Israeli environmentalist Jeremy Benstein finds green roots in ancient texts

Jeremy Benstein knows of the Bay Area’s reputation as an established center for sustainable living. But the deputy director of the Tel Aviv–based Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership is coming with a new message for Jewish environmentalists: The roots of this movement go back further than they may realize.

“These are teachings that have been around for 3,000 years,” said Benstein, author of “The Way Into Judaism and the Environment.”

“You can make the case that biblical society was actually a very sustainable society. There are specific, deep teachings about how to live sustainably on the land.”

Jeremy Benstein

As part of a national speaking tour, Benstein will be in San Francisco and Los Altos Sept. 12 and 13 to discuss what Judaism says about our responsibility toward the earth — and how ancient texts can guide everyday behaviors.

Benstein points to two of the Torah’s commandments, to let the earth lie fallow every seventh year “so that the needy of your people may eat” and to prohibit wastefulness.

“That’s one of the prime Jewish environmental commandments, that no person should waste anything of value — it’s a pretty grave sin to actually throw out edible food,” he said, noting that in Jerusalem it’s common for people to put stale bread on their windowsills for birds rather than throw it away.

“For a lot of us, that’s been enforced culturally, or by our parents … but when you look at it as an actual violation, it becomes that much more real. The framework of religious civilization is a really amazing context to put some of these principles in.”

The Heschel Center is a 13-year-old nonprofit dedicated to building an environmentally, socially and economically sustainable future for Israeli society through education and activism.

Its enterprises include the Environmental Fellows Program, an intensive yearlong “sustainability training” for emerging leaders; the Green School Network, roughly 600 schools that have embraced sustainability as a central part of their vision (approximately 40 percent are in Arab communities); the Local Sustainability Center, which works with municipalities on urban planning issues such as public transportation; and the GreenChange Social Network, an online forum for information exchange in Israel.

Such networking is necessary, said Benstein, because as Israel grows — both its population and economy — so does the importance of building sustainable infrastructure.

“The real solution to environmental issues often lies not in people living off the grid but in cities themselves,” he said. “Sometimes that solution lies in making some hard decisions, like limiting car use and opening up more possibilities for mass transportation. One of the most amazing environmental things in Israel is to be here on Yom Kippur — to be in a bustling city like Tel Aviv, that’s usually noisy and full of smelly cars, when everything just shuts down.”

A new initiative, for which the Heschel Center took a cue from U.S. groups such as Hazon, will focus on sustainable food systems.

Benstein emphasized that a central component of the Heschel Center’s message is the relationship between social and economic justice and keeping the Earth healthy.

“In the Bible it’s very clear: If you oppress the poor, the rain literally won’t fall,” he said, noting the ongoing protests over social inequalities in Israel. “Maybe we’re not seeing that, but I think in Israel and elsewhere we’re seeing that if you oppress the poor, if there are people who don’t have enough to eat while other people are living luxuriously, you have a society that’s not going to last very long.”


Jeremy Benstein will speak on “Creating a Vision: Social Justice and Sustainability in Israel 2011” at 4 p.m. Monday, Sept. 12 at the JCRC, 121 Steuart St., S.F. To RSVP (required), contact Isabel Gray at [email protected]

On Tuesday, Sept. 13, he will present an afternoon lecture sponsored by Hazon, “Tzedek and the City: Sustainability, Urban Issues and Jewish Values from the Tanach to Tel Aviv.” It will be held 12 to 1 p.m. at Hazon’s Upstart Space, 332 Pine St., S.F. Contact [email protected] for more information.

At 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 13, Benstein will speak on “Eternal Truths Meet Inconvenient Ones — Judaism and the Environmental Crisis” at Congregation Beth Am, 26790 Arastradero Road, Los Altos. For information, call the synagogue at (650) 493-4661.

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.