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
B.A. Thesis for Honors in History
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).
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
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
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,
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
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.
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,
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
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
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
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
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,
53 Gendler, interview.
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.
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
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),
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,
“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.
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
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
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
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,
40 Serotta, interview.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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