Idealistic Stanford activist wins grant for study in Jewish state

"So, is this the place where I can work on some Jewish social activism?"

Rabbi Noa Kushner remembers the day graduating senior Jonathan Neril first walked into Stanford Hillel and asked the question every Hillel organizer is waiting to hear.

"A neshamah [soul] like this you don't come across very often," said the Hillel rabbi with a laugh. "He has an uncommon level of devotion to his Judaism, his peers and to making the world a better place."

Neril, an honor student, self-described idealist and perhaps the leading environmental activist on the Stanford campus is this year's recipient of the Haas Koshland Award, a Jewish Community Endowment Fund grant that will send him to study in Israel during the next year.

Neril, who will graduate in June with honors in international relations and a master's in history, has already won undergraduate grants and awards enabling him to study in Mexico, India and El Salvador. In Israel, however, he hopes to strengthen his Hebrew and immerse himself in Talmud.

The 22-year-old grew up in Lafayette attending Temple Isaiah and taking Torah and Talmud classes from Rabbi Roberto Graetz. In his years at Stanford he founded several environmental groups in addition to a Jewish anti-war organization. All of his activism, he said, stems from his identity as a Jew.

"I feel it's important there be a Jewish response to the environmental activism of today," said Neril, who, in his years at Stanford, has grown more observant, and now wears a yarmulke and tzizit.

Following the Great Flood, he points out, humans entered into a covenant to be "stewards of the earth." Quoting from the Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), he added: "We are not obliged to finish the work…nor are we free to desist from it."

"The main motivation for my activism is I feel there is a great amount of injustice in the world. And it's my responsibility as a Jew and as a human being to fight for a more just world order."

On campus, Neril has lobbied Stanford to invest in "green building" technology, utilizing renewable energy and energy-efficient, renewable building material. He also studied the impact of renewable resources in India and wrote an honors thesis on the impact of genetically modified corn in Mexico.

"I think it's quite fair to say he's the leading environmental activist on Stanford's campus today. Also, he's a very conscious Jew," said Armin Rosencranz, a professor of human biology.

"He's extraordinarily committed to environmental improvement and he also wants to lead a moral sort of life. He wants to be a moral, caring human being and wants to end this irrational consumption and self-indulgence he sees in the world around him. He wants to live on his own terms of moral and ethical principles, some of which he derives from Judaism. I'm an environmental teacher, and I find his activism very encouraging."

Neril was also active in the Stanford community, heading the Kennedy Kosher Co-op for several years and initiating a program in which students woke up at the crack of dawn, cooked breakfast and served it to 50 to 75 residents at a nearby homeless shelter.

He also organized Shabbat dinners for as many as 75 participants, and, according to Kushner, always sang the loudest during Hillel Shabbat ceremonies.

Even from his friends, Neril is used to hearing that he's too idealistic — or too young, or too naive. Others were idealistic, young and naive as well, he counters, and they changed the world.

"I do get that from a lot of people. I'm not fazed by that," said a chuckling Neril, who lists his heroes as Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

"There are a number of role models of mine who fought for social justice late into their years and showed that a more just and sustainable world is not just the dream of youth."

Established in 1982 in memory of Daniel E. Koshland Sr. and Walter A. Haas Sr., both strong supporters of the local Jewish community and of Israel, the award is administered by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation's Endowment Fund. Neril will be presented with the award at the federation's June 12 annual meeting at 4:30 p.m. at San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.