Common ground

'Ecology is really a question of relationships and the Torah has a lot to say about relationships' - Shaul Judelman

globe88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Pessah and springtime go hand in hand. As Jews recount the pivotal tale of their exodus from Egypt and entry into nationhood, nature echoes the story by beginning its annual renewal. Buds blossom, birds sing and the sun shines warmer and warmer. Jews even formally acknowledge this connection by beginning to say the prayer for dew instead of rain. What better time to explore the connection between Judaism and the environment. Perhaps this is the thinking behind the Jerusalem Environmental Forum taking place next week at the Israel Center. The theme is "Responding Jewishly to Global Warming and Other Global and Israeli Environmental Threats." "The planet is threatened as never before with global warming," says conference organizer Prof. Richard H. Schwartz. "Israel faces many environmental problems - the main purpose of the conference is to spotlight the environmental problems in Israel. Judaism has universal teachings as well as specifically Jewish teachings. Thank God, Judaism has very powerful teachings on this." According to Schwartz, an Orthodox Jew who serves as president of Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA), the forum aims to assemble some of the country's leading environmentalists to both raise awareness of environmental issues and to explore Jewish responses to environmental issues in general. There is certainly no shortage of environmental problems to be faced here, stresses Michelle Levine of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, who will be speaking at the event. Nonetheless, she is optimistic. "We've had so many victories - even when the media and public didn't think we could win," she says. Foremost among those victories, Levine notes the defeat of the Safdie Plan in February. The controversial plan called for the construction of 20,000 housing units and 500,000 square meters of industrial space across 26 square kilometers of natural woodlands and forest. According to SPNI, it would have spelled disaster for the natural environments of Mount Heret and the Lavan Hills, known collectively as the Jerusalem Hills. Despite the odds (the plan had the backing of both influential real-estate developers and politicians, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert), the plan was finally defeated in February, due in large part to a nine-year counter-campaign by SPNI. Recently, the organization has also had success in halting construction of the security barrier in the Judean Desert to avoid destruction of the ecosystem, as well as in preserving the Rosh Carmel Beach in Haifa from a planned marina project. Although SPNI focuses on preserving the natural environment, it recognizes the country's growth needs and strives to offer environmentally sustainable alternatives wherever possible. In the case of the security barrier, it suggested using camera and radar technology already in use by the army elsewhere. In the case of Rosh Carmel, it suggested the development of a nearby abandoned army base instead. The alternative site, an eyesore on the shoreline, was accepted by the developers. Says Levine, "In the last few years we've seen a trend with government authorities and decision makers... beginning to think of land use in a intelligent way. There's a sense that we're smart - let's use our brains on this because we don't have that much land." Although she's glad that attitudes on land use are changing, Levine feels that it's time for the environmental movement to move on to other pressing issues, such as the country's air and water pollution. "There's been progress," she say, but "it's time for us to move forward... and to become a developed country." It appears that Israel needs to find a way to strike a balance between its need to grow and its responsibility to preserve its own natural treasures. It may be, however, that there is a uniquely Jewish way of doing so. "The Torah is constantly dealing with the needs of communities, individuals and the land around them," says Shaul Judelman, who will speak at the conference. Judelman, who is currently completing rabbinical studies while teaching a program on Judaism and the environment, believes that there are many places that one may look within Judaism to find out how to deal with questions of the environment. "People say that the Torah is a guide to tikkun olam [repairing the world]... It [ecology] is really a question of relationships and the Torah has a lot to say about relationships," he says. Although he is aware that some people are skeptical about combining Torah with other subject matter, Judelman says "I'm a yeshiva guy - I try to be as sensitive as possible, but at the same time I try to bring the Torah into the real world. Torah is a natural language to bridge ideas between different groups, religious and non-religious. We have a lot of amazing, beautiful ideas on the subject." The Jerusalem Environmental Forum takes place April 12 from noon to 10 p.m. at the Israel Center, 22 Keren Hayesod, and is open to the public.