Sanctifying the environment

The past few years have seen a slow but steady movement towards environmental awareness and activism in Jerusalem's haredi communities.

mea shearim 88.298 (photo credit: )
mea shearim 88.298
(photo credit: )
If you think that the crowding, lack of greenery and garbage problems in Mea She'arim and the older haredi neighborhoods prove that haredim don't care about the environment, think again. Shomera, an environmental group founded in Jerusalem's predominantly haredi neighborhood of Har Nof, is now one of the leaders in the fight to preserve the Jerusalem Forest and in promoting other environmental issues in the city. Ma'ayan Hahinuch, the Shas school system, is developing an innovative school curriculum to teach environmental awareness in haredi schools. Beit Ya'acov, the Agudat Israel educational system for girls and women, has introduced continuing education courses on the environment for its teachers. And both Shomera and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) have responded to a growing interest in community gardens and clean-up campaigns in haredi neighborhoods around the city. In part, this growing environmental awareness can be attributed to a trickle-down effect caused by the general increase in environmental awareness on the part of the overall Israeli public over the last 20 years It can also be attributed to the growing influence of Western haredim, mainly from English-speaking countries, who have brought higher levels of awareness and expectations of environmental cleanliness and aesthetics to Israel with them. And the third factor is an emphasis on environmental issues spearheaded by Mayor Uri Lupolianski, the city's first haredi mayor and his haredi-led administration - an emphasis that has led to the availability of city funding for environmental projects in the haredi community. Even though the haredi population in 2005 constituted only 11.7 percent of the overall population of Israel, the community comprises some 30% of Jerusalem's 700,000 residents. In a groundbreaking study, "Haredi Community and Environmental Quality," published in 2003 by The Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, authors Prof. Yosseph Shilhav of Bar-Ilan University's Geography Department, and environmental planner Moti Kaplan examined the haredi communities' attitudes towards the environment. The study dispelled the stereotypical premise that there is a correlation between the religious character of certain Jerusalem neighborhoods and their levels of greenery, amount of open space and/or cleanliness. The only correlation, the authors found, is the socioeconomic one. "If we look at neighborhoods on the same socioeconomic level, we will see similar levels of greenery, open spaces and cleanliness," states Shilhav. Those haredi neighborhoods whose population is of a low socioeconomic status have correspondingly low levels of greenery, lack of open spaces and problems of cleanliness corresponding to other low socioeconomic neighborhoods in the city. Newer haredi neighborhoods, with higher socioeconomic populations, correspond to similar more upscale "secular" neighborhoods. As for the less-than-clean appearance of city streets in some haredi neighborhoods, the report states that, "Experience shows that if the municipality cleans and renovates the streets… the residents continue to maintain cleanliness… The high population density and demographic structure of the haredi population generate large amounts of refuse, which must be removed frequently. If the municipality invests in cleaning and garbage disposal, the residents show their appreciation by assisting the effort." "There is nothing particular about the haredi population that leads to neighborhood neglect," states Akiva Wolff, head of the Center for Business Ethics and Social Responsibility's Environmental Response Unit at the Jerusalem College of Technology - Machon Lev, and one of the researchers for the Jerusalem Institute study. "It is mostly a factor of poverty and densely populated neighborhoods with lots of kids." That said; the study also found that there are certain features that distinguish the haredi attitude to the environment from that of the general public and these have contributed to a slower awakening to the issue. Despite numerous Jewish sources relating to humans' relationship to the environment, Diaspora Jewish life showed a certain disregard towards the environment. The fact that, in exile, the Jewish people lacked a territory was one reason for this disregard. The other was that after the destruction of the Second Temple, the Jewish people turned inward to Torah study, which elevates the spiritual over the material. In addition, the haredi community, which has its roots in a densely populated, Eastern European, urban environment, devoid of greenery, simply followed the same pattern of living in Israel. As the environmental movement in Israel developed, the haredi community came to see it as liberal and left wing. Many environmental events take place on Shabbat, when haredim cannot participate. Secular environmentalists also tend to have what the report terms a naturocentric conception in which nature is viewed as an entity in its own right, with a dimension equal to that of mankind. The traditional Jewish approach, the report argues, is an anthropocentric approach, in which mankind is the be-all and end-all. Therefore, some religious Jews view the secular approach as a form of paganism, a kind of "worship of the land." "Haredim do not treat the environment as a value per se or in a quasi-religious manner as environmentalists do," the report notes. "Their attitude is strictly instrumental." And it is exactly this practical attitude that speaks to the community. Eight years ago, Tamar Gindis, an American immigrant living in Har Nof, co-founded the non-profit organization Shomera Lesviva Tova (Guardians for a Good Environment), in response to a specific threat to the neighborhood - the planned Route 16 road that would run through the Jerusalem Forest. "I put an ad in the neighborhood newspaper asking for those concerned to contact me," she recalls. "That's how it all started." She was joined by her neighbor, Moshe Kempinski, another English speaker, who was concerned about the building of an old-age home on the edge of the Jerusalem Forest that would destroy the local view and intrude on the forest. They started to work on these two issues, which were later joined by others. "The fact that our quality of life was threatened allowed us to bridge unbridgeable gaps," Kempinski explains. "Suddenly, the environment came into the community's awareness. And this awareness gave birth to all kinds of projects." "When I first started, I was made to feel that what I was doing was nice but not essential," Gindis says. "People would tell me that it was hitzoni [external] and not ruhani [spiritual], not the focus of their lives. Slowly but surely the community began to wake up to environmental issues. Now, our community administration [minhal kehilati] even has a special position to deal with the environment." Shomera also sponsors tours conducted by haredi tour leaders. "I got interested in the environment because of the filth," explains Tehilla Cohen, a former student at the Beit Ya'acov Institute for Teachers and a tour guide. "This is our country and if we don't want to live in a jungle, we have to act. The environment is a one-way ticket. If we ruin it, there is no way back." Four years ago, Cohen decided to direct her energies and teaching skills to conducting tours, mainly for families and school groups. "When I give my tours, I include environmental issues such as ecological balance and keeping the environment clean. Sometimes I feel no one is listening. But more and more, there is awareness. I feel the seeds are being planted and something will come out of this in the future." Shlomo Buskilha, a former teacher, has been conducting haredi tours for the past five years, many for Shomera. "Awareness of preserving the environment is very low in the haredi community. I have to explain even the simplest concepts. I am even asked why it is important that the forest not be paved over… This is really a shame. The haredi community could make the environment its flagship issue. This is a universal issue that would be good for us to promote, especially since we are often perceived as only being concerned with issues particular to our community." Yael, a mother from Har Nof, regularly takes part in Shomera tours, often bringing seven of her children with her. "It is important to connect the children to Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel] and [these tours] do it in a way they really enjoy." Today, Shomera is a leading player, along with the municipality, in environmental programs for the haredi community. These efforts include development and preservation of the Jerusalem Forest, nature tours, educational programs for schoolchildren, teacher training, adult gardening courses, community gardens, horticulture therapy, community clean-ups, workshops, lectures, support for publication of books and articles on Judaism and the environment and information campaigns on environmental issues such as water conservation, recycling, etc. Shomera has even a proposed project for recycling mikve (ritual bath) waters to be used for watering the forest and public parks. The organization has also moved beyond the haredi community into the general public and has a mixed staff ranging from haredim to secular, "so we can be more responsive to different communities," Gindis says. In 2004, working with the municipality's haredi education department, Shomera helped implement an environmental gardening and beautification pilot project in 10 haredi schools, involving some 8,000 students. "We worked on developing a curriculum accompanied by a practical project that would have ramifications not just on the school but also on the surrounding neighborhood and connect the school with the community and the local community administration," says Gershon Binet, acting director of the haredi education department. Lekach - The Haredi Learning Center in Jerusalem, the haredi branch of the Jerusalem Association of Community Councils and Centers Ltd., designed a curriculum that draws on the Jewish sources and can be used in both boys' and girls' schools. Binet also takes a practical approach, seeing environmental studies as a tool towards furthering studies. He uses the words cleanliness, aesthetics and beautification far more often than environment. "We see aesthetics and cleanliness as religious mitzvot," Binet continues. "The talmid hacham [scholar] has to look neat and clean. More aesthetic surroundings contribute to better learning. So this is not just education for cleanliness but also for a better learning atmosphere." Binet chose large schools in different socioeconomic neighborhoods. The program includes preparation of a booklet with the Jewish sources because "this is what speaks to our population," plus lesson plans for the teachers. On the practical side, there are clean-ups, improving the appearance of school buildings, gardening and composting. This year, the project was expanded to 35 haredi schools, with some 15,000 students. In another project with the Beit Ya'acov Institute for Teachers, Shomera helped put together a program for teachers in Beit Ya'acov schools. "Shomera came to us and suggested a program," says Chaya Kiel, director of continuing education at the Beit Ya'acov Institute. "We started last year with some 40 teachers and this year we anticipate 80 general teachers, and 15 students in our institute." The program provides courses for teachers designed to strengthen their awareness of the environment and give them the tools to teach this subject in their schools. The individual schools decide whether to teach environmental studies as a stand-alone subject or integrated into another subject. "There is no doubt that the program is having an impact," Kiel continues. "It is still too early to see the full effect but we are hearing from our teachers how they are introducing it into their schools and have already had clean-ups." Last year, S., a high-school teacher in the Beit Ya'acov network, finished the course, which involved classes twice a week over a period of three months. "The course taught me awareness of the environment," she says. "The material was presented in concentrated form, including facts and figures. Even though I had read about the issues before, I did not have the kind of knowledge I now have. This enabled me to introduce the subject into my lessons. I connect the material to the Jewish sources." S. continues, "I also gained a greater awareness of the environment on a personal level, especially with respect to my use of disposable products. I would like to see greater awareness of green issues in my neighborhood. We need to keep the neighborhood cleaner - although I also think the city has to do more." Two years ago, the Romema local community administration approached the SPNI to help establish a community garden. At first, the program was developed as a community activity for teenage girls. SPNI taught the girls how to plant and tend an ecological garden, growing herbs, vegetables and flowers. Today, the project has been taken over by children and pensioners. "The community is continuing with this project on its own," says Amanda Lind, SPNI Jerusalem branch project coordinator. "We see ourselves as catalysts - we teach, guide, lead and then turn over to the community to run on its own." By far the most ambitious project, and one spurred by an NIS 100,000 grant from the municipality, is the development of a haredi curriculum on the environment by Ma'ayan Hahinuch's Pedagogic Center, which was implemented this year as a pilot project in 10 Jerusalem schools. "There are two aspects to this curriculum," explains Gabriel Cohen, director of the Pedagogic Center. "One is the emphasis on practical aesthetics - personal neatness, clean schools and clean communities. And the other is environmental education in the broad sense of the word - ecology, recycling, air and water quality, noise, etc. - concepts that the haredi world doesn't really have. "There was a definite need to develop a curriculum for the haredi schools," Cohen continues. "We see this curriculum not just for our schools in Jerusalem but for haredi schools throughout the country. Next year, we are looking to go national with the program." The curriculum is instructional and interactive, integrating practical activities such a recycling, planting gardens and clean-ups with theoretical and Jewish source material. The center also has developed special workbooks for both teachers and pupils. Because of the different nature of studies for boys and girls in haredi schools, two different approaches were developed. "We tie the environment in with Halacha," Cohen explains. "And because we are looking at the environment from a Jewish point of view, was have called our program Derech Ben Melech [the King's Highway]. Our symbol is a crown with the slogan - I cleaned, I made order, I sanctified Hashem [God]." Each pilot school has an ecological corner decorated with attractive placards, noting the various aspects of the program. Different classes are given responsibility for garbage collection, composting, gardening, etc. The center is also working on developing a slide program. "I was surprised at how well our schools have received this curriculum," Cohen notes. "This is a completely new area for us. All that goes on in the larger secular society concerning the environment filters down to us. So this concept is falling upon fertile ground. And the fact that we link it to the Jewish sources enables our schools to connect to the topic." "There is an awakening in the haredi community to this issue that started a number of years ago," explains Shilhav. "We could see this already in our 2003 study. The more haredim go out of their ghettos into new communities, the more interest there is in the environment. As the haredi community becomes more involved in politics and administration, it is exposed more to environmental issues." "There has been a revolution in the community compared to only a few years ago. I am sure that the haredim will be occupying more space on the environmental hard drive in the future," concludes Wolff.