(photo credit: Tallulah Floyd)
Last winter, I had the privilege of meeting with a motivated group of college students who visited Israel on Hillel's Green leadership mission. In our discussion of how Judaism relates to the environment in Israel, these educated, articulate and normative young American Jews left me stunned and envious. A heterogeneous mix of religious and non-religious students, an astonishing number were knowledgeable about Jewish environmental sources, unlike most of my Israeli environmental colleagues whose familiarity with Jewish environmental sources is almost non-existent.
At the end of our session, lunch was served, ironically in Styrofoam packaging. The organizers had attempted to order sandwiches wrapped in more environmentally-responsible materials, but were met with blank rejections. The students responded by refusing to simply dispose of the packaging in the closest garbage can, but rather separated their bio-degradable leftovers from the non-bio-degradable Styrofoam and plastics, which they gathered together and took back to their bus until they could find an environmentally-responsible method of disposal. Placed in a situation where they had to exert themselves to maintain their environmental practices, the Hillel students' proactive dedication stands in stark contrast to the unfortunate proliferation of litter found all over Israel.
My initial envy of the students' idealistic zeal turned to inspiration at the possibility of harnessing their environmental knowledge, experience and activism, coupled with their concern for Israel, to help move Israel forwards in becoming a country that lives according to the principles of sustainable development.
Jewish environmentalists abroad can have a unique impact on the Israeli environmental movement. During my recent trip to the US, I met Jewish environmental leaders of organizations such as Hazon, and was inspired by their deep understanding of Jewish environmental tradition, which formed an integral part of their environmental consciousness. By stark contrast, for the majority of Israeli environmental organizations, Jewish environmental traditions are not on their agenda. With their ideology, areas of interest and activities closely mirroring their colleagues in the global environmental movement, Israel's environmentalists would benefit from their global Jewish peers' connection to Jewish environmental traditions and identity.
ISRAEL FACES many local environmental crises, even beyond the global issues. Our lack of enforced regulation and transparency has caused our waters to become polluted, rapid development of infrastructure and housing have taken their toll on Israel's ecosystems and caused irreversible damage to Israel's natural heritage and littering has become almost an accepted norm in Israel for adults and children alike.
Israel is still lagging behind many Western countries in both our environmental awareness and more specifically in our environmental practices. Most of Israel's environmental organizations are less than a decade old. We need environmental sympathizers and activists from abroad to help us to adopt sound environmental practices. Yedidei HaSviva -Sviva Israel was founded on the belief that by creating a global Jewish partnership with communities who are already proficient in the areas of cleanliness, recycling and sustainable development, Israelis will be better able to learn these basic and necessary skills. At the same time global Jewry will be able to connect to their Israeli peers through environmental learning and action and be encouraged to invest in helping make Israel a more environmentally sustainable home for the Jewish people.
In Heshvan, as part of Jewish Social Action Month Yedidei HaSviva - Sviva Israel launched the Jerusalem-New York Environmental Challenge. An eclectic mix of four religious, secular and pluralistic elementary schools - Keshet and Neve Etzion in Jerusalem and Beit Rabban and Hannah Senesh in New York - will spend Heshvan studying their own and one another's Ecological Footprint and environmental habits (to check the size of your footprint, take our Hebrew/English Ecological Footprint Survey at www.svivaisrael.org) and work together to improve their local environment.
THE CHALLENGE was originally about recycling, until we realized that this would be unfair to the Israelis, who lack the facilities and mindset embedded in the American system. In the US it is difficult to avoid recycling since it is regulated by laws that are actively enforced and encouraged; in Israel it remains a struggle to find a store or machine to recycle even bottles. Broadening the challenge to "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle," levels the playing field a little; we would all benefit from understanding that the widely touted concept of recycling is just the last of a tri-fold environmental strategy, whose priority is to reduce consumption, the secondary preference is to reuse and only failing these is recycling recommended.
The benefits of Israeli and global Jewish environmental cooperation will be reciprocal, for while Israel has its environmental issues, we have still not reached the height of consumerism that exists in the US and Europe. World Jewry would gain from learning from Israelis how to lead a less consumption-oriented lifestyle, which is the ultimate cause of most of our environmental crises.
The Jerusalem-New York Environmental Challenge, supported by a partnership of the UJA-Federation of New York with the Israel Ministry of the Environment, serves as a successful model to demonstrate the potential of forming global Jewish environmental partnerships from the highest organizational levels down to schoolchildren. Our challenge today is to develop a global Jewish environmental movement in order to forge mutually beneficial connections and help Israel to become a sustainable home for the Jewish People.
The writer is executive director of Yedidei HaSviva - Sviva Israel, an Israel-based social-environmental organization.