Environmental sustainability is a universal challenge that is slowly making its way to forefront of Jewish consciousness. However, striking the balance between eco-friendliness and Judaism is a challenging endeavor, with the Jewish community dynamically evolving and constantly under negotiation.
Many issues arise when trying to simultaneously maintain a pluralistic community while honoring both the needs of traditional Kashrut standards as well as modern environmental ethics.
There is, for example, the dilemma of deciding whether using mevushal (cooked) wine for Shabbat Kiddush safeguards non-observant Jews from embarrassment or is, by its very nature, an offense to Jewish identity. In addressing the multifaceted issues of modern Jewish practice, visionary new approaches grounded in both Jewish tradition and modern tensions are needed to ensure the growth and vitality of the Jewish people.
Jewish approaches to environmental health and community sustainability provide a strong ethical voice and framework for mobilizing change within our North American Jewish communities. From consideration of food ethics to community gardens and land-based communities that combine social justice with ecological responsibility and Jewish traditions, Jewish institutions are starting to notice the relevance and effect of a new movement – land-based, environmental Judaism.
This movement, and the Jewish environmental education that promotes it, is based on the desire to cultivate connections between Jewish values, environmental ethics and our heritage. Jewish environmental education is helping to ensure the growth, vitality, and plurality of Jewish life in North America, addressing the many intricacies of modern Jewish practices.
While programs have expanded geographically from their establishment in the Northeastern region, maturing over the past two decades, Jewish environment education still faces its most significant challenge: how to become an integral component of mainstream Jewish practice and expression.
The key to achieving a partnership with mainstream Judaism is finding a way to bridge the divide between occasional experiences of Jewish environmental education and regular Jewish practice. Comparable to secular environmental education, Jewish environmental education is based on occasional experiences that manifest themselves in two-hour field trips, week-long residential programs, or even three month fellowships.
But what happens when participants return home? If Jewish environmental principles and spiritual practice are applied only on special trips to the wilderness or to the farm, its impact will remain both physically and spiritually peripheral to everyday life. We must bridge this experiential divide to produce true change within the Jewish community.
Mainstream communities and institutions are seeing the power, depth and relevance of experiential outdoor and environmental education. Several Jewish denominations are developing “eco-kosher” standards that merge Jewish dietary law with modern environmental and social ethics. Major institutions are pushing for the establishment of Jewish community gardens throughout the country.
Kayam Farm is an educational farm where students build an environmentally conscientious community and learn about the connection between sustainable agriculture and Jewish tradition.
Kayam is the first Jewish community farm, rooted in the Baltimore Jewish community and was established six years ago. The farm is nearly halfway through a Covenant Signature Grant to implement community gardens at ten Baltimore Jewish institutions over two years. Kayam is guiding these institutions and their leadership teams throughout the design and creation of the gardens.
Kayam is also facilitating institutional collaboration on Jewish agricultural curriculum, in the hopes of serving as a model for community partnerships around the country.
Despite this marked progress, there is still much work ahead to bring these developments to the next level, taking it beyond community gardens into holistically designed communal spaces and place-based education that fully reflect a Jewish land ethic encompassing personal, communal and environmental health.
Joshua “Yoshi” Silverstein is the former Education Director at Kayam Farm at Pearlstone and is currently pursuing a graduate degree in Landscape Architecture at the University of Maryland.
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