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From the Garden of Eden to modern community-supported organic gardens, Jews are returning to their biblical call “to till and to tend” the earth.
Spurred by the popularity of environmental movements across denominations and the demands of the economic recession, Jewish leaders are transforming ancient concepts and observances — including Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year and the “Birthday of the World” that starts on Sept. 18 — into a religious basis for sustainability.
“You didn’t used to see this. There was more of a turn inward, a focus on the spiritual and the ritual,” said Rabbi Asher Lopatin, who leads the Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation, a modern Orthodox community in Chicago. “But now, we’re getting out of this ghetto mentality and caring for the world around us.”
Jewish groups are incorporating environmental awareness into traditional celebrations like Rosh Hashanah, as well as the way they maintain their facilities and organizations and their positions on political issues.
Among those leading the push to go green is the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, Ill., whose synagogue has won acclaim as one of the greenest houses of worship in the country, meeting the highest level of standards set out by the U.S. Green Building Council.
Still, the building itself — although impressive with its golden, wood-paneled exterior and walls of windows — is just one piece of the congregation’s green living policy, said Carole Caplan, the congregation’s former president.
“It’s what comes afterwards that makes the difference,” she said, pointing to sustainability practices such as using recycled paper, prohibiting cars from idling in the parking lot and encouraging members to adopt greener lifestyles at home.
“It’s the stewardship of the earth,” Caplan said. “It makes sense in a spiritual community.”
Environmentalism was not a central concern in the past, when Jews were more concerned with maintaining their communities amidst persecution. For centuries, a few Jewish laws that address agriculture and crop rotation — now used to link Judaism to environmental care — lost their significance since Jews did not own land nor work as farmers, experts say.
“Now, you have a return to (these laws) because of the heightened awareness,” said Byron Sherwin, a theologian at Chicago’s Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies. “It’s more a product of contemporary trends than classic Jewish sources.”
In today’s world, Jews are empowered to do more. Although they make up less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, Jews have significant societal influence as leaders in business, politics and entertainment, as well as overseas, where they’ve become more secure in their Israeli homeland.
That sense of security has helped the green movement, well, take root in Jewish life. For example, the Domestic Affairs Commission of the Jewish Community Relations Council in Chicago once focused mainly on hate crimes, interfaith dialogue and related issues. Now it includes an environmental initiative that addresses alternative energy, global warming and sustainability.
“Only in the past few years, admittedly, has the environment become more of a priority for the Jewish Federation, as it has for the rest of Americans,” said David Brinn, a domestic affairs associate for the organization, which partners with other groups to lobby for clean car legislation and renewable energy programs, distribute compact-fluorescent light bulbs and educate the community about environmental issues.
Web sites offer tips on ways Jews can incorporate sustainability into daily life. For example, during the fall High Holy Days, the Jewish campus group Hillel encourages celebrants to educate themselves on climate change and make resolutions to take on more eco-friendly practices in the year ahead.
“It’s bringing together two worlds: me as a human being, just living in the world and me as a Jew,” said Lopatin, whose parents, members of the Sierra Club, led him to see environmental concerns in line with his faith. “I never want those two worlds to be in contradiction. It’s very exciting for those two worlds to come together.”
Anshe Sholom’s efforts to save energy, conserve paper, recycle and support local community agriculture come from a strict observation of Jewish law. They believe God prohibits excess waste and destruction, so both can be considered sins.
Judaism provides “an entire theory of not wasting resources and not wasting your time and funding,” said Rabbi Steve Gutow, the executive director of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, or COEJL, based in New York.
“Religion is a deep calling,” he said, “and as we see the earth being deeply threatened, these teachings really matter.”
By KATE SHELLNUTT
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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