Women Rabbis Are Saving Mother Earth

women rabbi

Photo Credit: Finist4/Shutterstock

When Rabbi Ellen Bernstein founded Shomrei Adamah: Keepers of the Earth, in 1988, it was pioneering as the first national Jewish environmental organization.

The green movement had been around for years — Earth Day was celebrated as a holiday since 1970 — yet it was nascent in religious communities. Bernstein, a scholar who studied ecological themes and roots in the Torah and Jewish rituals, had long sought a venue for her interest and found few outlets, so she created her own.

One of her biggest legacies was writing an earth-oriented Haggadah — a text for a ritualistic seder meal — that encouraged Jews to observe Tu B'Sh'vat. A Holiday of Trees is the name for her guide, a nod to the ecological roots of the Jewish holiday that today is celebrated as Arbor Day in Israel.

One of the first Jewish rabbis to be explicitly, publicly invested in the environmental movement, Berstein today has plenty of company.

This year, more than three decades later, Bernstein took that zeal to release a new, ecologically themed Haggadah to use during “earth seders” for Passover, the spring holiday period that marks the ancient Israelites’ exodus from Egypt.

“Passover celebrates the Jewish journey from slavery to freedom, the coming of spring,” says Bernstein, who is based outside Philadelphia. “It’s a ritual we take part in every year. But for a story that’s about peoplehood, there’s one about land and the natural world. Our holidays commemorate the harvest and land and the soil Judaism grew from. Our well-being and our freedom depend on the Earth’s.”

One of the first Jewish rabbis to be explicitly, publicly invested in the environmental movement, Berstein today has plenty of company. And she’s in the mainstream for Jewish Americans, who surveys have found to be one of the most supportive religious groups in the nation when it comes to believing in the benefits of environmental regulations.

She’s also a prominent signer of Shomrei Breishit: Rabbis and Cantors for the Earth, a statement from dozens of Jewish leaders from around the world that recognizes that “all of humanity is part of a great Order of Creation (Psalm 148) and that it is our role to protect that Order from damage and destruction (Genesis 2:15).” The letter was released by Aytzim — a New York-based Jewish organization — and GreenFaith seven years ago, around the same time as the historic People's Climate March in New York City and cities around the world. It continues to be cited as a call for the Jewish environmental movement.

After more than a year of the COVID-19 pandemic, when tens of millions of Americans have worked from home, avoided large gatherings and stayed at home, the drawbacks of car and consumer culture have been easy to spot in the nation. There are the declines in exhaust fume pollutants on the East Coast early last year, and the brief return of wildlife to formerly crowded areas of national parks, such as the coyotes, bobcats and bears that began to reclaim Yosemite National Park at the onset of the pandemic.

Among Jewish communities, the year has also been a time to reflect on the call in religious teachings to be good stewards of the earth and its people — be they neighbors or strangers across the sea.

Among Jewish communities, the year has also been a time to reflect on the call in religious teachings to be good stewards of the earth and its people — be they neighbors or strangers across the sea.

“We have a culture and ideology in our nation that is non-resting, where we accumulate and work and work and work,” says Rabbi Sheila Weinberg, a former congregational rabbi who has also taught mindfulness and yoga to rabbis. “We are constantly encouraged to consume.”

Weinberg, who lives outside Philadelphia and also signed the Shomrei Breishit statement, sees environmentalism as part of the “core teaching” of Judaism.

“We have the teaching of the Sabbath,” she says. “The individual has six days to work and on the seventh you shall not work. Even with the soil, we have a seventh-year sabbatical where it is not farmed.”

Environmentalism, she says, is not only a part of Judaism but many major faiths, including Christianity and Islam. For Weinberg, that’s part of the draw of faith and spirituality.

“Religion can operate in many ways. It connects people, the natural world, and the animal world and gives us an awareness of the depths of those connections,” she says. “It gives us a lens to think about spirit and the holy God. It tells us to look beyond just ourselves and our lives.”


CircleAround is operated by a wholly owned subsidiary of Girl Scouts of the USA. The site serves adult women nationwide by providing content that is uplifting, thought-provoking, and useful. We make revenue distributions back to GSUSA so they can further their mission of building girls of courage, confidence, and character who make the world a better place.

Trending

Content From Our Partners

You Might Also Like

We use cookies to ensure that you have the best experience possible on our website. Read Our Privacy Policy Here

Got It!