Environmental Activism in the Canadian Jewish Community

, October 27, 2009

While there have been numerous literary efforts to inform the scholarly and lay public concerning ecology and Judaism at least from the 1980s, the penetration of these concepts to the level of ordinary public discourse within the Canadian Jewish community is barely a decade old, and its appreciable impact has been even more recent.

  • The Canadian Jewish community is experiencing a rise in Jewish ecological organizations and activism, largely inspired by similar activism in the United States. The message of the Canadian Jewish public discourse on ecology is that Judaism and environmentalism “are a natural fit,” and that environmental concern is a major Jewish value that advances the practice of tikkun olam (repairing the world.)
  • The ecological discourse is changing the way many in the Canadian Jewish community conceptualize Judaism. It has also begun to concretely change the ways in which the Canadian Jewish community, as a community, acts publicly. Areas affected include food consumption, education, and religious observance.
  • What the Canadian Jewish public is hearing is not so much a sophisticated analysis of Judaic sources relating to ecological concerns as it is an assertion that Judaic sources do speak to this issue. This may reflect the relative newness of the Jewish environmental discourse within the Canadian Jewish community. It may also reflect the largely journalistic nature of this public discourse.
  • Canadians in general are very environmentally conscious and are concerned about the environmental challenges facing humanity both locally and on a global scale.  Many Canadian activists are working to heighten public awareness of the environment and the consequences of environmental mismanagement. They aim to effect a fundamental change in the way Canadian governments, schools, and businesses operate on all levels. Over the past decade, nearly all Canadian institutions have begun a process of adaptation in line with these environmental concerns. These adaptations have had and will have far-reaching consequences for the institutions themselves and for society as a whole.[1]

    While it is clear that many of these Canadian environmental activists are of Jewish origin, [2] not all of them have chosen to influence society specifically as Jews. Many have chosen to join environmental groups and coalitions with no reference to their religious or ethnic origins.[3] This article will not focus on them. It will instead examine the efforts of Canadian Jews who have consciously chosen, as Jews, both singly and in groups, to work both to improve the environment and to educate the public on the relationship between Judaism and Judaic sources and the environmental issue.

    In doing so, the article will analyze and compare the platforms and activities of several Jewish environmentally focused groups that have arisen in cities like Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, and Vancouver, such as Montreal’s TEVA Quebec. It will address differences in approach between groups affiliated with specific Judaic movements, including Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist. The article will also address some similarities and differences between the Canadian groups and Jewish environmental awareness groups in the United States. In addition, it will examine the institutional response of the Canadian Jewish community to this environmental activism. How do synagogues and other Canadian Jewish organizations perceive the environmental issue? In what ways are they beginning to respond and for what purposes?

    Responding to a Challenge

    In a sense, the Jewish response to the current perceived ecological crisis began in the 1960s, when Lynn White, Jr., published an accusation that the Judeo-Christian tradition, and the Hebrew Bible in particular, was responsible for the state of mind in which humans considered that they were allowed free and uninhibited exploitation of the earth and all its resources.  White’s challenge to Christians and to Jews was to “find a new religion or rethink our old one.”[4] This challenge has elicited a significant Jewish response.[5] An example is Rabbi Lawrence Troster, who has written extensively on Judaism and the ecological crisis.[6] He has stated:

    We are at a critical point in the fate of the planet: climate change, environmental responsibility and environmental justice are the critical issues facing humankind. If Judaism cannot help us with this, where else can we turn? If Judaism cannot respond…that speaks to the relevance of our religion…the reality is that none of our traditions had to deal with the environmental crises we are facing today. Environmentalism is a challenge to our whole theology.[7]

    It has been cogently argued by Tanhum Yoreh that the spate of books on Judaism’s ecological ideas that followed White’s publication should be considered a response to his challenge.[8] However, while it is possible to examine numerous literary efforts to inform the scholarly and lay public concerning what Judaism has had to say about ecology at least from the 1980s, it is also fair to say that the penetration of these concepts to the level of ordinary public discourse within the North American Jewish community is barely a decade old, and their appreciable impact has been even more recent.

    Presently, as this examination of the current public communal discourse on this issue in the Canadian Jewish community shows, the ecological challenge is changing the way many in this community conceptualize Judaism. It has also concretely changed the ways in which the community, as a community, acts publicly.[9] Needless to say, the Canadian Jewish community is quite diverse and neither speaks nor acts in unison. It has not acted with one voice on this issue either, though an impression exists that the Canadian Jewish community has not done its part to save the environment. Thus Canadian Jews have been taken to task by Jewish environmental activists such as Tziporah Berman, who stated in a 2008 address to a Jewish group in Vancouver: “When I was doing research, I was horrified to find that the Jewish community in Canada has done nothing about making policy statements concerning Canada’s protection of the environment…. We have an obligation to do something.”[10]

    But while a unified Canadian Jewish political voice on behalf of the environment may be missing, as Berman charges, consciousness of the ecological paradigm in Judaism and Jewish communal life is becoming more publicly evident every year. Montreal’s central Jewish organization, Federation/CJA, for instance, in 2008 formally adopted a Green Plan whose aim was to create

    an ecologically friendly workplace and mak[e] its buildings sustainable. [Then] Federation president Marc Gold said at the plan’s official launch…that concern for the environment is in keeping with the Jewish value of tikkun olam, or healing the world. “We are determined to make concern for the environment part of our daily work habits, part of our DNA, and to do nothing less than effect a culture of change in our workplace,” he said…. The federation also hopes to set an example for the Jewish community as a whole, and is encouraging other institutions, schools and synagogues to follow its lead.[11]

    Impacts on Canadian Jewish Life

    How does the “culture of change” referred to by Gold manifest itself? One can begin with the food Canadian Jews eat. Beth Radom, a Toronto Conservative congregation, has since 2008 established a Community Supported Agriculture organic farming program that offers a variety of kosher and organic produce:

    The Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program links local Ontario organic farms directly with consumers through the availability of fresh vegetable and fruit boxes…. Working in conjunction with Torat HaTeva, the Jewish Nature Centre of Canada…[the] goal in introducing the CSA program to Beth Radom is to make local, organic produce accessible, affordable and convenient for the Jewish community. Michael Schecter of Torat HaTeva says his organization “recognizes there is a disconnect in the community between the environment and Judaism, and is working to repair it. So much of kashrut and Judaism is about healthy living and eating.”[12]

    Indeed ecological factors impinge more and more on attitudes toward kashrut, food that is proper for Jews to eat. Among non-Orthodox Jews, especially Conservative Jews who are, among the non-Orthodox, most concerned with this issue, ecological issues are increasingly deemed a factor in determining kashrut, while major kashrut certification agencies, controlled by Orthodox Jews, are following suit. Thus B’nai B’rith Canada’s  Jewish Tribune reported in 2009: “The Reconstructionist (JRF), Reform (URJ) and Conservative (USCJ) Jewish movements decided that kashrut must embody all Jewish environmental principles…. Both the major certifiers, OU and Star-K, are recognizing that; each began offering kosher-organic certifications in January.”[13]

    From what they eat to where they worship, Canadian Jews are increasingly faced with statements of ecological concern. Rabbis are taking ecology as the subject of their sermons.[14] The ecological trend is particularly evident as well in the design of synagogue buildings. Thus reportage on Toronto’s Reconstructionist congregation, Darchei Noam, which refurbished an older synagogue building in 2008, stated:

    The new synagogue, which is environmentally friendly, is equipped with features such as solar panels, solvent-free paints, low-flow toilets, insulated windows, and light sensors to conserve electricity. Most of the design features in the synagogue represent Darchei Noam’s core principles…. To Rochelle Monas, co-chair of the synagogue’s environmental committee, the building’s environmentalism is a key value in itself. “In terms of Judaism, there’s the obligation around bal tashchit, do not waste, and tikkun olam, repairing the world. As a people [we must] take care of the Earth,” she said. “It goes back to the Torah. It’s there, why would we not [be environmentally friendly] if these are things already in our heritage?”[15]

    Indeed Darchei Noam’s ecological consciousness has been cited as a shining example for the entire Reconstructionist movement:

    Robert Barkin, president of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, cited Darchei Noam as a “beautiful example” of the JRF’s mission of fostering “transformative Judaism” for the 21st century. “What could be more 21st century than constructing a building with solar panels?” he asked. “Every aspect of your building is built with the concept of being good shepherds for all that God has given us.”[16]

    However, it is not merely buildings connected with liberal Jewish movements that glory in their green-ness. Edmonton’s Orthodox synagogue, Beth Israel, had a renovation in 2009. As the synagogue leadership explained the purpose and motivation of this renovation, note how ecological and economic arguments are intertwined:

    [T]his greening will serve two purposes: “It will reduce our impact on the environment and will also save us money. These are tight times for the synagogue. We’re looking for ways to save money and make budget dollars go further. The committee wants to minimize utility bills.” Another complementary motivation…is the overall “growing interest in reducing our environmental impact. Prior to the committee taking on this project, the synagogue had already taken important steps like installing low-flow fixtures in bathrooms, switching to halogen, fluorescent or LED [light-emitting dioxide] lighting from incandescent where possible, recycling cardboard and deposit containers, keeping an eye on thermostats and turning out lights whenever possible.”[17]

    It would seem that the environment has become a design idiom in the building and renovation of other Canadian synagogues. Toronto’s Conservative Beth Torah Congregation, for example, built a new sanctuary with the following commentary: “The new sanctuary, reflecting a minimalist and environmental esthetic, is illuminated with natural light and constructed from wood, stone and metal.”[18] Likewise, Toronto’s Jewish-sponsored Baycrest Geriatric Center renovated with the environment on its mind: “An exposed roof section of the garden was covered with a ‘green roof,’ an environmentally friendly design that will help conserve heat and cooling in the building below. ‘Baycrest in general is big on the environment…,’ said Mark Gryfe, president of the Baycrest Foundation.”[19]

    The Toronto Jewish community has also supported the establishment of the Kavanah Garden at the Lebovic Jewish Community Campus in Vaughan, Ontario.[20] The purpose of this demonstration Jewish organic farm, according to one of its coordinators, is to show that “Judaism is…rich in ecological and agricultural wisdom, and that an organic garden will give children and community members a chance to access these teachings through experiential programs and projects.”[21]

    Jewish schools have begun in earnest to integrate ecology into their curricula. Most prominent in Canada with respect to this trend is Toronto’s Heschel School, which boasts an environmental coordinator and “has a very strong environmental ethos that’s expressed everywhere from its curriculum to its composting program.”[22] Other Jewish schools are following suit.[23]

    What are Canadian Jewish students in their schools, and their elders in synagogues and other Jewish organizations being taught? Generally, the message that has made its way into the Canadian Jewish public discourse is that Judaism and environmentalism “are a natural fit,” that Jews “are people of the land,” that many Jewish festivals – Sukkot being the most visible – are “connected to food and agriculture,” and that environmental concern is a major Jewish value “that advance[s] the practice of tikkun olam….”[24]   Rabbi Troster, who served as visiting scholar at Toronto’s Reconstructionist Darchei Noam in early 2010, is reported to have stated, “Judaism is an optimistic religion. We believe in tikkun olam. Jews are strong supporters and activists for environmental causes and organizations.”[25]

    They are being told as well that North American Jewish concern and support for Israel can and should be expressed in environmental terms.  Thus environmental education has become one of the major foci of North American Jewish philanthropy in Israel,[26] while the Jewish National Fund has acquired a new “environmentally friendly focus.”[27] As well, JNF has begun cooperating in joint Canada-Israel ecological projects.[28] The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel – Israel’s largest environmental organization – has taken steps to create a Canadian “circle of friends.”[29]

    Judaic rituals such as the Sabbath are being presented by some as “eco-friendly,”[30] and minor occasions in the Judaic calendar have become holidays. One of these, the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Shvat, is now accompanied by its own ritual, which is expressed in a diverse manner, celebrating Judaism’s bond with the earth. As activist Anna Stevenson rightly stated: “There’s no Biblical Laws about the holiday. It can be at a home or a synagogue. It can be led by anyone. Depending on interpretation, the fruit can be dedicated towards Zionistic ends, personal growth or environmental ends.”[31] Many Passover Seders are like one in 2010 in Sherbrooke, Quebec, which was “patterned on the Freedom Seder for the Earth and use an ecologically minded Haggadah, created by the Shalom Center, founded by U.S. Rabbi Arthur Waskow….”[32]

    An Organizational Flowering

    Driving much of the ecological expression in the Canadian Jewish public square is a series of organizations specifically geared toward raising environmental consciousness within the Canadian Jewish community. There is a consensus that the founding of these Canadian organizations was inspired by the existence of several American Jewish environmental- consciousness organizations that were founded earlier. This consensus is expressed by Rabbi Troster:

    It is only recently, though, that these issues have become strongholds in the consciousness of the Canadian Jewish community, he said. “The issue is strongest in liberal Judaism, with the Reconstructionist movement being the most progressive. Orthodox sectors are often more inward-looking, but there are some exceptions, like Canfei Nesharim, an Orthodox environmental organization which is doing excellent work.”[33]

    Under the influence of such American Jewish organizations as Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), founded in 1993,[34] Canadian Jewish environmental organizations began organizing. This started with a group called Adam va-Adama in Vancouver in 1998. The group’s activities were summarized in a 2003 article:

    The organization develops programs that demonstrate how Jewish environmental values can be applied to daily life. Examples include a program that was developed with the help of the Farm Folk/City Folk Society that shows the connection between Sukkot and topical agricultural issues, such as organics; a program that highlights the environmental themes of Tu b’Shvat, the Festival of Trees; and an energy conservation program called “Eight Days, Eight Actions” that ties in with Chanukah. For the past four years, AvA has collaborated with the First Nations’ Ut’sam/Witness Program to offer a Wilderness Shabbaton. The weekend program combines observance of Shabbat with education about the environment and First Nations culture and spiritual traditions. AvA also holds an annual eco-retreat at the Sunwolf Outdoor Centre, which is located near Squamish.[35]

    The Jewish Nature Centre of Canada – Torat HaTeva was established in Toronto in 2002.[36] Winnipeg’s group, Adamah’Nitoba, was founded in 2006. For this group in particular it is possible to point to the direct influence of American organizations, particularly COEJL. As an article on the group’s founding by Green Party activist Alon Weinberg stated:

    Weinberg began contemplating the need for an organization like Adamah’Nitoba three years ago while he was working at the Teva Learning Center in New York, teaching Jewish kids about the environment and leading environmental camping sessions. “I came back to Winnipeg in the spring of 2004 for my zaide’s funeral,” Weinberg says. “Then I went back east to attend the COEJL annual conference [in Boston that year]. I was sitting with about a dozen other Canadian delegates and we began discussing the need for a Canadian network. There are Jewish ecology groups in Vancouver [Adam va-Adama] and Toronto [Torat HaTeva]. I figured there can’t be a network without a group in Winnipeg.”

    It is also worth noting that the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba was prepared to grant initial funding to this group.[37]

    The last major Canadian Jewish ecological organization to be founded is TEVA Quebec of Montreal, in 2008. Its founder, Rabbi Shachar Orenstein,[38] had worked with Adam va-Adama when living in Vancouver.  His statement to the press at the founding of TEVA Quebec reveals much about the Canadian Jewish environmental movement: “Montreal is one of the last major Jewish communities in North America without a Jewish environmental group, he said. Toronto alone has several, some along denominational, lines, he noted. ‘There is a lot going on in Canada, and the United States is miles ahead of us with its innovative programming.'”[39] Here too it is worth noting that TEVA Quebec has received funding from Montreal’s Federation/CJA.[40]

    There has been an attempt to create a network of Canadian Jewish ecological organizations, and a conference to this effect was held in Toronto in 2007.[41] Nevertheless, this network has not had an apparent impact on the Canadian Jewish public discourse on this issue. Indeed it is hard to say that the local organizations in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, and Montreal are having more than a marginal influence on the Canadian Jewish community.  Alon Weinberg of Winnipeg thus writes of his group’s experience:

    Now in our third year, the seed money running out, who we are is not so clear; as the project continues to attract a diverse, multi-generational group of individuals, with no two events shared by the same people. Which means both that there are a lot of seekers out there, that people are open to a spiritual approach to ecology or an ecological approach to spirituality if you will…AND that we are not a cult. Rather this is a dynamic experimental project and hence not an organization with a board and a tax-deductible number.[42]

    Conclusions

    Ecological consciousness among Canadian Jews is a relatively recent phenomenon, influenced strongly by the example of the large, powerful, and culturally influential Jewish community in the United States. It seems equally evident, however, that the Canadian Jewish community as a whole is in the process of undergoing a significant change in how it expresses itself religiously and organizationally, and ecological consciousness is definitely a notable part of this change.

    The level of ecological consciousness and activism within the Canadian Jewish discourse has tended, however, to be somewhat superficial in nature. What the Canadian Jewish public is hearing is not so much a sophisticated analysis of Judaic sources relating to ecological concerns as it is an assertion that Judaic sources do speak to this issue. This assertion generally consists of the standard environmental discourse backed up with an essentially eclectic citation of Judaic principles such as bal tashhit [do not destroy/spoil] and tikkun olam [repairing the world]. This may reflect the relative newness of the Jewish environmental discourse within the Canadian Jewish community. It may also reflect the largely journalistic nature of the sources of this public discourse.

    In any case, there is no doubt that ecological consciousness and rhetoric have measurably changed the way in which Canadian Jews express their communal ideals. Whether the growth of Canadian Jewish ecological activism on an organizational basis is a spur to this change, or merely a reflection of it, remains an open question.  What is not in question is that the public actions and rhetoric of the Canadian Jewish community have become noticeably “greener” in the past decade.

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    [1] On Canadian environmentalism and its issues, see David Freeland Duke, ed., Canadian Environmental History: Essential Readings (Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press, 2006); Alan MacEachern and William J. Turkel, eds., Method and Meaning in Canadian Environmental History (Toronto: Nelson Education, 2009).

    [2]  E.g., Tziporah Berman, www.newswire.ca/en/releases/archive/March2009/02/c5228.html [accessed 7 June 2010].

    [3] On this phenomenon, see David A. Hollinger, “Communalist and Dispersionist Approaches to American Jewish History in an Increasingly Post-Jewish Era,” American Jewish History 95:1 (March 2009): 6-11.

    [4] Lynn White, Jr., “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” Science 155 (1967): 1203-1207.

    [5] Manfred Gerstenfeld, Judaism, Environmentalism and the Environment: Mapping and Analysis (Jerusalem: Rubin Mass, 1998), 13ff.

    [6] On Rabbi Troster and his writings, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawrence_Troster [accessed 13 June 2010].

    [7] Shayla Gunter-Goldstein, “Sowing the Seeds for a Greener Jewish Future,” Canadian Jewish News [hereafter CJN], 28 January 2010.

    [8] For a survey of these responses, see Tanhum Yoreh, “Environmental Embarrassment: Genesis 1:26-28 vs. Genesis 2:15,” in Tzemah Yoreh et al., eds., Vixens Disturbing Vineyards: Embarrassment and Embracement of Scriptures (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2010), 558ff.

    [9] Ira Robinson, “Canadian Jewry Today: Portrait of a Community in the Process of Change,” Changing Jewish Communities 12, 15 September 2006,

    www.jcpa.org

    [10] Rebeca Kuropatwa, “Canadian Jews Told to Step Up to the Plate on Environmental Issues,” Jewish Tribune [hereafter JT], 15 February 2008.

    [11] Janice Arnold, “Community Campus Taking Steps to Save Environment,” CJN, 19 June 2008.  In the January 2010 issue of Tikkun Olam, Federation/CJA announced that its Work Green program had been certified by Canada’s national environmental certification program for commercial buildings.

    [12] Shayla Gunter-Goldstein, “Shul Helps Bring Fresh Produce to Congregations,” CJN, 10 January 2008. See further www.bethradom.com/csa.html [accessed 10 June 2010].

    [13] Martin Westerman, “Kosher versus Organic-Or Is It Kosher and Organic?,” JT, 18 November 2009.

    [14] One example among many is that of Rabbi Michael Whitman of Montreal’s four-part series on “Judaism and the Environment,” October 2007, www.adathcongregation.org/audio_classes.html.

    [15] Rita Poliakov, “Architecture Reflects Congregation’s Values,” CJN, 4 September 2008.

    [16] Frances Kraft, “Darchei Noam Moves into Its Reconstructed Home,” CJN, 7 February 2008.

    [17] Rebeca Kuropatwa, “Edmonton Synagogue Is Going Green,” JT, 3 June 2009.

    [18] Cara Edell, “Beth Torah Celebrates Addition, Renovation,” CJN, 23 September 2009.

    [19] Tania Haas, “Bathurst Residents Enjoy New Rooftop Garden,” CJN, 20 September 2007.

    [20] Dorothy Lipovenko, “Adamah Brings a Jewish Approach to Organic Farming,” CJN, 21 October 2009.

    [21] Frances Kraft, “Lebovic Campus Will Be Home to Organic Garden,” CJN, 10 January 2008.

    [22] Frances Kraft, “Hands-On Teacher Really Digs the Environment,” CJN, 22 September 2005; idem, “Heschel’s Helfand Not a Stereotypical Teacher,” CJN, 29 January 2009; idem, “Symposium Inspires Educators to Plant a School Garden,” CJN, 9 September 2009.

    [23] Kraft, “Symposium.”

    [24] Lipovenko, “Adamah.”

    [25] Shayla Gunter-Goldstein, “Sowing the Seeds for a Greener Jewish Future,” CJN, 28 January 2010.

    [26] Sheldon Kirshner, “Group Launches Matching Grants Initiative for Israel,” CJN, 19 August 2005.

    [27] Paul Lungen, “JNF Blue Boxes Help Turn Israel Green in the Design of Their Buildings,” CJN, 19 November 2009.

    [28] Andy Levy-Ajzenkopf, “JNF to Launch Family Tree-Planting Day in Toronto,” CJN, 9 September 2009.

    [29] Sheldon Kirshner, “Israeli Environmental Group Comes to Canada,” CJN, 24 May 2006.

    [30] “Can Jewish Tenets Be Model for More Eco-Friendly World?,” JTA, CJN, 18 November 2009.

    [31] Yehudi Ben Simon, “Seders Aren’t Just for Passover,” JT, 3 February 2009. Cf. Carolyn Blackman, “Tu B’shvat Seder Promotes Environmentalism,” CJN, 28 January 2005.

    [32] Janice Arnold, “Jewish Community Centre Opened in Sherbrooke,” CJN, 25 February 2010.

    [33] Gunter-Goldstein, “Sowing the Seeds.”

    [34] www.coejl.org/~coejlor/about/history.php [accessed 13 June 2010].  It is worth noting that COEJL lists Canadian Jewish environmental organizations as “regional affiliates.”

    [35] Peter Caulfield, “Environmental Society Wins Award,” CJN, 20 June 2003.

    [36] www.torathateva.org [accessed 13 June 2010].

    [37] Myron Love, “Green Party Activist Starts Jewish Ecology Group,” CJN, 18 October 2006.

    [38] Janice Arnold,  “Rabbi Orenstein Takes Helm at Historic Shul,” CJN, 9 September 2009.

    [39] Janice Arnold, “Rabbi Challenges Jews to Clean Up Shoreline,” CJN, 28 August 2008.

    [40] Arnold, “Rabbi Orenstein.”

    [41] Alon Weinberg, “The Long Journey to a Canadian Jewish Ecology Network,” AdaMah’nitoba Wheel 2:2-3 (April 2007): 8, 12,  www.adamahnitoba.org/pdf/AdaMahnitoba_Wheel_Passover.pdf.

    [42] Alon Weinberg, “Ada’Manitoba in Its Third Year,” AdaMah’nitoba Wheel 3: 1-4 (May 2008): 1, www.adamahnitoba.org/pdf/wheel_gimmel_compressed.pdf.

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    Ira Robinson is professor of Judaic Studies in the Department of Religion, Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada. He has written extensively on issues relating to Judaism and science as well as on the Canadian Jewish community.

    Yosef Dov Robinson has an MA in city and regional planning from Ohio State University. He is currently studying for his MA in environmental assessment at Concordia University.