Pollution goes on 'trial' - in front of a religious court

Case argued before beit din lemamonot, a religious civil court.

air pollution 88 (photo credit: )
air pollution 88
(photo credit: )
Shomera L'Sviva Tova is having a good year. Celebrating a decade since its founding, it has grown from a grassroots local organization to one with national influence. Last month, Shomera was awarded a Green Globe 2008 award by Life and Environment, the umbrella organization of environmental groups in Israel. Not content to rest on its laurels, Shomera continues to innovate. Their latest is a mock trial with a twist. Ever concerned with explaining the connection between Judaism and the environment, Shomera has teamed up with Gazit to bring an air pollution case before a beit din lemamonot, a religious civil court dealing with monetary issues, on Monday night. "The contractor vs the residents: Who pays the price of air pollution?" will be argued by two lawyers before a three-judge rabbinic court. When not participating in mock trials, the judges sit on actual rabbinic courts throughout the country. Shomera founder and executive director Tamar Gindis told The Jerusalem Post how they chose this innovative format. "We had thought of doing a conference on Judaism and the environment. We looked around and saw that there had been a couple of them [so we were looking for an angle]. We wanted to involve the public, and show Judaism in action affecting the environment. I was having a conversation with Moshe Be'eri, head of the batei din lemamonot, and we hit upon the idea," Gindis said. Miriam Ratzersdorfer, Shomera's director of development, summed up their hopes for the mock trial. "It's fun, it's dynamic and it's new," she told the Post. Shomera teamed up with Gazit because it runs a network of monetary courts all over the country and held a mock trial on a smaller scale last year on a different topic. This will be a new format both for much of the religious community and for the judges themselves, Gindis said. "We will be introducing the beit din to environmental issues. They had never dealt with that before," she said. During the monthslong planning process everyone was enthusiastic, she added. In addition to the mock trial, Prof. Alon Tal will be giving an overview of environmental issues, while Rabbi Yosef Carmel deliver an overview of batei din lemamonot, which are not so well known in Israel. Former Sephardi chief rabbi Eliahu Bakshi Doron, MK Michael Melchior (Labor-Meimad) and international environmental expert Dr. Michael Graber will also participate. The conference will feature an awards ceremony to cap off a writing competition on "The environment in Halacha and Agada (The environment in Jewish law and traditional stories)." Earlier this year, Shomera also beat off a threat to the Jerusalem Forest and the green corridor in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Nof. Gindis founded Shomera in 1998 in Har Nof, a religious neighborhood, to fight the proposed route of Highway 16 that would have destroyed huge swathes of the forest. Back then, she was a concerned resident without much of a background in environmental activism. After a decade of struggle, Shomera is spearheading the planning of a more environmentally friendly route, mainly via a tunnel under most of the neighborhood. "We are now the umbrella organization supporting and coordinating the Coalition for the Preservation of the Jerusalem Forest, whose main goal is to fight the interchange on Highway 16. It includes the Green Course [NGO], the residents' committee of Yefeh Nof, the Shomrei Hayaar [NGO] and us," Gindis said. Simultaneously, Shomera has thus far successfully fended off a group of haredi developers from the United States who want to build a gigantic apartment complex in the forest on the bottom edge of Har Nof. The complex would completely remove residents' view of the forest and cut off the only green corridor in the tightly packed neighborhood. Shomera has proposed a promenade encircling the neighborhood instead that would engage residents with the forest on their border. Taking the fight all the way to the National Planning Council, Shomera managed to convince the council not to approve the plan. However, the fight is not over, as, in an unprecedented move, the council decided to reopen its decision on the issue. A hearing is scheduled for September. Despite having just won the Green Globe for local action, Gindis contended that Shomera had actually transcended its local status and gone national. "Shomera has run programs, some of them yearlong, in locations such as Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh, Betar Illit, Ma'aleh Adumim and more. People have attended and participated in our programs from all over the country, and some of our education projects have national reach. I, therefore, believe that the 'national-organization' category fits us, though we are Jerusalem-based and many of our programs are conducted here and benefit greater Jerusalem residents," she said. Our former councilors had copied our programs and took them nationwide as well, she added. At their forest center in the Jerusalem Forest, they have partnered with the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemet LeYisrael) to teach about organic gardening, permaculture and Judaism's connection to the environment. The center consists of 20 dunams, or 2 hectares, not far from Har Nof. At the site, the first community forest in Israel, Shomera regularly brought groups for hands-on education until the security concerns of the second intifada forced them to take their programs into the schools. Over the years, they've expanded to help set up community gardens all over Jerusalem and to involve special needs children and adults in therapeutic gardening. Shomera was also the first organization to really take environmental education into the haredi world. They've pioneered ongoing study programs for haredim, for women, and curricula in the Beis Yaakov religious girls' network and the local religious elementary school. Shomera can also be heard weekly on the radio station Reshet Moreshet on the topic of the environment in Jewish law.