BOSTON - In war-torn Israel, environmental issues are often secondary to safety concerns.
"There was a sense that, `When peace comes, then we'll worry about the environment,'" Philip Warburg, president of the Conservation Law Foundation, said of Israeli sentiment toward environmental degradation.
"I would like to say, `It's the best of times; it's the worst of times,' but really, the worst of times is pretty clear," said Lisa Gann-Perkal, program director of the Jewish Global Environmental Network, or JGEN.
"We're not going to bring peace to the Middle East, not today, not this week or this month," she said, "but there are ways we can make a difference, and the environment can certainly be one of those ways."
Warburg and Gann-Perkal were two of the many speakers at the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life's annual meeting held in conjunction with the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and Tzedek Hillel.
Gann-Perkal's 1-year-old networking program places emphasis "on making this world a better place not because it's a personal value, but because it's a Jewish value," she said.
The Jewish religion uses the phrase 'tikkun olam' to describe the religious imperative and desire to repair the world. "We need to say what Judaism stands for is social justice, community action and a clean environment," said Gann-Perkal.
According to Daniel Orenstein, a doctoral student at the Center for Environmental Studies at Brown University, the preservation of the land is paramount in Jewish values.
"Our identity is tied to the physical landscape," Orenstein said. "By losing that, we're losing a fundamental part of us."
Surprisingly, said Orenstein, who is also a former faculty member at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Israel, funding for the Israeli department of environmental ministry is less than one-tenth of 1 percent of Israel's budget: That amount is one-sixth of the religious ministry, he said, one of the smaller departments in Israel's government.
Rachel Lessem, a 30-year-old resident of Cambridge, Mass., and a member of the steering committee for the coalition's Boston branch, said that she experienced Israel's environmental degradation first hand. On a trip to the country with her parents, she said they were astounded at the intense increase of smog that enveloped the major cities within the last 20 years.
Orenstein said that the desire for houses with yards - which grew out of what he called the Israeli suburban dream of the 1980s - has permanently altered the landscape with "incredibly fast changes." So fast that Orenstein recounted stories about people who reminisced about the orange groves that used to surround their towns. The storytellers, he said, were only 18 years old.
Though only slightly smaller in area than New Jersey, Israel has a growth rate of about 1.5 percent. Orenstein said the population west of the Jordan River grows by about an additional million people every 10 years, making Israel's growth far from static.
Warburg said that despite the nationalistic trend in Israel since World War II to rebuild population and follow the biblical command to be fruitful and multiply, "The modern spin can be, `The land is full!'"
Though Jewish traditions and teachings can be reinterpreted in an environmental light, members of the coalition stressed the importance of incorporating the wisdom of other religious traditions as well.
During one of Monday's workshop sessions, participants discussed the need for an interfaith connection to help preserve and protect the environment.
"If we stepped out of our Jewish box, we could have a greater impact," said Susan Kaplan, chair of the Southern Arizona chapter of the coalition.
One of the ways that the Jewish coalition is attempting to step outside of this box is through programs like Partners for Environmental Quality - whose acronym is pronounced "peak" - which is a state-wide, interfaith environmental coalition based in New Jersey.
"I really am moved and also enjoy very much being able to speak in different non-Christian religious settings about environmental concerns," said the Rev. Fletcher Harper, Partners president.
Harper, an Episcopal priest, has worked closely with Rabbi Elliott Tepperman of Temple Bnai Keshet in Montclair, N.J. Together with other representatives like Barbara Lerman-Golomb, they reach out to congregations to teach them how their religion relates to environmental issues.
"All of these major religious traditions now are in the early stages of developing a language and an ethic around their relationship to the Earth," said Harper.
Lerman-Golomb, a coalition board member from New York, remarked that some Jewish and Christian congregations don't really understand the connection that religious teachings have with the environment.
Though she had a traditional Jewish upbringing, Lerman-Golomb said, "I never knew any of the connections between the two." Part of her goal is to find out why this is no longer an intuitive link for her religious community. "I've been stopping every rabbi that I meet and asking them where the disconnect came from between Judaism and nature or environment," she said.
Harper said his approach is more one of letting people in different faith traditions come to their own conclusions about the environment-religion connection.
"If I go in and sort of play dumb, lots of people who have been lifelong members of these different religious traditions can start to identify themes from within their tradition that relate to environmental protection," Harper said.
The benefit of using environmentalism to tie religions together, said Lee Wallach, co-chair of the Los Angeles Interfaith Environmental Council, is that, "It's all translatable. There's an interfaith message there to be heard."
Wallach said he tries to push forward an interfaith agenda over a monotheistic interpretation of environmental concerns because then "it all becomes much more palatable."
Rabbi Fred Dobb, who serves as the coalition's rabbinic fellow, countered Wallach's position. "Interfaith is only possible because people are rooted in their faith communities," said Dobb. "If we don't tend our own garden, we won't be contributing to the interfaith roundtable."
Lerman-Golomb agreed that environmental concerns may be the way to galvanize change in Israel and promote a return to faith traditions at the same time.
"This is the way to bring Jews back to Judaism," she said.