Words of change

Showcasing interfaith eco poetry for a more sustainable, thriving and spiritually aware society.

Performers at the poetry slam pose with the ICSD team (photo credit: VALERIE BRESLOW)
Performers at the poetry slam pose with the ICSD team
(photo credit: VALERIE BRESLOW)
If music and math are the universal languages, then poetry is the great equalizer, a transcendent stream of words that flows undiscriminating between people and places.
On June 30, the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development (ICSD) hosted its second annual Interfaith Eco Poetry Slam that showcased the transcendent power of poetry. Twenty poets of Jewish, Muslim and Christian faiths gathered at the Tmol Shilshom cafe in Jerusalem’s city center to express themselves through spoken word on the subjects of ecology, sustainability and the future of the environment.
“It’s somewhat uncommon in this city to have Jews, Christians and Muslims coming together in this type of forum,” says ICSD founder Rabbi Yonatan Neril. “Ecology is an issue of shared concern; it teaches that it’s about us and them, not us versus them. At the same time, interfaith work is a great way to promote environmental sustainability because faith communities are the biggest NGOs in the world.”
Neril founded ICSD six years ago with the intention of catalyzing a transition to a sustainable, thriving and spiritually aware society through the leadership of faith communities. The organization is striving to reach this goal through many different projects.
For example, Engaging Seminaries focuses on helping seminaries that are training rabbis, priests and pastors to promote the teaching of religion and ecology. The project takes place in Israel, Rome and North America. The Faith and Science Earth Alliance brings renowned scientists and religious leaders together to speak about issues of ecology and call for a more sustainable future. ICSD produces short videos of these talks and distributes them via social media. Eco Israel Tours enables ICSD to work with groups visiting Israel to provide programming on the connection between Israel, ecology and faith teachings.
ICSD also organized six eco fairs at the First Station this past spring, giving Jerusalem residents an opportunity to buy locally made, eco-friendly products from both the Arab and Jewish sectors while learning more about sustainability and how to better implement it in the city.
The Interfaith Eco Poetry Slam is another branch of the ICSD tree, helping the organization to fulfill its mission. The event saw an increase in both attendance and participation from its inaugural year.
“We’re aiming, through the Eco Poetry Slam, to have a voice coming out of Jerusalem that’s calling for a sustainable future,” Neril says. “This land doesn’t discriminate based on faith in terms of water or air pollution or climate change. This is the hottest summer on record in Jerusalem. According to scientists, it’s only going to become more intense as consumer society continues on. Therefore, the need to collaborate on environmental sustainability only becomes more acute.”
“It’s important to support events that transcend differences that people might fixate on,” says slam poet veteran Robin Levy. “Nature, sustainability and life are all interconnected. I think anyone here could write the same poem in a way. The poets may come from very different places, but the writing transcends that and focuses on issues that require all of our attention.”
This sentiment was shared by the majority of event attendees. It is somewhat ironic that in Jerusalem, a holy city to three major religions, there is often little chance of meeting people from different faiths in a supportive and creative environment. Toward that end, ICSD program manager Benji Elson helped organize the slam under the leadership of co-worker Marilena Bekierz.
“Putting the event together was really exciting and challenging,” Elson recounts. “There are not many opportunities for people in Jerusalem of different faiths to share intention-filled, bridge-building, focused space. To be able to provide that for so many people was really exciting and meaningful.”
One poet in attendance, Tali Cohen-Shabtai, expressed her enthusiasm for writing about nature, something she does not often have the chance to do. With two books of poems in Hebrew and English already published, Cohen-Shabtai saw the event as a chance to reach a new audience, as well as meet new people.
A Jerusalem native, Cohen-Shabtai felt that the Interfaith Eco Poetry Slam would give her something daily life in Jerusalem does not – the ability to meet Christian and Muslim poets who share her passion for ecology.
“We all share the same fate when it comes to the planet,” Elson says. “Therefore, environmental concern is a powerful platform that enables people to step out of their comfort zones and meet others with whom they might share nothing else in common.”
In the end, the Interfaith Poetry Slam drew more than 60 people, who came to watch the 20 performers express themselves on issues of common concern. Some of the performers had never written a poem before, some had never spoken one out loud to a room full of strangers, while others are regulars on the slam poetry circuit. Thus the diversity of poets showed through in a myriad of ways, including style and background.
“The poetry, song and spoken word was a gateway to experience each other’s souls,” Elson concludes. “It was a powerful reminder that even if we don’t all share the same faith, we are still all human beings with the same core values, concerns, loves, fears, dreams and hopes. It was an honor to have been a part of making this event happen.”
For more information on the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development: www.interfaithsustain.com/.