Environment: Building a green future

Sviva Israel trains environmental leaders.

In a courtyard in Ramot A last Thursday afternoon, 55 teenage girls from the area's haredi neighborhood spent an hour picking up litter and cleaning the area around the local community center, where families with five or seven children played and parents brought home groceries for the coming Shabbat. The girls, all residents of Ramot A, were participating in an activity sponsored by Sviva Israel, a religious environmental NGO started last year by Carmi and Tamar Wisemon. The activity was part of the Sviva Israel fledgling program Young Environmental Women Leaders (YEWL), designed to empower secular and religious young women through skits, games, educational programs about the environment and clean-up activities. "When you want to do something, you can bring people from the outside or you can get people to do it themselves," says Tamar Wisemon. "We want people themselves to do this [clean up] because otherwise [the problem] is just going to come back." Several post-high school girls ran the activity in Ramot A, which was part of a larger YEWL effort that included educational programs. Counselor Malka Schlessinger, 19, says that the activity came naturally to the participants, who displayed energy and enthusiasm for the clean-up and an understanding that they were helping the environment. "I want to keep this area clean, and it was a good way to keep the girls and the counselors busy," she says. The activity held special significance for the participants because of the religious importance that Sviva Israel attributes to environmental protection when working with religious schools. The Torah and Jewish tradition place a large emphasis on guarding God's Earth and respecting creation, says Tamar Wisemon. To stress that point, Carmi Wisemon has compiled The Environment in Jewish Thought and Law, an annual scholarly journal of contemporary Jewish essays and responsa on sustainability and green issues. "We see in the Talmud that the rabbis talk about how important it is to protect the environment," explains Schlessinger. "We teach the girls how important this is from a Torah perspective." Sviva Israel was born out of Carmi Wisemon's experience as a community worker in Ramat Shlomo, where he ran the neighborhood's clean-up program six years ago. Four years later Carmi and Tamar decided to work full-time to raise environmental awareness among religious and secular youth in Jerusalem, throughout the country and even the United States. "When we started this, we thought it would be a nice project, but we didn't realize how exciting it would be," says Tamar Wisemon. "There are a bunch of schools all learning the same thing." Sviva Israel has put several initiatives in motion since its founding, including YEWL and the annual journal. Chief on the organization's list of priorities are education and awareness, which the Wisemons and a group of volunteers run in 21 schools in Beit Shemesh, three in Jerusalem and two in New York. Sviva Israel plans to operate in more schools in Jerusalem, and to expand to New Jersey, Washington, DC and Johannesburg. Through Sviva Israel's Eco-Connection green education curriculum, schools run environmental literacy programs that focus on the concept of an "ecological footprint," or the effect that human activities have on the environment, and how to reduce, reuse and recycle. "Basic environmental literacy is what's being struck from the agenda," explains Tamar Wisemon. "People complain about the need for solar power but nobody is going to the kids, going to the families on the grassroots level, and saying, 'This is what the problem is, see what you're doing and let's see what we can do about it.'"