schaffer, “Earth Day Revisited,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, no. 113 (April 23, 1990), EB; Ari L. Goldman,

“Holocaust and Earth Day,” The New York Times, April 21, 1990.


Chapter 3: “A Tree of Life”1: Evaluating the Movement

In the 1970s and 1980s, American Jews began to take environmental ideas and spin

them to reflect their culture and life experiences. Politically engaged American Jews became

concerned about a particular set of environmentally adjacent issues that aligned with their

communal values and philosophies. Environmentalism became a malleable framework for

reinterpreting Jewish laws that had existed since medieval times. Jewish environmentalists

explored how preexisting traditions could adopt ecological elements.

In this chapter, I will evaluate the movement’s accomplishments, challenges, and

intricacies. While chapter two focused on documenting the evolution of Jewish environmental

ideas and institutions piece-by-piece, this chapter will take a birds-eye-view to look at the

interconnections and interplay of Jewish environmentalists, their various organizations, and

broader social and political issues that shaped the late-twentieth-century United States. This

chapter weaves back and forth between the 1970s and 1980s because these trends and my

analysis are relevant to both decades.

As Judaism and environmentalism increasingly overlapped, Jewish environmentalists

applied spiritual backing and religious grounding to their newfound community while creating

eco-Judaic organizations from scratch. Nonetheless, superimposing modern ecotheologies onto

age-old practices was a fraught process. Although Jewish environmentalists juggled competing

tensions from inside and outside the community, Jewish environmentalism was an important

way in which American Jews drew connections between their long-standing traditional beliefs

and contemporary politics in the latter half of the twentieth century.

1 Proverbs 3:17-18.


The Identity of the Jewish Environmentalist

The first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, was a pivotal moment for young activists and the

larger environmental movement.2 For third-generation American Jews that attended college in

the seventies and eighties, Earth Day was a way to protest, advocate, and incorporate

environmental concerns into their lives. Rabbi David Seidenberg, ecotheologist and teacher of

Hasidic-inspired, egalitarian prayer, flashes back to how the social context of American

environmentalism and do-it-yourself Judaism inspired his environmental philosophies and his

journey of becoming more religious: “when I came into that way of thinking that was in the time

when the Whole Earth Catalog was just coming out and the first Earth Day happened. So, I

guess I was part of the zeitgeist…or part of that awakening.”3 National events like Earth Day

stimulated conversations in the Jewish community about a Jewish approach to

environmentalism. According to Rabbi Gerald Serotta, a vegetarian, retired interfaith leader, and

co-creator of the modern Tu B’Shevat Seder, Jewish environmentalism “came indirectly from

other things that were going on in society, so there’s an Earth day. Is there a Jewish perspective

on concern for Earth Day? Those are the questions we started to ask.”4 For many young,

politically involved American Jews, Earth Day was an impetus for their exploration of Judaism.

For Jews who had experiences in nature, Jewish environmental thought was a logical

progression. Rabbi Daniel Swartz, executive director of the Coalition on the Environment and

Jewish Life (COEJL), explains who participated in the movement: “Judaism played this role in

their life, but it may not have been very central. They had the environment as a central path.”5

For example, Rabbi Ellen Bernstein, founder of Shomrei Adamah, notes how her environmental

journey as a biologist and river rafting guide led her back to Judaism: “I founded Shomrei

2 Adam Rome, The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-In Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation, 1st ed. (New York:

Hill and Wang, 2013).

3 David Mevorach Seidenberg, Zoom interview by the author, September 8, 2020.

4 Gerald Serotta, Zoom interview by the author, August 20, 2020.

5 Daniel Swartz, Zoom interview by the author, October 8, 2020.


Adamah because I was also looking for a place to hang my hat Jewishly.”6 Over a decade later,

Adventure Rabbi Jamie Korngold was hiking in the Grand Canyon when she first considered

creating an organization that would utilize the outdoors for spiritual experiences.7 For Bernstein

and Korngold, it was easy to see how surrounding nature could contribute to religious practice.

Many Jewish environmentalists got engaged with the American environmental

movement before they connected to their faith, while other leaders of the movement recognized

the importance of Judaism and environmentalism in their lives at the same time. These

American Jews came of age at a time when innovating Jewish practices and incorporating

environmentalism into their daily life seemed highly plausible. The environmental piece and the

Jewish piece “were never separable” for Swartz or Seidenberg.8 In a similar vein, Rabbi Fred

Scherlinder Dobb, rabbi at Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation and chair of COEJL,

expounds that there was not a “bifurcation for me, between the Jewish and the ecological

identity.” Dobb justifies this connection: “Being an environmentalist for me is, first and foremost,

the values of justice and sustainability—justice in the human realm, sustainability in the

ecological realm. And what are those if not core Jewish values?”9 As Jews dug deeper into

Judaism to apply Jewish values and ideas to the present day, they increasingly found overlap

between religion and ecology.

The early Jewish environmental movement focused on similar issues as the mainstream

environmental movement but conceptualized what the root of the ecological crisis was

differently. To recapitulate, whereas Lynn White used lines in Genesis as evidence of the

problems in Judaism and Christianity, Jewish environmentalists saw the Genesis story as a

lesson that could inform how society should work to repair the rift between the human and

nonhuman world. Bernstein views society’s problem as hinging on the parable of how Eve took

6 Ellen Bernstein, Zoom interview by the author, September 10, 2020.

7 Both Bernstein and Korngold came to these realizations in the Grand Canyon. Jamie Korngold, Zoom interview by the author,

October 6, 2020.

8 Swartz, interview.

9 Fred Scherlinder Dobb, Zoom interview by the author, November 10, 2020.


the apple from the tree in Eden. Bernstein thus frames the problem as a spiritual crisis of “the

human condition.”10 Rabbi Arthur Waskow, radical Jewish activist and founder of the Shalom

Center, emphasizes another angle of the story from the Garden of Eden: Jewish

environmentalism sought “to heal the crucial split between Adam and ‘Adamah’…the words are

as intertwine[d] as the reality is.”11 Adam, the first human, derives from the word Adamah, that

is, the earth. Waskow uses the Hebrew language to suggest how humanity and nature were

similar, although American society viewed them as a binary. These perspectives demonstrate

how Jewish environmentalists define the scope of their work and approach the planetary crisis.

A Grassroots Structure

The history of ideas, politics, and activism created the framework for Jewish

environmentalism as described in chapter two but so did more prosaic matters of institution

building. Organizations developed their location, mission, and marketing depending on where

American Jews lived and worked, who was willing to fund their initiatives, and what messaging

was most effective. American Jewish environmentalism emerged as a grassroots movement.

Jewish environmentalists generally concentrated in Jewish activist enclaves across the

United States; participation in eco-Jewish organizations was contingent on living near the

Jewish environmental network. These hubs did not develop by accident. Most locations were in

proximity to a university and large city but had access to nature. Environmentalists gathered

around Jewish institutions such as synagogues, Jewish Community Centers, university Hillel

houses, or local branches of the Jewish Federation (the philanthropic heart of Jewish life) for

members, space, and funding. The suburb of Somerville, Massachusetts became one such site

because of the cluster of rabbis from Havurat Shalom and academics living in Boston. In

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the Mount Airy neighborhood was vital to the formation of Jewish

10 Bernstein, interview.

11 Arthur Waskow, Zoom interview by the author, July 30, 2020.


environmental groups like the Shalom Center and Shomrei Adamah. Mount Airy housed the

Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) and the Germantown Jewish Centre. Meanwhile,

the strong presence of people who identified with Jewish Renewal gave cause for ritual

innovations while the Schuylkill River’s contamination gave cause for activism. While

Washington DC was the spot for the movement’s advocacy branch, New York City (NYC) was a

site for theological developments. It had an abundance of Jews; plus, it housed Lincoln Square

Synagogue, a progressive Orthodox shul, and the New York Havurah, while Rutgers University

was nearby. For many years, Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA) was based out of

the founder Jonathan Wolf’s NYC apartment, where he hosted Shabbat dinners through

potlucks and requested that people come early to set up and stay after to clean up.12

Location was also deterministic of which type of work local Jewish environmental groups

prioritized. Although organizing activism was often dependent on creating eco-philosophies,

some groups tended towards one of those two approaches. In Washington DC efforts focused

on advocating for energy conservation because groups that lobbied for federal policies like

American Jewish Committee and the Religious Action Center (RAC) were based there.

Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, Rabbi Everett Gendler, a pacifist, conservationist, and advocate

of organic farming, changed Jewish prayers and holidays in part because he participated in

Havurat Shalom, which emphasized innovations to Jewish spirituality and community.

Committees like L’OLAM formed in the late eighties in New York City to resolve ecological

issues perpetuated by their local synagogues. They encouraged synagogues to use recycled

paper and remove single-use plastics from onegs (informal gatherings on Shabbat, usually

including food).13 Some Jewish environmental groups had a less clear-cut division between

advocacy and theology, but there was pressure to proceed one way or the other.

12 “Vegetarian Shabbat,” invitation, 1981, JW.

13 Voice of the Trees 1, no. 1 (Spring 1991): 1, 6; Voice of the Trees 2, no. 2 (Winter 1992): 1, 5; “Shomrei Adamah: A Jewish

Resource Center for the Environment,” pamphlet, n.d., JW; Barry Commoner, “Non-Disposable Kiddush Proposal,” L’OLAM, July

10, 1990, JW.


The creation of a national organization helped grow the network of Jewish

environmentalists out of these smaller groups, but it led to more rigidity in what each group was

able to do. Shomrei Adamah attempted to capitalize on the existing energy of religious

environmentalists on the East Coast while connecting unaffiliated Jews across North America

who found the movement’s spiritual and political objectives exciting. However, the local and

national groups did not act collectively. The switch from having a bottom-up organizational

structure to a top-down style was not a smooth process.

Bernstein faced the push and pull of what various people wanted from a Jewish

environmental organization in the late eighties. Shomrei Adamah took on an educational focus,

even though some wanted guidance for advocacy.14 Jews who cared about the environment

were excited to engage with this topic, perhaps for the first time in a religious setting, so they

asked a lot of Shomrei Adamah. Rather than overextending herself into places that were not her

area of interest or expertise, Bernstein reevaluated what organization she could run: “I just had

to step back and realize what my own strengths were and what I could and couldn’t do, so I

think right in the beginning, that was a major challenge.”15

Shomrei Adamah started with a hybrid model of an umbrella organization with local

groups, but the relationship fractured after Shomrei Adamah made its mission more

educationally oriented. In his encyclopedia entry, Seidenberg elaborated on that decision’s

repercussions: regional groups like the Shomrei Adamah chapter of Greater Washington DC

and L’OLAM “continued their activist work, but the tension between local groups and Bernstein’s

organization kept resources from being developed and utilized in a unified and cooperative

way.”16 Shomrei Adamah took the lead on theological writings, but the gap in communication

and teamwork with the smaller organizations and the larger organization created friction.

14 Catherine Bell, “The Promise of Land: An Interview with Rabbi Ellen Bernstein,” February 11, 2020, accessed August 26, 2020,

https://jwa.org/blog/promise-land-interview-rabbi-ellen-bernstein; Bernstein, interview.

15 Bernstein, interview.

16 The Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, s.v. “Jewish Environmentalism in North America,” by David Seidenberg, accessed June

23, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1093/acref/9780199754670.001.0001.


Bernstein wanted to dig deeper into ecotheology and prevent mission creep rather than repeat

the mistakes of prior groups who tried to do too much, which was unsustainable in the long run.

Jewish environmental organizations also had to rein in how radical they wanted to be to

secure financial support for their groups and events. Funding within the Jewish community for

environmental programs was often tied to Jewish continuity.17 Organizational leaders utilized

ecology as a mechanism to bring Jews who were not involved in communal life back to

Judaism. Even if Jewish environmentalists started with big ideas, they whittled their demands

down to make their organization palatable for funders with varying political affiliations.

Once again, the push for domestically produced energy during the seventies and

eighties overtook the desire for clean energy sources. Jewish environmentalists not only

advocated publicly for renewable energy sources but also advocated for the expansion of

nuclear energy and fossil fuels at home. Waskow adds that even deliberating about those

energy sources created tensions given that some of the institutional funding came from people

who made their income off of oil and natural gas companies or investments.18 According to

Seidenberg, groups shied away from topics such as “consumerism, capitalism, classism,

and…Eretz Yisrael” (Israel) to prevent any communal backlash.19 Consumerism and capitalism

created the conditions for funders to earn money and then donate that money. Plus, the Jewish

community had a strong attachment to Israel. Jewish groups talked about Israel but chiefly in a

positive light. Groups like New Jewish Agenda (NJA) faced an uphill battle in disseminating a

more balanced position towards Israel. Even though NJA’s Energy and Environment committee,

like most other committees, had no crossover with the committee on the Middle East, their

funding quickly dried up because the committees fell under the same organization.20 Jewish

environmentalists were creative and groundbreaking in the development of their ideas, but they

17 Seidenberg, interview.

18 Waskow, interview.

19 Seidenberg, interview.

20 Ezra Berkley Nepon, “Why Did NJA Shut Down?” n.d., accessed February 24, 2021, https://newjewishagenda.net/njas-story/whydid-



did not have complete autonomy to vocalize the systemic issues that contributed to

environmental harm. As a result, Jewish environmental organizations diluted their messaging in

order to retain funding and keep operating.

Groups who received funding from outside the Jewish community were able to execute

their ideas with less pushback, even though they still had to abide by the Jewish establishment’s

unspoken rules. From an environmental standpoint, the Jewish movement raised awareness

and attracted the participation of more people in advocacy work. Bernstein explains that “in the

beginning, I got lots of money…to engage Jews in the environment. You know, my first money

coming from non-Jewish sources, people understood that what I was doing was reaching a

target; [it] was target marketing.”21 Although Jews were a minority, environmental philanthropists

tried to reach different groups, so Jewish environmental initiatives were beneficial to the larger

society and not just the Jewish community.

Molding traditional Judaic thought into a new ecological praxis was intensive work, so it

took dedication and time to develop, as documented in chapter two. Swartz explains how a

select few were able to engage with more expansive Jewish environmental interpretations:

“They were finding that Jewish connection [to environmentalism] in…the language of text, which

you know is this beautiful, wonderful tradition of the oceans of Jewish text, but it’s an

intimidating thing if you didn’t grow up swimming in that, knowing how to swim in those texts.”22

While environmentalists were able to easily envision some of the basic connections between

Judaism and environmentalism, Jews without any previous exposure to environmental ideas

were slower to accept such relationships. Swartz also notes that creating new environmental

philosophies required significant training and understanding of complex Jewish texts, and most

Jews were not well versed in Jewish commentaries. As such, the leaders of the Jewish

21 Bernstein, interview.

22 Swartz, interview.


environmental movement tended to be aspiring rabbis or scholars who came of age during the

environmental movement’s rise.

Despite the expansion of the Jewish environmental network, the success of certain

organizations, resolutions, and initiatives rested on a small number of individuals. Swartz

remembers that resolutions frequently passed in the Reform movement on the environment

when “no one showed up from the other side. …Folks who would oppose environmental

legislation or resolutions just weren’t paying attention.”23 Because of mere happenstance, a few

people could convince the General Assembly to vote in their favor on the environment when

dissenters were not in the room. In general, Jewish environmentalists built their own networks of

people they met in other Jewish organizations, and they worked almost exclusively with each

other for years—not out of a desire for exclusivity but because there were so few people that

were like-minded about Jewish environmentalism. The spread of Jewish environmental ideas

was a gradual process, facilitated by personal and informal relationships. Most Jewish

environmentalists came to these ideas through interactions with other, similarly minded people.

In my oral history interviews, interviewees brought up the same people time and again when

enumerating who was involved in groups and conferences. The same Jewish environmentalists

were on each other’s membership rosters; they served on each other’s boards; they connected

their mutual friends.

The lack of a broad base and the overreliance on the same key participants was harmful

to the movement’s progress. There is little evidence as to whether the Jewish Environmental

Project, based at Rutgers, continued after 1982 when Serotta accepted a position at another

university’s Hillel. The conference’s attendees already bought into Jewish environmental ideals,

but the absence of leadership hastened its ending.24 When Bernstein ran Shomrei Adamah, she

immersed herself in the work: “I was pretty much married to Shomrei Adamah, was full time, you

23 Swartz, interview.

24 Serotta, interview.


know, 80 hours a week.”25 Thus, Shomrei Adamah ended after Bernstein decided to transition to

writing a book. One of the successes and challenges of the Jewish environmental movement

was its definition by its members, so when its members stepped down from leadership

positions, those organizations did not continue. Trees for Vietnam also was indicative of this

problem since it ended abruptly with the Yom Kippur War in Israel, meaning that there was not a

great deal of support. JVNA and the Shalom Center were notable exceptions because they

were able to pivot and remain relevant even as the importance of certain environmental issues

oscillated year to year.

In addition to the challenge of gaining supporters, American Jewish environmentalism

faced vociferous and varied criticism. American Jews wanted to develop their activism based on

Judaism, yet scholars paradoxically criticize American Jewry as a monolith for both not doing

enough environmentally and for pursuing activism without significant religious grounding.

Historians of American Judaism and American environmentalism tend to view Jewish

involvement with the environmental movement as lagging behind the mainstream American

environmental movement despite similar periodization.26 On the other hand, Jewish

environmentalists today chastise the early Jewish movement for its lack of textual

engagement.27 Groups like Trees for Life employed a few Jewish values and laws in their

mission statement, but Jewish environmentalists and their organizations had to start

somewhere. Thus, neither of those critiques is properly historicized. Given that the seminal

works on Jewish environmental ethics did not even arrive until the nineties, the Jewish

environmental movement must be evaluated on different terms. The slippage between Jewish

environmentalists’ goals and their achievements exposed the opportunities and challenges that

they faced.

25 Bernstein, interview.

26 Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, “Judaism,” in The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Ecology, ed. Roger S. Gottlieb (Oxford: Oxford

University Press, 2006), 25-64; Mark Stoll, Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism (New

York: Oxford University Press, 2015), ch.8, https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190230869.001.0001.

27 Seidenberg, interview.


Judaism in the Modern Moment

Jewish scholars found that Judaic texts had a plethora of responses on how to treat the

land, but those laws applied to an agricultural society. Underlying the creation of Jewish

environmentalism was the challenge of making Judaism’s environmental tenets applicable for

the late 20th century. Certain environmental issues like energy were easier to address, yet

Jewish environmentalists could not establish a unified front because of the ideological divisions

within the American Jewish community from denominational differences to varying ideas about

the role of women in Judaism. At the same time, the debates, conversations, and ideas that

structured Jewish environmentalism were informed by controversial environmental topics like

population growth and by the delicate balances of interfaith work. These markers illuminate how

Jewish environmentalists navigated American Jewry and the American environmental

movement in the 1970s and 1980s.

Denominational Divides

The composition of the Jewish environmental movement typified the denominational

divides between and crossover within American Jewish sects. To view the Jewish community as

a singular entity would be an understatement and an oversimplification. The concept of “Jewish

unity” itself is laden with competing assumptions and arguments about who should give up

which views or beliefs to come together. Evonne Marzouk, a former legislative assistant for

COEJL and the RAC, founder of the Orthodox environmental group Canfei Nesharim, and

bureaucrat at the Environmental Protection Agency, compares her outlook from when she ran a

Jewish unity conference to her cynicism after several years of work in the Jewish community on

environmentalism: “this is like a much bigger Jewish problem of figuring out, how to take a

united stand about something and be able to present it, you know, as a Jewish community on


something that’s important.”28 Marzouk touches on the issue of how to adjudicate which pieces

of Jewish environmentalism were Jewish and which were areligious: what was distinctly Jewish

to some might not have been Jewish enough for others. More observant Jews continued to

reject environmentalism as a plausible part of Judaism; they thought environmentalism was too

close to paganism. Orthodox Jews held Jewish law to a higher standard than say Reform Jews,

who had already utilized their politics to inform their Judaism and, in turn, were more likely to

become involved. The Jewish environmental movement found “fertile soil, so to speak, in parts

of the American Jewish community,” says Dobb.29 Members of Reconstructionist, Reform,

Conservative, and Renewal movements were most commonly found in Jewish

environmentalism during the eighties. In the early years, many respondents to Lynn White were

ironically Orthodox, and some of those Orthodox Jews actually agreed with Lynn White that

Judaism held humanity in higher esteem than surrounding nature but, unlike White, did not

consider this problematic.

The issue of sectarian ideologies became more pronounced with the institutionalization

of Jewish environmentalism. There was a pressing question of where to locate the

organizations. When Waskow founded the Shalom Center in 1983, he pointed out that the

decision of where to put the organization had the potential to cause friction and prevent people

from other denominations from joining. He determined that the least polemical place to put it

would be at RRC: “If you put it at the Reform seminary, the Conservative [Jew]s won’t play

because they’re in competition. If you put it at the Conservative seminary, the Reform [Jew]s

won’t play because [of] the competition.”30 RRC was small enough that it would not impede

either of the other denomination’s recruitment for rabbinical students or members. The

basement of RRC also housed Shomrei Adamah initially. Bernstein started it there in 1988

because of the cheap rent and the affirmation of support from the head of the leadership. The

28 Evonne Marzouk, Zoom interview by the author, September 11, 2020.

29 Dobb, interview.

30 Waskow, interview.


Stewardship Center still moved offices as soon as it could afford to because Bernstein declares,

“the world at that time was so denominationally sensitive that if you were in one denomination,

other people weren’t interested.”31

Community involvement at large was issue dependent because Jewish

environmentalists were a fringe group in the seventies. Since many of the early Jewish

environmentalists started out organizing around leftist causes, their environmental focus hinged

on the pro-peace movement during the Vietnam War and nuclear non-proliferation during the

Cold War. While Jewish environmentalists continued to speak philosophically about the concern

for the systems that exploited nature, they tied those ideas to concrete subjects in the political

realm. This practice was divisive in that it kept denominations from coming on board because

not all issues had broad appeal. For example, issues like exploitation of Alaska’s oil reserves

did not resonate as a denominational concern.32 Acting on that topic multilaterally would have

fueled antagonism among Jews with conservative political opinions. Gaining support from

diverse individuals rather than denominations proved more successful because people could

mobilize around causes that resonated with them.

Members of various denominations could work together to an extent as long as the work

was not aligned with a singular denomination. Shomrei Adamah thrived as a nondenominational,

pluralistic organization. Bernstein received immense support across the Jewish

community: “the real beauty of the work was that I had these amazing allies in three

denominations who acted as sort of communication channels.”33 In a letter to Reform

congregational rabbis, Joseph Glaser, the head of the Central Conference of American Rabbis,

asked for a “call to commitment,” a heartfelt plea for each of them to join Shomrei Adamah.34

Still, Jewish environmentalists had difficulty gaining widespread appeal on their ideas.

31 Bernstein, interview.

32 Dobb, interview.

33 Bernstein, interview.

34 Letter from Joseph B. Glaser to the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Shomrei Adamah, August 1, 1991, EB.


Gender Disparity

Jewish environmentalism brought together an urgent and contemporary issue—

environmentalism—with traditional Jewish ideas. But other aspects of the contemporary also

shaped Jewish environmentalism, including inequality between men and women, even amid a

nascent feminist movement. Divisions persisted over who could participate in the Jewish

environmental movement, whose ideas were of value, and who assumed positions of leadership

because of external barriers.

Up until the mid-to-late 1990s, Jewish environmentalists were overwhelmingly male, and

this gender disproportion was reflective of Jewish rabbinic and lay leadership thus far. Secondwave

feminism was just mobilizing in the 1970s, so American Jewry was only starting to

scrutinize Jewish gender roles and what egalitarianism could look like. It was not until 1972 that

Sally Priesand became the first woman rabbi in the United States. In general, women had a

distinct role from men in Jewish tradition; women did not study the Torah or become scholars of

Jewish texts. Serotta was part of the New York Havurah, which led the charge of the Jewish

feminist movement. He ruminates on his perception of the gender makeup of Jewish


Once I moved to Washington, [DC] the local chapter of Shomrei Adamah was not

noticeably unbalanced at all. I mean, I’d say [it] was pretty equal, but as I think about that

conference at Rutgers, it just reflected the general scholars who’d written about [Jewish

environmentalism] were all men because women weren’t going into Jewish studies and

some of them were spending more time on gender studies.35

The unspoken piece of Serotta’s claim was that a Jewish woman could not study Jewish

thought as a serious academic scholar at the time. Serotta’s observation also elucidates where

the disparity lay. Jewish women were a part of the Jewish environmental movement but were

not leaders during the seventies and eighties. For other male Jewish environmentalists, the

divide was more glaring. Dobb brings up “the embarrassment” of the lack of Jewish women

35 Serotta, interview.


represented in Jewish environmental leadership roles and is grateful for what he describes as

“the power of younger women in this movement to overcome mind-boggling patriarchal legacies

in who were the ‘go-to Jewish environmental leaders.’” Dobb goes on: “A number of us long

lamented the male-heavy composition of that founding group, with Ellen Bernstein as the

notable exception.”36

Bernstein was the “notable exception” to the lack of women in the Jewish environmental

movement, although she faced similar challenges. In an interview with the Jewish Women’s

Archive, she said, “Throughout my career, I wasn’t always taken seriously—was this because I

was a woman, or because of my approach to Judaism, or because I was different?”37 Bernstein

qualified her experience by pointing out that her innovation was possibly what bothered others,

not just her gender. Male Jewish environmentalists also had difficulty gaining support in the

community, but when comparing her experiences with others, it would be wrong to attribute the

difficulties she faced to her intrinsic leadership style. Rather, there was a pattern in how existing

rabbinic, professional, and lay leadership—almost exclusively made up of men—treated Jewish


There were several Jewish women engaged in environmentalism during the seventies

that were instrumental in the progression of the movement but whose contributions scholars

often obscure because the movement did not view them as leaders.38 Seidenberg notes how

Jewish conversations around vegetarianism have repeatedly left out Dr. Roberta Kalechofsky, a

preeminent animal rights and Jewish vegetarian activist and author.39 Moreover, Joan

Ehrenfeld, an ecologist at Rutgers, was just as involved in the Jewish Environmental Project

and in organizing the conference as her husband David was. She even was a co-author of at

36 Dobb, interview.

37 Bell.

38 “Jewish Women in Environmental Activism,” Jewish Women’s Archive, accessed July 31, 2020,


39 Seidenberg, interview.


least one article about Jewish environmental ethics.40 Furthermore, Mary Gendler was a

prominent Jewish feminist, ecologically motivated vegetarian, and gardener. However, people

credit her husband Everett alone with Jewish environmental ideas that came, in part, from the

couple’s decision to farm and grow their food. While Mary was technically a part of Havurat

Shalom as a Rebbetzin (wife of a rabbi) she found it to be very out of touch with her religious

practice and instead she began writing articles about Jewish matriarchs. She also contributed a

piece to the Jewish Catalog.41 Mary was one such example of a woman who melded her ideas

about womanhood and Jewish peoplehood with her fascination for the outdoors.

While Jewish women were interested in contributing to the interdisciplinary scholarship

of women’s studies, they also mixed those passions with their environmental work. Jewish

women brought their feminist perspective into their environmental activism. This was a common

practice among progressive, male Jewish environmentalists as well. Dobb notes that feminism

did affect the ideologies and practices of Jewish environmentalists: “for a long time within the

liberal parts of Jewish environmentalism, including Ellen and both Arthurs, Waskow and Green,

and myself as much as possible, the ‘eco’ has always been ecofeminist as well.”42 The

presence of ecofeminist ideas within the Jewish environmental movement affirms how evolving,

popular ideas continued to shape Jewish environmentalism. Ecofeminism, the critique of

modern society that equated bodily and earthly harm, provided an environmental outlet for the

rebellion against patriarchal Judaism.43

Ecofeminism was not wholly Jewish, but Jewish feminist and feminist interpretations of

women’s role in society and the environment inspired this ideology. During the seventies,

women such as Starhawk (formerly Miriam Simos) fashioned themselves as “Jewish

40 David Ehrenfeld and Joan G. Ehrenfeld, “Some Thoughts on Nature and Judaism” (1985), in Judaism and Environmental Ethics,

ed. Martin Yaffe (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2001), 283-285.

41 Everett Gendler and Mary Gendler, interview by Jayne Guberman, “Jewish Counterculture History Project,” October 20,

2016, Oral Histories 22, https://repository.upenn.edu/jcchp_oralhistories/22.

42 Dobb, interview.

43 Stoll, 253.


neopagans,” according to the historian Mark Stoll.44 Starhawk started as a pro-peace activist

during the Vietnam War and then formed a Goddess-worshipping circle, which retained

elements of Jewish rituals but veered from a monotheistic path.45 Many ecofeminists had Jewish

heritage but left the Jewish community after becoming disillusioned with women’s limited roles

in Judaism. Other ecofeminists like Marge Piercy, a poet, found their way back to the religion as

some sects created more flexibility for how women could practice Judaism because women

demanded to be afforded the same opportunities as Jewish men.46 Still, ecofeminists’

environmental activism was not unequivocally Jewish, and the absence of their involvement

suggests at sexism within Jewish environmentalism.

Population Theories

Just as Jewish environmentalism was on the margins of American Judaism during the

twentieth century, yet never entirely separate from it, so too was Jewish environmentalism’s

relationship to the American environmental movement. Jewish environmentalists wrestled with

many of the same debates and controversies as did secular environmentalists, including on the

subject of overpopulation. The population movement and in particular the group Zero Population

Growth (ZPG) advocated for the world to reproduce at a rate of population replacement to

prevent overburdening the planet. Serotta remembers that population control created “a big

debate in the Jewish community. I wrote a paper on it while I was in rabbinical school on the

Jewish responsibility for Zero Population Growth. There was a sense that, I mean we would just

use up the resources of the world if we didn’t manage population growth.”47

In the 1970s, environmentalists considered whether planetary resources would run out

because of the exponentially growing population. Yet for some environmentalists who were

44 Stoll, 253.

45 Today, Goddess worship has come back to Judaism, and women can even be ordained within it, so the Goddess movement

never really veered too far away from Judaism.

46 Terry McManus, “Bio of Marge Piercy,” accessed February 22, 2021, https://margepiercy.com/bio.

47 Serotta, interview.


Neo-Malthusians, population growth was the most urgent environmental issue of the decade.

MIT researchers Donella and Dennis Meadows articulated the argument that a finite planet

could not sustain the modern world’s accelerating use of resources in The Limits to Growth.

Published in 1972, the book was the product of a multinational academic group called “the Club

of Rome.” The Club of Rome’s researchers believed that more and more people consuming

more and more resources would inevitably lead to widespread hunger and, eventually, societal


Members of the Jewish community fell on various sides of the spectrum on the

population issue.49 Sometimes Jewish Americans’ views about population control sprang from

their religious beliefs, and sometimes they were incidental. Jews were well represented in

academia, so it was likely a coincidence that three opposing thinkers on population growth were

Jewish. In 1968, Paul Ehrlich, a biologist and later founder of the ZPG organization, published

his book, The Population Bomb, detailing the problem.50 According to historian Thomas

Robertson, Ehrlich had “anti-growth views” that attacked the comfortable, “middle-class” lifestyle

that people aspired to.51 On the other side of the debate, Barry Commoner, a biologist, saw

population growth as a minor concern, compared to other environmental issues. He focused on

raising awareness about potential toxins in everyday products, water and waste hazards to

public health, and the harmful effects of nuclear weapons.52 Although Jewish environmentalists

frequently cited and quoted Commoner in the materials that they sent out,53 neither of the two

biologists’ views had distinctly Jewish elements. Ehrlich was wary of religion dictating population

growth.54 In fact, Robertson details how Ehrlich agreed with Lynn White’s thesis that harmful,

48 Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III, The Limits to Growth: A Report for the

Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind (New York: Universe Books, 1972).

49 Samuel McCracken, “The Population Controllers,” Commentary, May 1, 1972; B. Bruce-Briggs, “Against the Neo-Malthusians,”

Commentary, July 1, 1974; Rudolf Klein, “Growth and Its Enemies,” Commentary, June 1, 1972.

50 Paul R. Ehrlich, The Population Bomb, rev. ed. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1971).

51 Thomas Robertson, The Malthusian Moment: Global Population Growth and the Birth of American Environmentalism (New York:

Rutgers University Press, 2012), 180, 183.

52 Ibid., 181-182.

53 Commoner, “Non-Disposable Kiddush.”

54 Robertson, 183.


dominant “Western attitudes toward nature originate in the Judeo-Christian tradition.”55 Even

with the rise of the pro-choice movement in the seventies that rejected restrictive religious views

on a woman’s autonomy over her body, it was atypical for someone who identified as Jewish to

wholeheartedly agree with White based on population debates. Another perspective came from

a free-market economist and American Jew, Julian Simon. In 1980 Simon made a bet with

Ehrlich over how the price of five different metals would behave during a ten-year period. Simon

won the bet. While Ehrlich thought that raw materials were finite and would become costlier as

they ran out, Simon believed that society would find undiscovered reserves or alternatives to

keep the price low.56 According to his obituary in the Economist, Simon’s economic liberalism,

rather than his religious beliefs, informed his view that an increasing population would not harm

the planet.57

Ehrlich, Commoner, and Simon all approached the population issue independent of their

Jewish identities while other American Jews drew connections between population politics and

personal beliefs. In the broader Jewish community, this controversial environmental issue

sparked conversations about how Jews fit into the overall picture. The kinds of arguments that

Jewish environmentalists espoused paralleled what other minority groups thought at the time.

From the beginning, theories about who shouldered the blame for population growth and how to

control it were fraught with racist and classist ideas. Robertson highlights concerns among

African Americans in the early seventies that conversations about population control could lead

to “‘justification for genocide,’” and that Black Americans’ political strength was in people power.

According to this view, asking African Americans to limit their population growth would further

disempower and disenfranchise a group that had already experienced centuries of oppression

and medical racism.58 American Jews had similar unease about what population decline would

55 Robertson, 147.

56 Paul Sabin, The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).

57 “Julian Simon,” obituary, The Economist, February 19, 1998, accessed February 25, 2021,


58 Robertson, 179.


do to their communities and thus took sides based on the long history of attempts at Jewish

genocide. In 1984, Dr. Richard Schwartz, an early JVNA supporter and environmentalist,

published a book called Judaism and Global Survival, which responded to current events with

Jewish textual perspectives. In his chapter on “Population Growth,” he offered up the main

Jewish communal replies to alarmist views about the global population. Coupled with fears that

assimilation and intermarriage would decimate the Jewish population, the already low birth rate

among American Jews led to fears about what a declining Jewish population would look like.

Some posited that “Since Jews constitute less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the world’s

population, the Jewish contribution to world population growth cannot matter significantly.”59

Even Jewish scholars who cared deeply about reversing environmental degradation like

Norman Lamm—the former head of Yeshiva University—called for Jewish couples to have at

least four children to reach the rate of communal replacement. Others emphasized that Jews

had a “special obligation” to reproduce at high rates because of the millions of Jews killed in the

Holocaust.60 Seidenberg agrees that concerns about population growth did not gain much

traction among Jewish institutions: “there’s such an ideology that we lost six million, so we have

the right to grow as much as we want to replace them.”61 Only 30 years after World War II, ideas

about population size were not amenable to the Jewish establishment, especially given the

presence of Holocaust survivors in American Jewish life.

There were, however, Jews that weighed the global implications of rising numbers of

people equally with Jewish communal priorities. Serotta talks about what it meant that Jews

were calling for members of the community to have more and more kids: “there were a handful

of us arguing [that] we had a responsibility to the broader world. Plus, we thought it was an antifeminist

thing. …There was a bunch of men arguing that Jewish women had to have at least

three children, so that didn’t accord with our early ideas of Jewish feminism, Jewish

59 Richard H. Schwartz, Judaism and Global Survival (New York: Vantage Press, 1984), 133.

60 Ibid., 133.

61 Seidenberg, interview.


egalitarianism.”62 Although proponents of population control alienated minority groups through

discourse about restricting freedoms, opponents told women that they had to have more

children. Serotta also gestures towards the argument that the Jewish community should not

deal with issues that only affected its members.

Other Jews found nuanced ways to encourage decreasing use of resources without

limiting the population itself. Schwartz argued that “There have been false prophecies of Jewish

disappearance in the past,” so there was no need to fixate on increasing or decreasing the birth

rate.63 In a statement of pride, Schwartz hearkened back to how young Jews overcame the

generational divides of the sixties and elder generations’ fears that political and social

movements would draw Jews away from Judaism. Furthermore, in contrast to groups like ZPG,

Schwartz thought that the average energy and resources expended per person were more

worthy issues than the total global population: “I came up with the idea that maybe we should be

ZPIG, Zero Population Impact Growth, which amazingly is z-pig. With pigs not being kosher, it

sort of ties in a little bit, because I felt that the impact can make a difference.”64 In this play on

words, Schwartz wrote about how ZPIG, or “zero pigs,” could be a compelling concept to the

Jewish community: Jews should govern their lives based on the tenets of Jewish law, not just a

kosher diet that rejected pork but also an eco-kosher lifestyle. ZPIG defended the idea that

people and governments should limit their consumption in accordance with their usage and not

solely because they had more people within their borders. At the same time, Schwartz implied

that the revitalization of Jewish life was more important than reproduction. Therefore, he

straddled both sides of the argument.

The sheer number of different positions on population panic within the Jewish

community demonstrates how Jewish environmentalists engaged with the culture and politics of

the age. Jewish Americans who cared deeply about environmental issues confronted

62 Serotta, interview.

63 Schwartz, 135.

64 Richard Schwartz, Zoom interview by the author, July 27, 2020.


overpopulation in some cases as Jews and in some cases as environmentalists; increasingly,

Jewish environmentalists confronted such issues as both.


While Judaism on its own provided paths for connecting people with the environment,

Jewish environmentalism necessitated an interfaith component. Different faith traditions inspired

Jewish scholars, namely Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, founder of Jewish Renewal; Everett

Gendler; and Ellen Bernstein. Jewish environmentalists were able to think about a thousandyear-

old tradition in a new way not only because of the American environmental movement and

the political climate but also because of their forays into other religions. As introduced in chapter

two, Bernstein’s Tu B’Shevat Seder Haggadah, which she calls an “interspiritual” Haggadah,65

cited differing philosophical and scientific perspectives. Bernstein quoted leaders of

environmental and religious schools of thought including, but not limited to, Bill McKibben,

Henry David Thoreau, James Hansen, Lao Tzu, Luther Standing Bear, Arthur Waskow, Rachel

Carson, Rebecca Solnit, and James Baldwin.66 The variety added an element of depth and

legitimacy to Bernstein’s work. In addition to the ways that ideas from other faith traditions

resonated with Bernstein, she hopes that her work will also inspire non-Jews to care about the

planet: “I’ve always been interested in Judaism for the world, Judaism in the marketplace of

ideas. And so for me, my work was not just for Jews. It was always for anyone who [was]

interested in this work.”67 Bernstein wanted to reach people, no matter their religious

background, so her Tu B’Shevat Haggadah alluded to non-Jewish environmental leaders that

people might already be familiar with. This reference point would help Jews and non-Jews alike

65 Bernstein, interview.

66 Ellen Bernstein, A New Year for the Trees: A Tu B’Sh’vat Seder for Everyone (1988; repr., n.p.: Ellen Bernstein, 2017), ii,

accessed July 9, 2020, http://www.ellenbernstein.org/shomrei-adamah.

67 Bernstein, interview.


better understand each section of the convoluted Kabbalistic Seder that was inaccessible to


Beyond finding eco-theological connections with other religions, Jewish

environmentalists assembled alliances with other faith-based groups in their political advocacy.

Swartz breaks down the calculus that Jewish groups went through when deciding whether to

advocate on a federal scale for certain environmental issues. Working with other religious

groups had many benefits: “if you can be part of an interfaith coalition, in some ways there are

many Jews that that is more attractive to than something that is solely Jewish.”69 Even if the

Jewish community framed particular issues in a Jewish light, Jewish advocacy groups hesitated

to take the lead without any allies. Working in isolation on political issues created the potential

for backlash against the Jewish community. Even when it came to supporting Israel, the Jewish

establishment planned its course of action carefully. In the eighties, American Jews living in DC

lobbied through the Interfaith Coalition on Energy so that the Jewish community was not the

only advocate on energy conservation and efficiency.70

* * *

Jewish environmentalism was a part of the reinvention or reinterpretation of old symbols

and practices in Judaism, made relevant for a new generation. Just as young adults at Camp

Ramah redefined when and where Jews in the Conservative movement should wear kippot in

the late sixties and early seventies as mentioned in chapter one, Jewish environmentalists

changed agricultural laws into an ethical model for modern Jewish living. The Americanization of

Tu B’Shevat and anglicization of the Seder, detailed in chapter two, exemplified how holidays

could be modified for a different context. Jewish environmentalists reformulated holidays,

prayers, and rituals but did so in a distinctly Jewish way.

68 Ellen Bernstein, introductory letter to Peri Ez Hadar: The Fruit of the Tree of Splendor, trans. Miles Krassen (Wyncote, PA:

Shomrei Adamah, 1992), accessed July 9, 2020, http://www.ellenbernstein.org/shomrei-adamah.

69 Swartz, interview.

70 David Saperstein, Zoom interview by the author, September 23, 2020.


Jewish environmentalists were able to put a unique spin on American environmentalism.

For the leadership of the Jewish movement, Jewish environmentalism allowed them to be

creative without any restrictions or boundaries on what was authentically Jewish. The work was

meaningful because they were able to make a difference in the community-building of American

Jews along with raising awareness about how humanity affected the surrounding world. Swartz

reiterates a quote that Aldo Leopold said: “You won’t love something that you don’t know, and

you won’t protect something that you don’t love.”71 In 1988, Bernstein shared a similar sentiment

in an interview with the Jewish Exponent after her first Tu B’Shevat Seder: “You have to love

something in order to save it, honor it. Without that love, it just gets destroyed.”72 In both

senses, Swartz and Bernstein saw their work as essential to the humanistic part of

environmentalism. Jewish environmentalists cultivated personal experiences with the

environment to engage more people in the urgent cause. For the participants of the movement,

environmentalism became integral to the identities of many American Jews and reinvigorated

Jews who felt disconnected from their heritage. From a communal standpoint, the movement

demonstrated that Judaism could continually evolve in the late twentieth century and bring Jews

back to religious expression.

71 Swartz, interview.

72 Sandra L. Sherman, “Nature is Star in a Seder for Trees’ Birthday,” The Jewish Exponent, February 12, 1988, JW.



The American Jewish environmental movement, a push for Jewish engagement with

sustainability, steeped itself in both authentically Jewish and deeply Americanized ideas and

practices. Overall, Jewish environmentalists wanted to connect with others who cared about the

environment through a Jewish lens, deepen secular Jews’ relationship to Judaism through the

angle of the environment, and activate the Jewish community into making a difference in the

environment. This organized effort and its syncretic ideology built upon Jewish experiences

outdoors and adopted spiritual and political elements. In this thesis, I have argued that the

historical context, rising environmental consciousness, and assimilationist inclinations allowed

for the rise of American Jewish environmentalism.

While Judaism and environmentalism have always been deeply interconnected, that

overlap became more pronounced with the emergence of Jewish environmentalism in the 1970s

and 1980s. Throughout the history of Jewish thought, scholars wondered about the relationship

between the human and nonhuman world. As Richard Schwartz adamantly claims, “Judaism

has very powerful teachings on environmental sustainability.”1 Prior to the 1970s, there was not

an organized Jewish environmental movement. Some Jews expressed their respect for the

earth but did not necessarily see Judaism and environmentalism as inherently tied together.

When religious scholars called for faith-based communities to take a role in the postwar

American environmental movement, Jewish theologians had to translate lines from scripture

and make Jewish values relevant for the twentieth-century political climate. While Jewish texts

like the Tanakh and rabbinic commentaries contain references to values and laws surrounding

stewardship of the environment, those lines were meant for agricultural societies. Jewish

environmentalists embraced the Written and Oral Torahs but complicated and expanded upon

them to make a more contemporary Judaism.

1 Richard Schwartz, Zoom interview by the author, July 27, 2020.


Recounting the evolution of American Jewish environmentalism reveals the trends in

American Judaism during the late 20th century. Jewish Americans were updating their longstanding

views in ways that reflected various degrees of assimilation, involvement with politics,

and particular issues that concerned them. Celebrating holidays like Tu B’Shevat and holding

services outdoors were just a few of the ways that Jews transformed their practices through

Jewish environmentalism. These changes suggest how Jewish teachings were constantly

adapting to different contexts.

For my research, I surveyed a loose-knit group of people who believed that

environmentalism was the basis for their Judaism as well as people whose Judaism was central

to their environmentalism. Together, these Jewish environmentalists formed organizations for

programming and advocacy, connected through conferences, and bonded over Jewish

environmentalism, which was fundamental to their beliefs and identity. David Saperstein talks

about the intersection of Judaism and environmentalism for him: “It is a matter of justice and a

matter of responsibility that God has called us to care about the generations yet to come.”2

Jewish environmentalism also provides insight into one distinct thread of many in

American environmentalism. Americans generally know that environmentalism stands for

concern for the nonhuman world, although this ideology changes based on time and setting.

Jewish immigrants living in cities in the early 20th century did not have a direct relationship with

natural spaces, but third-generation American Jews were ready to embrace and adapt

environmentalism in the 1970s because of the counterculture and back-to-land movement as

well as their time spent in the suburbs, summer camps, and Israel. The entity of the

“environment” affects all people in one way or another, but it also means that different people

interpret and respond to environmental issues differently. Whereas some environmentalists

cared more about eradicating the use of toxic chemicals, preventing species extinction, or

2 David Saperstein, Zoom interview by the author, September 23, 2020.


protecting mountains, American Jews had a particular set of beliefs and practices that

correlated with specific issues. Energy was one such topic that garnered vast support in the

community because of Israel and geopolitics, yet each Jewish environmentalist prioritized

different subjects based on their denomination and the relative degree of importance they

attributed to living according to traditional Jewish law.

Over the last 50 years, scholars have considered the intersections between religion and

American environmentalism. It is easy to oversimplify American environmentalism and see it as

stretching from Henry David Thoreau to John Muir to Earth Day where it became increasingly

secular but still resonated with ideas about the Divine. However, that is far from the only story of

environmentalism. Nevertheless, historians have not given adequate consideration to the ways

that American Jews interacted with the postwar environmental movement and adapted

philosophies, traditions, and political notions in response to it. In recent years, scholars have

integrated other narratives into historical scholarship but continue to exclude the Jewish angle.

The legacy of American Jewish environmental philosophies and actions from the 1970s

and 1980s looms large in the Jewish community. American Jewish ecology’s intertwinement

with Zionism was a microcosm for how American Jews connected with Israel and how it both

bolstered and complicated Jewish, progressive movements in the United States. Telling this

story is vital to understanding the developments in spiritual practice, religious observance, and

Green Zionism during this tumultuous period in American history. Jewish environmental reinterpretations

of those early teachings continue to expand and take on new meaning. As the

environmental movement has gained greater prominence, Gerald Serotta explains, “the Jewish

community has been reacting to it. And rediscovering we have all these strong textual


3 Gerald Serotta, Zoom interview by the author, August 20, 2020.




Bernstein, Ellen, Zoom interview by the author, September 10, 2020.

Dobb, Fred Scherlinder, Zoom interview by the author, November 10, 2020.

Gendler, Everett, Zoom interview by the author, October 29, 2020.

Havrelock, Rachel, Zoom interview by the author, September 29, 2020.

Korngold, Jamie, Zoom interview by the author, October 6, 2020.

Marzouk, Evonne, Zoom interview by the author, September 11, 2020.

Saperstein, David, Zoom interview by the author, September 23, 2020.

Schwartz, Richard, Zoom interview by the author, July 27, 2020.

Seidenberg, David Mevorach, Zoom interview by the author, September 8, 2020.

Serotta, Gerald, Zoom interview by the author, August 20, 2020.

Swartz, Daniel, Zoom interview by the author, October 8, 2020.

Waskow, Arthur, Zoom interview by the author, July 30, 2020.

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    May 13, 2021 (5:26 pm)

    Having obtained my M.A. I can fully appreciate what usually goes into writing a thesis, from the perspective of being a University student! It took me five years to complete mine, following a T.B.I. (Traumatic Brain Injury) and I can estimate that this thesis that Dr. Richard H. Schwartz, PhD wrote on the beginnings of Jewish environmental and vegetarian activism in the 1970s and 1980s was well thought out, planned, and organized. I liked reading it, and because of being friendly with Richard for dozens of years, can fully appreciate how true the statements are, and applicable today even more so than when it was written! There is no wonder that “history repeats itself” as in light of the coronavirus, it is obvious that a pandemic was not just one of its kind, and unless we get more concerned with the environment, we will not be able to avert another such threat to our existence. Indeed, we need to apply Jewish values to help save our imperiled world. Bravo for writing this excellent thesis, Richard! I am so proud and appreciative of your being able to share it. You are a Mensch of great integrity and accountability and I say כל הכבוד and kudos to you, and one of my fondest recollections is of the animal rights activism in front of what was then called the Prime Grill on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills that you organized, and participated in with Rabbi Jonathan Klein, and where I was dressed up as a giraffe, with shoes that had the design of cloven hooves on them, and the thought of the Rabbis contemplating making this majestic wild and “free” animal “kosher” for Jewish consumption, was such a horrific idea (the neck of this animal is so long that they were debating where to “cut” it, for it to be killed in a Kosher way…) That restaurant went through stages of decline, following this protest. It changed from “meat” (basari) to “milk” (malchic) as far as Kosher designation, and then it ceased to exist, entirely. Would it be that all restaurants become plant based! Amen. Going vegan is not only changing over into “parve” and rethinking just ones dietary lifestyle, but it is indicative also that in order to benefit the environment other ecological, moral, and ethical considerations, naturally, need to happen, as well. I pray that Richard H. Schwartz continues his work, and makes a difference not only to Jews, but all human animals on this planet! The impression I got, when reading this thesis is that anyone can see the logic in the association of ideas of what to do to help heal our planet, and the vegan way of life seems quite the suitable imperative. Soon at Synagogues we read the Torah portion of Beha’alotecha, which has the story of the quail in it. Surely this is an incentive to go vegan, especially in light of the current carnivorous society (anagram-related word coronavirus) because it infers that the plague resulted as a punishment for their gluttony and they were devouring the flesh, or meat of the fowl, called the שליו (Shlav) translated as quail. Graves of lust is where they were buried… Indeed, the factory farming industry preys on our greed for consumption of animals and is subsidized by the ADA and we are bombarded with brain-washing lies and false advertising how we “need” it for protein, to be strong and have energy, and so on and so forth… if anyone wants to help me in preparing my Drash for this Torah portion, which will happen here on the 29th of May 2021, please communicate directly with me at janinelaurabronson@gmail.com Thank you very much, indeed!

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