February 4, 2009
In Search of a Jewish Environmentalism for the Family
I like to think of myself as an ecoconscious kinda gal. My husband, Julian, and I make an effort to tread lightly on this earth. We bring our own bags to the supermarket, we buy local, organic food whenever possible and we try to choose products with the least amount of packaging.
While greening our lives has been something of a no-brainer, we started to get serious about it once I became pregnant. Suddenly I saw toxins everywhere, and the sad state of our planet became a dire thing. The future was no longer this nebulous thing now that I had a little person in my charge.
I hope to give my 14-month-old, Leon, the world — quite literally — so we began to try harder. I phased out my chemical-laden cleansers and started making my own, usually a combination of vinegar, water and maybe some lemon or baking soda. Out went our dish soap and shampoo; in came the nontoxic biodegradable stuff. Paper towels and napkins have been traded in for cloth versions.
Making ecologically sound choices has evolved into a lifestyle for us. And though it isn’t always the easy choice — I long for fewer dirty rags and a sparkling, bleached-out bathtub — it’s what we’re most comfortable with.
As Julian and I feel our way through our second year as parents, the “green” portion of my household has come readily, though we’re still forging our family’s Jewish identity. I’ve started to wonder if our ecosensibilities could be a part of the equation. Jewish environmental activism has become de rigueur as eco-Jewish organizations, initiatives and conferences have become commonplace. Do the same principles of eco-Judaism apply within the walls of my home? And does it even matter?
“There’s nothing in the Torah that says we should be using vinegar instead of harsh chemicals,” said Liore Milgrom-Elcott, project manager at the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life. “But there is a general sense that we are stewards of the planet.”
“One of the first things in Genesis, when God gives us the world, is it’s not just a free-for-all; we need to make sure that it’s cared for properly,” she said. “That’s a permanent obligation that can extend to any environmental consideration.”
Environmental considerations apply to the home, too.
“When the Temple was destroyed, the Jewish home became the new temple,” Milgrom-Elcott said. “All of our rituals replicated what used to happen in the Temple. If you are a person who cares about the earth, the simple, logical, Jewish step is that your home should represent these values.”
Everyone I spoke with regarding the Jewish-ecological connection mentioned the Jewish obligation toward tikkun olam, Hebrew for “repairing the world.” Although the tenet can (and should) be extended to just about any social justice issue, Milgrom-Elcott points out that it can (and should) be taken literally, too.
“There’s no question that we’ve damaged our world,” she said.
Though I found Milgrom-Elcott’s theories inspiring, I had trepidations about my motivations. Of course I wanted a healthier planet for all future generations — but my foremost concern is for my son.
Lerman-Golomb assured me there’s nothing selfish about my efforts close to home.
“It’s a social justice issue because of the fact that our lifestyle, how we live, impacts other people — not just locally but globally,” she said.
“Our universal identity is part of our Jewish identity,” said Ellen Bernstein, a writer, teacher and founder of Shomrei Adamah, the first national Jewish environmental organization. “Being Jewish also means being part of the greater world. It means being a blessing to the world. That universality is a very important part of being Jewish.”
I loved how Bernstein viewed her humanity as a key element of her Jewish identity rather than the other way around. But I wasn’t entirely convinced about the eco connection until I began to ponder the whole “light onto nations” thing.
Lerman-Golomb told me how she raised her two daughters, ages 18 and 21, in a vegetarian, ecoconscious home.
“I would send my kids off to school with lunchboxes with no waste in them,” she said, recalling how another mom commented on how she couldn’t handle the thought of daily Thermos washing. Eventually, Lerman-Golomb said, the mother traded in juice boxes for reusable containers, too.
That got me thinking that no matter what Julian, Leon and I do — whether it’s renting bikes (and not cars) on vacation or shlepping aluminum water bottles around the city, we have the opportunity as humans, and Jews, to set an example.
What it boils down to, I think, is intent. I’m still not sure how much we’ll entwine our Judaism and environmentalism, but I like that it’s an option.
“When you’re doing it [being ecologically sound] as part of the Jewish community, it spreads,” Milgrom-Elcott said. “If you’re having someone over for Shabbat dinner, and you’re serving food that’s local and seasonal, chances are it will come up in conversation.”