May 31, 2001
A Jewish Environment
One of the country's fastest-growing environmental groups, the interfaith community, has been gearing up to fight President George W. Bush's new energy policies.
Last week the Coalition of the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) and the National Religious Partnership for the Environment (NRPE) drafted an open letter to the president on issues of energy and climate change. The letter, titled "Let There Be Light," which was also signed by religious and community leaders, was presented at a May 22 press conference at the Westwood Federal Building in conjunction with a signing on the steps of the Capitol.
COEJL of Southern California (COEJL/SC) is taking its fight one step further: to the Valley Jewish Festival, expected to attract more than 30,000 Jews on June 3 at Cal State Northridge. This year's social-justice theme is the environment. COEJL/SC and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power will give a joint presentation about programs promoting conservation and renewable energy and will present a petition reflecting their energy concerns.
Environmental groups such as COEJL are up in arms over the White House's new proposals, which rely heavily on fossil fuels and nuclear power, drilling on federal lands and the use of federally protected lands. The administration's proposals fly in the face of a three-year federal study by five national laboratories that states, "A government-led efficiency program emphasizing research and incentives to adopt new technologies could reduce the growth in electricity demand by 20 to 47 percent."
But what do Judaism and the environment have to do with each other? That's a question COEJL/SC's director, David Rosenstein, is always asked, and one he himself asked when he joined the group four years ago. "I was surprised to find out how relevant Judaism is in regard to the environment," said Rosenstein, a congregant at Temple Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades.
"Judaism is [about] taking care of creation, being good stewards of the environment. It's what l'dor vador, from generation to generation, is all about, leaving a better planet for our children. In its most literal sense, it's tikkun olam, to heal the world," he said.
Yet one may argue that the Book of Genesis' call for dominion is what got us into our environmental quagmire in the first place: "God said unto [man], be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth" (Genesis 1:28).
"From the Jewish perspective, there had been a misreading of the traditional biblical story of Genesis," said Harvey Fields, chief rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. "[It was about] a God who created a world and who partners with human beings into caring for the earth. On a biblical level, it meant stewardship over the earth and being responsible for what happens to it, and to the human beings within it."
Rosenstein related how and when the interfaith community and the environmental movement intersected:
"The germ of the idea was a conversation between noted astronomer Carl Sagan and Al Gore in the early '90s, with Sagan asking Gore, 'Why is it that the communities of faith in this country and the environmental groups are so at odds? Environmentalism is nothing more than caring for creation; if you believe that God created this magnificent web of life, then environmentalism is just that, preserving what God gave us.'"
Sagan's idea gave birth to COEJL in the early 1990s; in 1996 came COEJL of Southern California, and last November, Rosenstein signed on as its first director.
Although COEJL/SC's concerns are similar to its 14 affiliates, Southern California presents special challenges.
"Our task is to educate," said Lee Wallach, founding board member of COEJL/SC and co-chair of the Los Angeles Interfaith Environmental Council. "We don't have that kind of leadership, to say the real issue is conservation."
Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have spoken much about conservation, worried about the backlash that haunted Jimmy Carter's tenure. Vice President Dick Cheney even made a point of assuring the public that they would not be asked to wear sweaters this winter. "The reality is that we want our cake and eat it too," said Bruce Bialosky, head of the Los Angeles Republican Jewish Council.
"We want big cars and clean air. At least Bush presented a realistic plan. The reality is we can't conserve ourselves out of this [energy crisis.]"
But for Wallach, conservation and caring for the earth is the only answer. "The mindset in the religious community is that it is not OK to steal from our children by destroying the environment. COEJL educates the community about moral and ethical issues, while recruiting community support for legislation working on these problems."
For the past year, Wallach has lobbied for efficient energy policies as part of the Jewish Public Affairs Council delegation. COEJL/SC played a significant role in supporting Senate Bill 5X, which will free up $1 billion for conservation and renewable energy.
Today, Wallach spends time in Sacramento meeting with Jewish communal leaders to advocate for state legislation such as Assembly Bill 1058, focusing on CO2 levels for vehicle emissions, and Senate Bill 17X, giving tax incentives for solar energy systems.
"When a yarmulke and a collar walk in that door, it is a much different story for Joe Legislature; we're presenting a whole different constituency than the environmental movement; [the interfaith community] is more expansive. The last thing legislators want is religious groups talking bad stuff about them," Wallach said. "I know the religious community makes a difference."
"For the most part, [Jews] get the idea," Rosenstein said. "We understand we have a responsibility to the environment, that we have a responsibility to the poor and impoverished of the world, because environmental issues are stacked against the poor, children and senior citizens. [The Jewish community] makes that connection.
"The biggest challenge is getting people to realize that a lot of these problems are caused by individual acts of individual people, like the carbon dioxide we put into the atmosphere. Driving an SUV rather than a car with average gas mileage requirements is equal to leaving your refrigerator door open for 30 years!"
But would you give up your SUV to make the air a little cleaner? "I did," Rosenstein said. "The one thing that I've learned from this whole thing is that one person can make a difference."
To learn more about COEJL/SC's solar-powered Ner Tamid program and Green Shalom program, please contact David Rosenstein at COEJLSC@aol.com or call (818) 889-5500 x103.