Jewish Women in Environmental Activism

Reference: Jewish Women's Archive

As long as the days of the earth endure,
seed-time and harvest,
cold and heat,
summer and winter,
day and night shall not cease.”

—Genesis 8:22

As early as the Book of Genesis—beginning with the commandment for Adam and Eve to protect the Garden of Eden—Jewish tradition teaches that sustaining the health of the earth and all of its living things is a moral imperative. The winter celebration of Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish New Year for trees, has become a reminder of Judaism’s longstanding commitment to environmental preservation.

The past two decades have seen a flurry of creative initiatives to deepen connections between Jewish life and environmental activism. Synagogues are “going green,” and environmentally-oriented haggadot have made their way to the Passover Seder. Organizations such as the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), the Teva Learning Center, Hazon, and the Jewish Climate Initiative have taken innovative steps to educate the Jewish community about environmental degradation, energy depletion, pollution, climate change, and other issues that threaten the natural world. Acting individually and collectively, Jewish women have pioneered their own environmental activist efforts. For example:

Helène Aylon is a Jewish, eco-feminist artist. Art, liberation, ritual, and the environment are the unifying elements of her life’s work. In the 1980s, she “rescued” the earth by putting earth from military sites into hundreds of pillowcases. Then she drove the pillowcases of earth to the UN in what she called “The Earth Ambulance.” In another project, she floated two sacs filled with resuscitative seeds and earthly substances on the waters of Japan. They were en route to the shores of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as though to begin the world anew. She is featured in Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution.

Judith Belasco is the Director of Food Programs at Hazon, a Jewish environmental organization committed to building a healthier, more sustainable world. Judith oversees Hazon’s popular annual Food Conference, supervises the Hazon blog The Jew & the Carrot, and runs the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Prior to coming to Hazon, she was the Program Coordinator of Linking Food & the Environment (LiFE) where she designed, conducted, and evaluated an after-school cooking program in East Harlem for grades 3 through 6. “Jewish tradition teaches us two important values—shmirat ha’guf (care for one’s body) and shomrei adamah (guardians of the earth),” Judith Belasco told the Jewish Women’s Archive. “Practicing shmirat ha’guf means remembering that the human body is a gift and we should take care of it by eating healthy and exercising. As guardians or caretakers of the earth, we have a responsibility to ensure the land is healthy for future generations.”

Ellen Bernstein founded Shomrei Adamah (Keepers of the Earth), the first national Jewish environmental organization in 1988. “As a student, I was disturbed about the rampant environmental destruction I saw everywhere around me, and believed that synagogues and churches could serve to deliver the environmental message to masses of people.” After years of searching unsuccessfully for a Jewish environmental organization, Ellen founded her own: Shomrei Adamah, and began producing educational materials and books that explore the ecological teachings rooted in Jewish tradition. Ellen believes an ecological vision can help revitalize Jewish life and serve as a point of engagement for unaffiliated Jews. She continues to deliver her message through writing, teaching, speaking, and consulting.

Arlene Blum, PhD, is a biophysical chemist, author, mountaineer, and founder of the Green Science Policy Institute. Best known as a pioneer in women’s mountaineering, Blum was awarded the 2008 Purpose Prize for people over the age of 60 who are taking on society’s biggest challenges. The author of the award-winning memoir Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life, she is developing environmental policies to eliminate the use of Tris and other flame retardant toxins found in everyday household items.

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