Too often our daily lives are spiritually disconnected from Jewish environmental values and teachings. This Hanukkah, be like the Maccabees and bring a level of religious fervor to tackling some of the environmental crises facing the world. Here are eight easy ways – one for each day of the holiday – to adopt sustainable behaviors that are rooted in Jewish values.
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1. Burn olive oil, not petroleum: The commonly found rainbow Hanukkah candles are made from paraffin (petroleum). Keep the petroleum out of your menorah by burning beeswax or vegetable candles. Alternatively, be just like the Maccabees and burn pure olive oil.
2. Go small, go local: Every food choice we make is an opportunity to fulfill our obligations to protect Creation. Industrial agriculture’s approach to growing food is oppressive and is treated like warfare: us versus them. The use of heavy pesticides and fertilizers destroys critical nutrients in soil, and pollutes the air and water. Dead soil is gone forever; it cannot be replenished. By buying produce from small, local farmers, you opt to protect and preserve local food systems and support foods grown without harmful chemicals that poison our air, water and health.
3. Skip the sour cream: There is an imperative in Judaism not to inflict pain on animals (tzaar baalei hayim). Unfortunately, in the United States alone, some 9 billion animals are slaughtered annually, and their short lives are fraught with abuse. Dairy cows, providing our latkes’ sour cream, are pumped with growth hormones to encourage more intensive milk production. It is painful and dangerous to the cows and ends up in our foods. Choose a dollop of compassion on your latkes instead, by opting for vegan sour cream, organic dairy, or growth-hormone free (labeled rGBH free) sour cream.
4. Save water: Water today is as precious a resource as the small quantity of oil was in the Temple. About 70 percent of the earth is covered in water, 97.5 percent of which is salt water, and the remainder freshwater. However, humans only have access to 1 percent of all the earth's freshwater; the rest is frozen, soil moisture or underground. Our inefficient management of this precious resource threatens our drinking water, food crops and climate. Save water during Hanukkah by skipping meat. Yes, meat, because it has a huge water footprint. To produce one pound of beef requires a whopping 1,799 gallons of water, compared with 216 gallons for soybeans. Less meat = more water.
5. Give a different type of gelt: The practice of giving gelt began as a means of respectfully providing money for poor people to purchase Hanukkah candles. In 2014, there were 48 million people in the United States, including 16 million children, who went hungry, while an estimated 130 billion pounds of food is wasted annually in the country. Hunger is solvable. Pantries best operate with large-scale canned food donations, fresh food and money. Donating unwanted canned foods from your pantry is not the most effective approach. Rather, the most effective ways you can help are by donating money or fresh produce to your local food pantry. Encourage your local supermarkets to donate, not throw out, unsold items to food banks.
6. Thrifty gifts: While we're on the topic of giving, you'll want to rethink the kinds of gifts you give your loved ones. The prohibition against wasting food, water, energy, money and other resources is an over-arching Jewish imperative (bal tashchit). Skip the shopping malls and get creative with your gift giving by making crafts, baking foods and buying items in thrift stores. By skipping gifts shipped to your local big box store, you will lighten your ecological footprint. It will also save money and make your gifts more unique. Bonus!
7. Hanukkah trees (not that kind): This is not about decorating a pine tree topped with a Jewish star in one’s living room. Rather, we can be inspired by the tree-inspired design of the menorah in the Holy Temple: the bounty that it provided to the Maccabees and the sustenance trees provide us every day with food and oxygen. Trees are our air-filters, provider of food, medicine and shelter. They cool our homes, beautify our neighborhoods, absorb carbon-dioxide emissions and give us fresh air to breath. Plant a new tree at your home or support a local tree-planting organization.
8. Eight-use instead of single-use: Single-use products – from water bottles to plastic bags to food containers – have made their way into our daily consumption. While they are a modern convenience that fits in well to our 24/7 on-the-go lifestyles, each of these products – often made from petroleum – generate waste and carbon emissions in their production. Plastic is forever. It doesn’t degrade, but just breaks down into smaller pieces. It takes 1 million years for a plastic milk jug to decompose! Be inspired by the miracle of the Temple oil lasting eight days, not one. Opt for re-usable products such as cloth bags, napkins and glass bottles.
Sarah Newman writes the blog Neesh Noosh: A Jewish Woman’s Journey to Find Faith In Food.