November 16, 2018

A Tu B’Shevat Question: Do We Care Enough About Mother Earth?

As the executive director of the Shalom Institute, a Jewish day camp and conference center in Malibu, Rabbi Bill Kaplan has been both a preacher and practitioner of environmentalism.

In 2016, his organization received $75,000 from the Homeland Security Grant Program, funds it used to install two solar power banks. What’s more, the institute’s dining hall is made of recycled plastic, its urinals are water-free and the campus uses LED lighting.

“We’re making choices — and those choices are green choices,” Kaplan said. “We always do improvements with a mind on sustainability.”

That very contemporary concern has deep Jewish roots, as reflected in the holiday of Tu B’Shevat, the birthday of the trees, which falls on Jan. 31.

While in ancient times the date served to keep track of fruit trees’ age, it has evolved into an opportunity for Jewish environmentalists to reaffirm their dedication to sustainability, respecting the earth and conserving natural resources. That commitment, however, isn’t as widespread in the Jewish community as many think it should be.

Devorah Brous, founding executive director of Netiya, a Los Angeles-based food justice organization, is focused on improving the choices individuals and the community make around food. Brous was hired by Netiya in 2011, aiming to help Los Angeles synagogues to transform their underused land into food-producing gardens.

Her efforts have yielded mixed results, said Brous, who discovered that many of L.A.’s Jewish leaders are less concerned about sustainable agriculture and healthy eating than she is. As a result, the organization is putting a greater emphasis on working with the city. Los Angeles City Councilman David Ryu recently helped Netiya secure a parcel of land that it plans to convert into an urban farm. Brous also expressed excitement about local legislation that would provide tax incentives for landowners to dedicate their property to food production.

She sees a major opportunity for the organized Jewish community to embrace congregational gardens. Farming is an effective way of immersing young adult Jews in Judaism, she said, citing several communities — including Berkeley and Boulder, Colo., among a vibrant national movement of 17 Jewish farms — where farming has connected young adult Jews to Judaism and to other Jews.

Brous said the work she is doing addresses many Jewish leaders’ goals of engaging young Jews and combatting intermarriage.

“These Jewish farmers around the country are showing that the answer is to get them close to the land, get them outside, teach them skills, teach them how to grow food, teach them how to make their own matzah instead of buying it,” she said. “Because the people who are doing these programs are falling in love, getting married and having Jewish babies.”

While successfully catalyzing food production with 31 faith-based congregations throughout L.A. County, she did say that at least two Los Angeles synagogues expressed interest in turning unused land into gardens but eventually decided against doing so.

“I think this is not enough of a priority for many synagogues,” she said. “My wish is that regenerative stewardship becomes a top priority. This is faith in action.”

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has provided Netiya financial assistance for a gardening-education program for young children. Last fall, Federation gave Brous a $40,000 grant to run the Seedlings Sprout! and Torah of Gardening programs out of her home in the San Fernando Valley.

Jewish day schools — including the Alice and Nahum Lainer School, de Toledo High School and Milken Community Schools — and congregation IKAR are working with Netiya, and last spring, Netiya installed an irrigation system and a number of fruit trees on Shalhevet High School’s roof. The school’s students and faculty also tend a rooftop flower and vegetable garden, and the school’s environmental club promotes recycling.

Brous, whose sister is IKAR Rabbi Sharon Brous, also helps out at IKAR with the synagogue’s Green Action team, which IKAR’s website describes as a group of “advocates, activists, and gardeners” with a goal to “create a more sustainable way of life.”

“We’re teaching the youngest of the young at IKAR’s Early Childhood Center program,” Devorah Brous said.

“Anybody who could think the Earth was ours to use and abuse was like an idol worshiper.” — Rabbi Yonah Bookstein

Despite efforts like Netiya’s, much of the Jewish community is just beginning to understand the potential behind Jewish environmentalism, said Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Philadelphia-based Shalom Center, which integrates political action with spiritual wisdom. Waskow has been a Jewish environmental leader for decades. Taking care of the planet is an imperative of Biblical Judaism, he said.

“It seems to me the value of Torah and environmentalism are very closely intertwined, especially if you look at … the Biblical tradition, which really was the spiritual expression of shepherds and farmers who were very close to the land,” Waskow said.

He said many congregations are focused on social justice issues but do not consider the environment in that category. “We now talk about ‘eco-social justice,’ ” he said, “we won’t use ‘social justice’ by itself.”

Of the major denominations, the Renewal movement has made the most progress integrating environmentalism into daily practice, he said. The Orthodox movement, he said, has the furthest to go.

“The Orthodox community, most of it, is still focused on traditional Orthodox concerns — keeping Shabbat, keeping kosher — and has only begun to address the ways in which Torah might point us toward action about the earth,” he said.

Pico Shul Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, an Orthodox rabbi, acknowledged that the Orthodox community lags behind, but he also said the Reform community does not appreciate how fundamental Jewish environmentalism is.

“Way before there was ever an environmental movement, [German Orthodox] Rav [Samson Raphael] Hirsch wrote, in the 1850s, how anybody who could think the Earth was ours to use and abuse was like an idol worshiper — and in Judaism you can’t get much worse than being an idol worshiper,” Bookstein said.

Bookstein has been passionate about the environment for decades. As an undergraduate at the University of Oregon in 1988, he brought Waskow to the campus on Earth Day to speak to Jewish students about Judaism and environmentalism.

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea, a progressive Orthodox congregation in Los Angeles, said his congregation is not focusing on the environment.

“Unfortunately, [we] have nothing environmentally friendly to report,” Kanefsky said in an email.

On Tu B’Shevat, synagogues across Los Angeles will be holding Tu B’Shevat seders and other events. But Brous said Tu B’Shevat should be about more than events. The holiday reminds people how appreciating nature can improve their lives. She said there is a mystical element to the holiday.

“In our culture, you’re sort of expected to be always on, always be productive. But if you were a tree, not all trees are evergreen; some lose their leaves and go dormant in the winters,” she said, pointing out that, in the Torah, people are compared to trees. “Tu B’Shevat is this unbelievable, mystical reminder that even when they are powered down, they are still very much alive.”

This article has been expanded to reflect the broader experience of environmental stewardship in the Jewish community.