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Spiritual Environmental Sustainability (By Katie Silberman) March 6, 2009

Posted by Suzanne Robinson in politics.


As Chanukah approached last year, I wondered why Jewish people in particular should care about living more sustainably upon the Earth. What can we do to create a healthier world for ourselves and our children? What is Jewish about going green?

Survivors in a World Under Siege
The Jewish people are survivors. We know how to adapt to changing circumstances, and we also know how to hold onto our values, our ethical core, as we adapt.
As we look around at the turn of 2009, our first-born sons are literally in danger again, as well as all of our other children. A mother called me recently because she had learned about toxic chemicals in carpets, and she was worried because her son was working in a carpet store.
So the threats to our children might look different than they did at other times in our community’s history. They’re often not visible at all, but when we see early puberty, cancer, and learning disabilities in young people, we know we must pay attention.
Besides knowing how to survive, Jews know how to look within ourselves and search our souls. Every year during the high holidays we are invited, commanded even, to think about whether we are living the lives we want. I heard a Rabbi on the radio just before the high holidays last year, and she explained it this way: “We are able to ask ourselves: am I being the wife I want to be? Am I being the mother I want to be? Am I being the friend I want to be?”
We have reached a point in our relationship with the Earth where it’s time to ask ourselves: Are we being the Earthlings we want to be? Are we taking care of our only home? And if not, what could we do differently in the year ahead to bring honor, joy, and health to ourselves and to God’s creation?
Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, says there is an opposing energy between hope and fear, and it only takes a few people to tip the balance to one side or the other. He says the only way people are going to change their actions and live a life that’s more sustainable for the earth and for themselves is to see that new way as something appealing, something that they want.
It’s not going to work to shame, fear, or guilt people into “going green.” Instead, we can show people this yellow brick road – or green brick road – to a life that is more satisfying, more enriching, more soulful. A life with clean air, clean water, healthy food, and healthy kids. Neighbors sharing resources, living a life of abundance and generosity.
Once we can imagine what we want, we are able to say no to behaviors that don’t serve us, just as we do during the high holidays. Even better, we can say yes to a vision of the world we want to live in. As Gandhi said, we must be the change we wish to see in the world.
An environmental day of atonement
What might it look like if we, as a community, could have an environmental day of atonement? What might we reject from last year, and what might we choose for the year ahead?
We could say no to practices that are not serving us:
• No more exposure to thousands of chemicals without our consent. No more babies born with chemicals already in their umbilical cord blood, and their mother’s milk. I say this with a heavy heart because I am nursing my own baby right now, but our breastmilk could not be sold in grocery stores in this country, because it would not pass FDA standards for chemical contamination.
• No more using jet fuel to send another city’s water across the country in plastic bottles. We throw away 2 million plastic water bottles every 5 minutes in this country, most of which are not recycled.
• No more lead and other poisons in our children’s toys, lunch boxes, or jewelry. We’ve known for decades that lead causes lower IQs and violent behavior in children– there is no reason it should be used in commerce in any country.
• No more everyday cleaning products that cause respiratory problems, or body care products with harmful chemicals. I want to know that my shampoo, soap, lotion, makeup and my baby’s bubble bath don’t contain anything that can harm us.
• No more breast cancer as a public health epidemic. Why are there so many chemicals in products we use every day that can mimic estrogen in the body? October was breast cancer awareness month, but we are already aware of breast cancer. What we need now is to do something about it besides buying pink things and putting them in pink plastic bags. We’re done racing for the cure. What we need now is to race for the cause.
And we need to move beyond saying no. As during the high holidays, we always have a chance to choose behavior that makes us proud and righteous. We can create the kind of society we want.
We can say yes:
• Yes to real communities, where neighbors support each other, share with each other, reuse, recycle, and spend time on the front porch instead of in front of the TV.
• Yes to a society in which preventable childhood diseases are almost unheard of– childhood cancer, asthma, and learning disabilities.
• Yes to being able to buy ordinary products without worrying about harm–to our kids, the people who made it, or the people who live near the place where it was made.
• Yes to a food system that values real, healthy food, grown in ways that doesn’t hurt other people or the Earth–food that comes in its own packaging, doesn’t fit in a cupholder, and doesn’t need a chemist to read the ingredient list.
• Yes to families, friends, and neighbors who take the time to sit down and enjoy that food together.
• Yes to an economic system where progress is not measured by ever-expanding growth at the expense of our health and environment, but by the gross national health and happiness index.
• Yes to synagogues and congregations that contribute health and well-being to the local and global community. Communities whose bottom line is kindness, generosity and equity; communties who are living Tikkun Olam – to repair the Earth.
The Jewish people have always believed deeply in justice and fairness. It’s interesting to me that Wangari Maathai in 2004 and Al Gore in 2007 won the Nobel Peace Prize. It is obvious now that environmental work is peace work. Scarcity of resources causes war and suffering. Preventing environmental degradation is a way to bring peace, shalom, among our friends.
Hurricane Katrina, wildfires in Southern California, the drinking water shortage in Atlanta – these are no longer environmental issues, and they are no longer political issues. It doesn’t matter what party is on your voter registration if you have no water or your home has burned down. These are basic human rights issues and therefore of concern for the Jewish people and for all our allies of good faith. These are our deepest ethical values as a people.

Eight Simple Things You can Do At Home
Here are a few simple, affordable steps to going green.
1. Use tap water instead of bottled water.
2. Don’t use pesticides on your home or lawn.
3. Switch to compact flourescent lightbulbs and do an energy audit of your home. Turn off lights and electronics that aren’t in use, and turn down the heat even two or three degrees.
4. Wash your clothes in cold water.
5. Use green cleaners like baking soda and vinegar instead of commercial cleaners.
6. Eat lower on the food chain, and buy organic.
7. Reuse bags, and use less plastic in general. Never microwave in plastic. Try to avoid vinyl, often marked with a number 3 in a triangle.
8. Take off your shoes and wash your hands every time you come in the house.

Green The Synagogue
You don’t need prior knowledge about environmental health to green your synagogue; you only need to bring your heart, spirit, and intention. Lots of people can help you figure out how to do it. You will save your congregation money and protect God’s creation and your sacred house of worship at the same time.
1. Form a Tikkun Olam committee and use the resources of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life. See below for COEJL and other faith-based resources.
2. Look at the building itself. Perform an energy audit. One large Christian church saved half a million dollars a year by turning off lights in rooms they weren’t using. Use sustainable building materials in building and remodeling.
3. Look at what’s happening inside the building. How much paper does the congregation use? Are you recycling? Where can you substitute permanent, reusable materials such as silverware and dishes for disposables?
4. Educate your members about sustainable living at home, and teach it to your children.
We hear a great deal about “going green” in the media these days. Sometimes knowing where to start can feel overwhelming. But every step can set you on the path. As a Rabbi wrote in the Mishnah almost 2000 years ago, “it is not upon you to complete the task — but neither are you free to desist from it.”
We can also gain wisdom from a Chinese proverb: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

  Some Resources on Religion and the Environment
A huge amount of environmental work is going on in religious communities around the country. It might not go by the name “environmental.” You might hear it called “creation care” or respecting God’s Earth. Recently, 86 evangelical leaders signed a pledge to fight global warming. Christians have come out with a new green bible, made of sustainably harvested paper.
An organization called HYPERLINK “http://www.theregenerationproject.org/” Interfaith Power and Light works with faith communities around the country to cut energy use and switch to cleaner sources of power. An Illinois organization, HYPERLINK “http://www.faithinplace.org/” Faith in Place, has worked with dozens of congregations of every faith in that state, helping them to green their houses of worship. Some others:
HYPERLINK “http://www.hds.harvard.edu/cswr/resources/environment.html” Harvard Divinity School’s Center for the Study of World Religions has an online section on religions of the world and ecology–with many books, lectures, and publications on each of the major religions’ environmental philosophy and practice. See also HYPERLINK “http://environment.harvard.edu/religion/religion/index.html” http://environment.harvard.edu/religion/ for resources and engaged projects related to each faith.
HYPERLINK “http://www.coejl.org/” Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) is a national coalition of Jewish environmental organizations seeking to expand the contemporary understanding of such Jewish values as tikkun olam (repairing the world) and tzedek (justice) to include the protection of both people and other species from environmental degradation. COEJL’s Greening Synagogues Resources: HYPERLINK “http://www.coejl.org/~coejlor/greensyn/gstoc.php” http://www.coejl.org/~coejlor/greensyn/gstoc.php Many Christian environmental organizations are listed in the HYPERLINK “http://dir.yahoo.com/Society_and_Culture/Religion_and_Spirituality/Faiths_and_Practices/Christianity/Organizations/Environmental/” Yahoo directory.
For a newsletter of ongoing developments in religion and ecology email HYPERLINK “mailto:whitneybauman@religionandecology.org” whitneybauman@religionandecology.org and write subscribe in the subject line.
HYPERLINK “http://www.earthsangha.org/” Earth Sangha is a Buddhist environmental nonprofit committed to practical environmental action including restoration projects.
The HYPERLINK “http://www.envirolink.org/external.html?www=http%3A//www.ifees.org&itemid=200309280759460.469879” Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences produces information, research, and training and articulates Muslim positions on the environment.
For a Hindu faith statement on ecology see HYPERLINK “http://www.arcworld.org/faiths.asp?pageID=77” http://www.arcworld.org/faiths.asp?pageID=77.




1. Mark - March 6, 2009

Hi thanks for a great post. I’ll be back 🙂

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