Orthodox conservationists

For Ramat Shlomo residents, protecting the environment is just one more aspect of Halacha.

yeshiva study 88 (photo credit: )
yeshiva study 88
(photo credit: )
While many Israeli government organizations and private groups profess their commitment to multiculturalism, truly multicultural approaches to issues - especially with respect to engaging the haredi community - are few and far between. That is why a Torah essay competition on the environment in Jewish law and thought is being seen as such a welcome endeavor by both environmentalists and the haredi community. Now in its third year, the competition solicits Torah essays on environmental topics in a contest open to yeshiva and rabbinical students, scholars, educators and authors from the Sephardi, Lithuanian and Hassidic communities in Ramat Shlomo, a 12-year-old neighborhood in northern Jerusalem with some 20,000 residents. The competition is sponsored by Shomera Lesviva Tova (Guardian for a Good Environment), a non-profit organization founded in Har Nof in 1998 known for its initiatives in environmental education and activism, the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood administration, the Environment Ministry and the Jerusalem Municipality. Serving as a forum to stimulate interest, research and public awareness of environmental issues, the event has also been a catalyst for increased ecological activity within the Ramat Shlomo haredi community. As testimony to how the community views the project, nearly 500 residents attended the October 21 conference in which awards were presented to the winning authors, who ranged in age from 13 to 55. Out of hundreds of entries, 28 were selected for publication in this year's journal, which is available both in hard-copy form or can be downloaded from the Ministry of Environment Web site at www.sviva.gov.il. "This project is a unique way of working with the haredi community which is not being done anywhere else," states Carmi Wisemon, director of Shomera Lesviva Tova. "It involves speaking to a public to whom the issue of environment is new, in their own language - that of Halacha and Torah - and providing avenues compatible to the community's cultural needs. It is to the Ministry of Environment's credit that it was so open-minded about new ways of getting the haredi community involved in environmental activities." "In the ministry, we were looking for ways to arouse the interest of the haredi community in the environment, an issue which is not self-evident to this population," notes Meira Helfer, educational coordinator of the Ministry of Environment's Jerusalem district. "This project represents a breakthrough in reaching the haredi public both intellectually and on a practical level. The essays address both practical and theoretical issues and the publication of the journals constitutes a collection of material on the environment and Halacha that did not exist previously." "The fact that this competition is now in its third year shows that it has captured an important place in the minds of the public," says Rabbi Gavriel Shtauber, director of the municipality's Torah Culture Division. "It provides an opportunity to discuss environmental issues from the residents' point of view." "For us, everything is connected to Halacha," relates Rabbi Gavriel Kosower, chair of the Ramat Shlomo community council. "This is just one more aspect of Halacha." A list of some of the topics covered by the essays this year illustrates this connection: essays on the laws of house committees, the structure and legal authority of the municipality, damage to public property, neighbors' legal obligations to one another and issues relating to building on public property. Shomera, which runs a number of environmental projects in Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh and Betar Ilit with the haredi community, as well as projects for special needs groups such as the disabled and youth at risk, has long prided itself on reaching out to diverse populations. In its efforts to defend the Jerusalem Forest from urban encroachment, Shomera has organized organic gardening, tours, workshops and other activities in the forest. Wisemon, who took over as Shomera director just recently, was a community social worker in Ramat Shlomo and was involved in helping to introduce a number of environmental activities into the community, including an environmental patrol to report environmental violations, community gardens, recycling and neighborhood clean-up campaigns. It was in this context that he first became aware of Shomera and the idea gelled for the essay competition. "We were working on projects that mainly involved children," Wisemon recalls. "I realized that we had to move up several levels to engage the adult population. And the way to do that was to get this population to go to the sources and see what it means to be an environmental Jew according to them." So Wisemon approached community rabbis and listened to their ideas for topics. "In the first competition, the contestants wrote mainly on the subject of cleanliness," he states. "Over time, the writings started to move beyond cleanliness to the essence of an environmental dialog with the haredi community. The journals were distributed in synagogues and yeshivas... The project highlights the potential and willingness of the community to contribute to the preservation of the environment when provided with an appropriate framework for doing so." The project is not only serving as a springboard for many other environmental activities in the community, it has spurred other haredi communities to ask for Shomera's assistance in setting up programs for them. Both Shtauber in the municipality and Helfer in the ministry see the project as a pilot that they would like to replicate in other haredi neighborhoods in Jerusalem. "I think that it is very important that the community learn what the Torah has to say about the environment. This can lead to a real improvement in the quality of life for all," Wisemon says. In addition the contest has brought a lot of personal satisfaction to the winners. Yosef Yair, who won first prize in the avrechim (married scholars) category for his essay on the laws of house committees in apartment buildings, says that "writing about a subject involves really learning the material and I have gained a far greater awareness of the environment. Plus my children are really proud that their father won such a prize." Avshalom Baskin won second prize in the older yeshiva boys category (17 to 22 years old). He wrote about how government gets involved in Halacha. "I thought I had a good idea on which to write and I followed it. My parents are very interested in the environment and I thought this would be a nice surprise for them," he says.