The Promise of the Land: An Interview with Rabbi Ellen Bernstein
Rabbi Ellen Bernstein founded the first national Jewish environmental organization, Shomrei Adamah, Keepers of the Earth in 1988 and helped launch the joint field of religion and ecology. She has been teaching and writing about Judaism, the Bible, and ecology for over 30 years. Her books include The Splendor of Creation, Ecology & the Jewish Spirit, and most recently an ecologically rooted Passover haggadah, The Promise of the Land. She wrote the first ecologically oriented Tu B’Shevat haggadah in 1988 and has created city-wide Tu B’Shevat festivals around the US. She believes in the power of religious traditions and religious communities to inspire and mobilize people to care for the Earth and all its inhabitants.
What is the origin story of your Jewish environmentalism?
I always believed that the environmental crisis was a spiritual crisis, a crisis in values.
I worried about the environment as a young person and chose to attend one of the first environmental studies programs in the country at UC Berkeley. I was also getting interested in spirituality. I imagined that any tradition that had survived 2,000-plus years must have the ecological wisdom I was looking for, so I figured I had better explore my own.
I started studying the weekly biblical portion with a friend and was stunned to find so many ecological ideas. I figured that since the Torah was full of ecological wisdom, there must be a Jewish environmental organization, and I began looking, but I never found one.
I ended up moving to Mt. Airy in Philadelphia, where I was surrounded by Reconstructionist and Renewal folks. Their response to my question, “is there a Jewish environmental organization?” was, “There isn’t; you should start one!” That was the beginning of Shomrei Adamah!
I wasn’t looking to be a Jewish environmentalist. I was looking for a Jewish home.
Caring for our world is a universal expression of love; so the language of “Jewish environmentalism” sounds narrow and restrictive, and doesn’t describe my experience. Any “ism” really implies an “us/them” dichotomy that makes me uneasy. “Isms” can position one side as right and everyone else as wrong. It is well known that people on the right, conservatives, are often alienated by “environmentalist” language, yet many are committed to protecting the forests, waterways, and creatures where they live. We need to reach everyone, regardless of ideology or politics, so we need to be careful about how we communicate.
Additionally, the word “environment” is an abstraction—it’s disembodied. There’s no color in it; it doesn’t speak to the fullness of the natural world. And this work is really about the embodiment of the natural world and of Judaism.
What challenges have you faced and overcome in your work?
When I started Shomrei Adamah in 1988, it was the only national Jewish environmental organization. Thousands of Jews were hungry to express their caring for nature as Jews. (We had 3,000 members, including hundreds of synagogues.) People came to us for everything that had anything to do with Judaism and ecology. I needed to pull in and define what we could do as an organization, and what we couldn’t. Within two years, Shomrei Adamah defined itself as an educational organization—and left the activist work to others.
I was interested in illuminating the ecological wisdom hidden in Torah. We needed to ask new questions of the text in order to discover new insights and contextualize Torah in terms of ecology. With my background, this was naturally my approach.
There were many personal challenges: I was an introvert in an extrovert’s job. I was a newbie in the Jewish world. I had never run a non-profit organization. There was no playbook.
Years after Shomrei Adamah, there were new challenges: How do I continue to do this work on my own? In the Jewish world, there was no financial or institutional support to ensure scholarly and creative work in the field of Judaism and ecology could flourish. Ecology is a vast field of study with philosophical, theological, psychological, aesthetic, and ethical dimensions (to name but a few), yet we have very few Jewish scholars paying attention to it. There are no advanced degree programs in Judaism and ecology (at Jewish institutions) and very few courses in it in Jewish studies programs. Many people value environmental actions or environmental education for kids—these are fundable endeavors with immediate measurable results. But the Jewish community hasn’t valued original thinking or scholarship in this realm. So, I had to deal with the isolation and lack of support. Ideas need to percolate; ideas take time.
What has it meant to do this work as a woman?
I don’t know how many of the challenges in my work had to do with me being a woman versus me just being me. While my male colleagues always seemed to have quick and obvious answers to everything, I struggled to articulate my ideas.
I work slowly; I don’t have readily available answers. It could take me days, weeks, years to find the words to express what is in my gut.
I often felt that folks were looking for guidance—for answers to the questions “What should we do? How do we fix the environmental situation?” My orientation is to go back to the (Jewish) sources to consider how to think, how to live, to go inside to discern what resonates for me, and to pay attention to my intuition. There are a million ways to live a fulfilling and ecologically meaningful life, of responding to the environmental challenges in our backyards and in the world. I hope to inspire people, to motivate them from the inside out, and to engage their hearts and imaginations rather than to tell them what to do. You could say that my commitment to my intuition is part of what it means to do this work as a woman.
I had been turned off from both religion and environmental organizations because of the heavy-handed moralizing orientation I often found in these arenas. Some of my male colleagues tended to speak in a moralizing tone. This wasn’t necessarily intrinsic to their gender; they just happened to be men. I wanted to avoid any moralizing.
Throughout my career, I wasn’t always taken seriously—was this because I was a woman, or because of my approach to Judaism, or because I was different? Finding my voice has been a challenge—but again, I don’t know how much of this has to do with gender, or with an upbringing in which thinking and expressing oneself outside of narrow conventional norms was never valued or encouraged.
When you think back on your work, what brings you pride?
Starting Shomrei Adamah as the first Jewish environmental organization—raising the money for it, writing the materials, developing programs, supervising staff, building a board, and dealing with all the challenges, with no prior organizational experience and no prior involvement in the Jewish community… I’m still proud of that.
I’m proud of the thinking I have done and the books that I’ve written, including The Promise of the Land, my new ecological Passover haggadah.
I’m proud of positioning my work in the public arena—in the marketplace of ideas—for all people, not just Jews. My first Tu B’Shevat seder was held in one of the Philadelphia boat houses and co-sponsored by the Philadelphia Parks Department; there were over 200 people there. My second was covered by NPR and broadcast nationally.
What brought your attention to Pesach for your most recent project?
Behrman House had wanted to publish a “green” Passover haggadah, and they found me.
Luckily, I had spent the past decade thinking about the place of eretz—which means both “land” and “earth”—in the Bible. If I were going to write an ecologically centered Passover haggadah, I would need to connect the idea of freedom to the well-being of the land/the Earth. Over time, I realized that the connection between land and freedom was originally supposed to be central in the haggadah, but the verses that held these ideas were dropped before the haggadah was actually written down. Once I understood this, I was able to retrieve the missing verses and develop a haggadah that was deeply green, while still staying true to the tradition.
I was particularly excited about the potential of this project because I believe in the power of holidays as a way to organize a people and a culture. Deep down, most of our Jewish holidays are ecological; they can inspire people, fortify them, and support them to continue on an ecological path. And this is critical because environmental problems are not going away, and we need to be able to find joy so that we can persist.
This April marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, and all over the world, there will be a wave of energy rising. During the whole month, there will be programs and activities directed toward environmental restoration. I’m working to seed Earth Seders that use The Promise of the Land as a guide, to help re-envision what it means to be Jewish, and to re-invigorate our commitment to our earthy home.
Any closing thoughts?
It’s easy to talk about what people should do, but you can’t just keep banging people over the head. Many people suffer from green fatigue and climate anxiety, and they want to avoid the conversation altogether.
You have to nourish people. And that comes from showing them the beauty in the world and the beauty in nature, from nurturing a love for the world, and from nurturing inspiration, possibility, and creativity. This is critical to keeping people engaged and motivated. Finding beauty has been central in all my work.
How to cite this page
Bell, Catherine. "The Promise of the Land: An Interview with Rabbi Ellen Bernstein." 11 February 2020. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 22, 2021) <https://jwa.org/blog/promise-land-interview-rabbi-ellen-bernstein>.