January 15, 1998
Connecting Judaism to the Environment
Last weekend's COEJL conference brings
together 100 activists
By Shlomit Levy, Contributing Writer
Why would a group of more than 40 Jews from various occupations,movements, ages and geographic locations stand, arms entwined, in acircle, singing Jewish melodies at the Sepulveda Dam Recreation Area?The common bond they share is environmentalism, or more specifically,Jewish environmentalism. With help from TreePeople, the groupsymbolically planted a sapling Monday in the park as part of theclosing ceremony of the COEJL (Coalition on the Environment andJewish Life) Jewish Environment Leadership Training Institute.
The third annual conference, which gathered nearly 100 activistsfrom around the country, was held at Camp Ramah in Ojai, from Jan. 9to 12. Speakers included Rabbi Brad Artson of Orange County, RabbiDaniel Swartz of the National Religious Partnership for theEnvironment, "Redwood Rabbi" Naomi Steinberg, Rabbi Arthur Waskow ofthe Shalom Center, and California state Sen. Tom Hayden.
COEJL was established in 1993 in order "to explore the connectionbetween social justice and ecology," according to its director, MarkJacobs, "and to integrate environmental study and action intoreligious life and institutions." Twenty-six national Jewishorganizations are involved with COEJL in environmental activism,outreach, scholarship and public policy.
"This is a profoundly Jewish movement, and people are drawing onvarious deep sources in the Jewish tradition," Jacobs said. Theconference was intended to "provide an opportunity for activists [whoare often isolated] across the country to come together, network,gain support and establish a common vision."
Indeed, several participants at the tree-planting ceremonyremarked that the most rewarding aspect of the conference was theopportunity to meet others who share the same commitment to theenvironment. "Sometimes, it feels like a lonely battle," said one ofthe attendees, "and I don't feel like that now."
"It's exciting to see so many more people connecting Judaism tothe environment," said Amy Kahn, a participant from San Francisco.
In addition to an ecologically oriented Shabbat celebration, theconference featured workshops and discussion sessions where activistsdeveloped strategies for involving their own communities. As a directresult of the institute, the establishment of five new COEJL regionalaffiliates is planned. On a more personal level, at least oneattendee vowed that she would try to become vegetarian.
At the tree-planting ceremony, Andy Lipkis, founder of TreePeople,and Adi Liberman, former executive director of Heal the Bay andcurrently chief of staff for Los Angeles City Council Member RuthGalanter, discussed the environmental concerns specific to LosAngeles, most notably the water shortage.
Their voices frequently drowned out by the sounds overhead ofplanes and helicopters from the nearby Van Nuys airport, theactivists were undeterred: They kept singing and digging, some evendropping plucked strands of hair from their heads into the tree's newhome so that it could recycle a part of them.
"[The weekend] was really incredible," said Jacobs. "Even wedidn't anticipate the enthusiasm."