Eco-kosher concept leads Jews back to roots

Many Jewish environmentalists see the connection between Jews and land as obvious and ancient: Long before Greenpeace, recycling and solar power, they say, the Torah advised Jews to be green — even during battle.

Deuteronomy, for example, offers this advice:

"When in your war against a city you have besieged it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them but you must not cut them down."

Today, some environmentally conscious Jews are even supplementing the biblical laws of kashrut.

Instead of just avoiding traif (nonkosher) foods such as ham and shellfish, they buy neither tomatoes treated with pesticides nor ecologically harmful cleaning products — and they do not hold accounts at banks supporting offshore oil drilling.

Their concept, known as "eco-kosher," mandates living and consuming in accordance with the spirit of Jewish law.

As the greening of Judaism takes root across the country, eco-kosher is just one of many earth-friendly trends gaining momentum in the Bay Area.

Berkeley's Kehilla Community Synagogue is one local congregation striving to be eco-kosher. But at congregational functions, the group goes further: It tries to use cloth table-coverings instead of the disposable variety, and buys foods in bulk, with minimal packaging.

It's not just Jewish Renewal groups such as the 221-family Kehilla that are embracing Jewish environmentalism, however.

Synagogues of all denominations, teen programs, day schools and summer camps throughout Northern California are looking for ways to integrate conservationism with modern Judaism. Educators are even introducing environmentalism to Jewish kindergarten students.

At Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Rafael, for instance, the youngest students recently created a huge recycling box and brought home notes asking their parents to discard old batteries in the homemade bin.

Brandeis students have been recycling paper for about eight years, according to science teacher Sue Holland. Every year, each class participates in an environmental project, some of which have won national acclaim.

In 1988, for example, her eighth-graders helped plant trees after a fire destroyed many of them near Lake Tahoe. For their efforts, they were awarded the President's Environmental Award. Future projects include an organic garden where students will learn about planting and composting — and even about biblical flora.

"It's not uncommon in Midrash [biblical commentary] to talk about God as makom, which means place," notes Brandeis executive director Henry Shreibman. "When we teach respect, it's kavod [respect] for yourself, your teacher, your community, but also for the place: your environment."

If "you don't make a difference," he adds, "you're part of the problem."

If Shreibman's philosophy sounds like an Earth Day axiom, that might be because the educator helped organize the first such celebration in Philadelphia 25 years ago — while still in high school.

Meanwhile, as day schools work on ways to facilitate the tradition of tikkun olam (healing the earth) in the '90s, some local educators are using the outdoors to help teenagers experience a spiritual awakening.

For three years now, Matt Biers-Ariel has been taking Jewish teens on wilderness trips called Rites of Passage, with the help of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay. Hiking in the woods of Yosemite or Mendocino, he says, gets high school students "tuned into a spiritual space."

Kids, he elaborates, "are brutally honest, and a lot of them say religion doesn't do anything for them. Yet they have big spiritual needs. In the woods, they're able to pray in a setting that makes them have connection with that which is bigger than them — some might call it nature, or spirit or God.

"They're having an `I-thou' experience that in their normal waking life, they don't. The environment is a powerful tool for them."

At least one teenager echoes that idea. Rebecca Wasserman, now 15, remembers sitting alone for an hour with her journal near a mountain — one of Biers-Ariel's assignments. "It was really peaceful, the same feeling you sometimes get from Judaism," she says.

Biers-Ariel is also a consultant for the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), headquartered in New York. COEJL, a national organization under the umbrella of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, was formed in 1992 and is supported by an array of scientists and politicians, including Vice President Al Gore.

Through a COEJL grant, Biers-Ariel and other local activists are organizing the third annual Eco-Ruach conference, an all-day meeting on Judaism and the environment. Sunday, Oct. 29, high school and college students and other young adults will gather at U.C. Berkeley to discuss eco-Zionism, stewardship, urban issues and food and lifestyle choices.

The first such conference was organized by students at the U.C. Santa Cruz Hillel, where new director Lorin Troderman has been holding eco-kosher Shabbat dinners.

"We have this rapid-paced society based on progress, materialism, go, go, go, consume, consume. Shabbat is environmentally sound. Take a day off, nurture your soul and being," says Troderman.

In addition to taking a weekly break from consumerism, Troderman is urging U.C. Santa Cruz students to adopt political causes, and has organized joint projects between Hillel and environmental groups on campus. He is urging students to attend Eco-Ruach this fall.

The keynote speaker at the conference this year will be Vic Sher, Sierra Club attorney who served as lead counsel on the spotted owl case in Washington state.

Sher, a former counselor at Camp Tawonga, is among many prominent environmental activists who happen to be Jewish: Across the Bay Area, Jews are sprouting up in all sorts of green places, among them the Straus family at its organic creamery near Point Reyes and Skip Schwartz, president of Audubon Canyon Ranch in Bolinas, which protects migratory birds.

According to Biers-Ariel, many environmentally active Jews are outside the Jewish mainstream. Many never connect their religious heritage with their work to save rainforests, endangered species or reusable plastic. That's a mistake he wants to correct, by getting out the message that green is as Jewish as blue and white.

"There's no such thing as private property. God owns everything; we are just residents. At best, we are caretakers," he says. "Unfortunately, we haven't done such a good job caretaking."