Cityfront: Echoes of the past

At Simchat Shlomo Yeshiva, students in the Torah and Ecology program learn how to solve environmental problems from a very reliable source.

dew leaf 88 (photo credit: )
dew leaf 88
(photo credit: )
What on earth has a donkey falling into a pit got to do with stopping global warming? A lot, according to Shaul David Judelman, a former anti-globalization activist turned observant Jew. In the intimate study room at Jerusalem's Simchat Shlomo Yeshiva, Judelman sits arched over the pages of a heavily bound book of Rashi's commentary to the Torah, explaining how ancient religious texts can help solve the environmental problems of the modern age. "Our belief is that the Torah is a guide to how to fix the world. Since the Seventies and Eighties, there has been a great environmental crisis, and we are asking what the Torah says about this, how does it help us to respond?" says Judelman, before illuminating a passage from the Book of Exodus: "If a man uncovers a pit or if a man digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or a donkey falls into it, the owner of the pit must pay. He must compensate its owner with money..." (Book 21, Verses 32-33). The biblical passage might be thousands of years older, but there's a clear parallel between it and the modern "polluter pays principle," a policy to punish businesses that pollute which has been adopted by many governments, including Israel's. The person responsible for the (environmental) crime, does the time. The environmental movement in Israel has traditionally been part of secular society, but Judelman believes that environmental responsibility is "latent" in Jewish religious tradition: "If your eyes are not open, you don't see it," he says, noting that the connection between Judaism and ecology is not widely made in Israel. Making that connection is the mission Judelman has been on since he and other religious Jews set up the Torah and Ecology program at Simchat Shlomo in 2006. The eco-activist Beit Midrash starts its fifth cycle this week - coinciding with Shavuot, a holiday with a particularly environmental focus, marking the start of the harvest in the Land of Israel. A stone's throw from the shouts of the traders at the nearby Mahaneh Yehuda market, the Carlebach-inspired yeshiva is based in a quiet cul-de-sac in the colorful Nahlaot neighborhood. Its curriculum consists of three days a week of text-based study, with the rest of the week spent putting theory into practice through field trips across Israel and hands-on volunteer work with green groups in Jerusalem, including Lev Ha'Ir, Garin Dvash and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI). Before coming to Israel, Judelman was an activist of another stripe, involved in the anti-globalization movement in America and protests against the World Trade Organization during the late 1990s. "It was a simple transition, when I look back. One of the main threats of globalization is the monoculturalization of traditions which contain deep wisdom but are rapidly being lost," he observes. One of the Beit Midrash's aims is to spark Jewish environmental leanings and activism in its students. "I really hope... that people walk away with a sense of empowerment, as an eyes-open member of the Jewish people, to help the Torah grow. The Torah has to come alive; it's not enough just to learn about what the great tradition says about the great tradition," says Judelman. "Young people growing up in the world and in progressive movements often have a tenuous relationship with Israel. This is a way they can be part of Israel that's in tune with their values. [They can] learn what it means to build a holy place," he says. It's a process that has already begun to bear fruit, with a number of the yeshiva's graduates staffing the SPNI's Derech Hateva environmental education program, as well as the New York-based eco-NGO Hazon ("Vision"). The current program runs for four weeks, but the yeshiva is aiming to operate 10-week programs if the center can secure funding. Like the yeshiva itself, the ecological Beit Midrash draws young English-speaking Jews in the 20 to 35 age range. Judelman explains that the Torah includes guidance against urban sprawl, encouraging the maintenance of green belts around cities. Instead of being given a portion of the Land of Israel, the Levites were apportioned 42 cities scattered across the land. "It's a peculiar thing: On the outskirts of the town there must be a migrash, a green space separate from the city," he says. "It [the Torah] deals with the issue of urban spaces, development and the need for green spaces like parks and the standard of living." The only exception to this halachic rule is Jerusalem, which is not required to have a green belt, or migrash, because when Jerusalem expands, its holiness is believed to expand as well. "The truth is that we didn't have to deal with this - how Jews should build cities - for so long," Judelman says.