Rabbi Ellen Bernstein, 70, Mother of the Jewish-Environmental Movement

18 Adar 1 5784 / 27 Feb. 2024

It is a rainy day in Rabbi Ellen Bernstein’s hometown of Philadelphia, as even the skies are crying. The Jewish-environmental movement has lost one of its earliest founders — the visionary rabbi moved on from this world earlier today (18 Adar I) on the Hebrew calendar and last night on the Gregorian calendar. She was 70.

In 1988, Ellen, at the age of 34, founded Shomrei Adamah, one of the earliest Jewish-environmental organizations. Her work with Shomrei Adamah and her books — most prominently Splendor of Creation, Let the Earth Teach You Torah and her recent Passover haggadah, The Promise of the Land — inspired so many of us to reapproach our Judaism, to see Judaism as it truly is, an environmentally minded EcoJudaism.

But Ellen did not like those terms — “Jewish environmentalism,” “EcoJudaism,” “Earth-based Judaism” — and the last time that we saw each other in person she scolded me for my use of them, which she said implied that there was a non-environmental Judaism. Because Judaism is inherently environmental, labeling it environmental is redundant, she told me. In her long career, Ellen did so much to help people understand that environmentalism is not a fringe aspect of Judaism, but rather that Judaism is itself a form of environmentalism.

As an eco-theologian, Ellen always loved learning and intellectual exploration. For example, she only recently completed her rabbinic training, and she had plans for continued contributions to the field. Before the covid-19 pandemic, we both attended her first academic conference — a meeting of the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture. Ellen loved it — the people, the ideas —  and she said she wanted to attend more.

Ellen also was interested in bridging gaps between Jews and people of other faiths. About a dozen years ago, Ellen and I were the only Jewish representatives at the Hartford Seminary’s Building Abrahamic Partnerships program. For Ellen, it was not sufficient to have inspired Jews to embrace our faith tradition’s environmentalism — Ellen wanted to inspire other faiths as well. Her environmental reading of the Song of Songs — in her latest book, Toward a Holy Ecology — was geared toward a Christian audience, and she told me that she planned to work on a version for Jews next.

Ellen had a long history of working with Aytzim, for whom she served as a delegate candidate for the Green Zionist Alliance’s 2015 World Zionist Congress slate. It always was an honor to work with her, an honor to speak with her, and an honor to call her a friend. Baruch Dayan ha’emet.

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