Jewish Women in Environmental Activism
"As long as the days of the earth endure,
seed-time and harvest,
cold and heat,
summer and winter,
day and night shall not cease."
As early as the Book of Genesis—beginning with the commandment for Adam and Eve to protect the Garden of Eden—Jewish tradition teaches that sustaining the health of the earth and all of its living things is a moral imperative. The winter celebration of Tu B'Shevat, the Jewish New Year for trees, has become a reminder of Judaism's longstanding commitment to environmental preservation.
The past two decades have seen a flurry of creative initiatives to deepen connections between Jewish life and environmental activism. Synagogues are "going green," and environmentally-oriented haggadot have made their way to the Passover Seder. Organizations such as the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), the Teva Learning Center, Hazon, and the Jewish Climate Initiative have taken innovative steps to educate the Jewish community about environmental degradation, energy depletion, pollution, climate change, and other issues that threaten the natural world. Acting individually and collectively, Jewish women have pioneered their own environmental activist efforts. For example:
Helène Aylon is a Jewish, eco-feminist artist. Art, liberation, ritual, and the environment are the unifying elements of her life's work. In the 1980s, she “rescued” the earth by putting earth from military sites into hundreds of pillowcases. Then she drove the pillowcases of earth to the UN in what she called “The Earth Ambulance.” In another project, she floated two sacs filled with resuscitative seeds and earthly substances on the waters of Japan. They were en route to the shores of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as though to begin the world anew. She is featured in Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution.
Judith Belasco is the Executive Vice President at Hazon, a Jewish environmental organization committed to building a healthier, more sustainable world. In this role, she serves as the Chief Program Officer and oversees the growth and development of Jewish Outdoor, Food, Farming, and Environmental Education (JOFEE) through transformative experiences, thought-leadership, and capacity-building. She strengthens program delivery and operations across all of Hazon’s programs, and manages development, marketing and communications. Prior to coming to Hazon, she was the Program Coordinator of Linking Food & the Environment (LiFE) where she designed, conducted, and evaluated an after-school cooking program in East Harlem for grades 3 through 6. "Jewish tradition teaches us two important values—shmirat ha’guf (care for one's body) and shomrei adamah (guardians of the earth)," Judith Belasco told the Jewish Women's Archive. "Practicing shmirat ha’guf means remembering that the human body is a gift and we should take care of it by eating healthy and exercising. As guardians or caretakers of the earth, we have a responsibility to ensure the land is healthy for future generations."
Ellen Bernstein founded Shomrei Adamah (Keepers of the Earth), the first national Jewish environmental organization in 1988. "As a student, I was disturbed about the rampant environmental destruction I saw everywhere around me, and believed that synagogues and churches could serve to deliver the environmental message to masses of people." After years of searching unsuccessfully for a Jewish environmental organization, Ellen founded her own: Shomrei Adamah, and began producing educational materials and books that explore the ecological teachings rooted in Jewish tradition. Ellen believes an ecological vision can help revitalize Jewish life and serve as a point of engagement for unaffiliated Jews. She continues to deliver her message through writing, teaching, speaking, and consulting.
Arlene Blum, PhD, is a biophysical chemist, author, mountaineer, and founder of the Green Science Policy Institute. Best known as a pioneer in women's mountaineering, Blum has won many awards and accolades, including: The 2008 Purpose Prize for people over the age of 60 who are taking on society's biggest challenges; selection by the UK Guardian as one of the "World’s 100 Most Inspiring Women”; election to the Hall of Mountaineering Excellence; and induction into the California Hall of Fame in 2018. The author of the award-winning memoir Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life, she is developing environmental policies to eliminate the use of Tris and other flame retardant toxins found in everyday household items.
Betsy Shure Gross is an environmentalist and community preservationist who advocates for the preservation of open spaces, historic sites, and affordable housing. She is a 2001 Women Who Dared honoree.
Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is an author, educator, midrashist, myth-weaver, and ritualist. She is the founding director of Tel Shemesh, a website and community celebrating and creating Jewish earth-based traditions. Hammer is Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion, a pluralistic rabbinical and cantorial seminary in Yonkers, NY, where she specializes in ancient and contemporary midrash, mysticism, ritual, and contemporary spirituality. A poet and essayist whose work has been published in many journals and anthologies including Lilith, Bridges, Natural Bridge, Zeek, and the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Hammer is the author of The Jewish Book of Days, a compendium of Jewish legends for every day of the year expressed in a nature-centered Hebrew calendar, and Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women.
Judith Helfand, a filmmaker, activist and educator, raises awareness of the dark realities of chemical exposure, corporate irresponsibility, and global warming. Her film Everything's Cool (co-directed with Daniel Gold) explores the denial and spin surrounding global warming in the U.S. In 2005, Judith co-founded Chicken & Egg Pictures, a hybrid film fund and production company that provides money and mentorship to women filmmakers making socially conscious films. Last year it launched the Which Came First Fund which funds women cinematically taking on the environmental justice issues of our day. Judith is currently working on Cooked, a film about the 1995 Chicago heat wave and the politics of crisis and poverty.
Roberta Kalechofsky, Ph.D., is a fiction writer, speaker, essayist, and publisher who focuses on animal rights within Judaism and the promotion of vegetarianism within the Jewish community. In 1975 she founded Micah Publications, which specializes in the publication of animal-rights and vegetarian literature, including The Jewish Vegetarian Year Cookbook and Judaism and Animal Rights: Classical and Contemporary Responses. In 1985, she founded Jews for Animal Rights.
Leah Koenig is a blogger, writer, and Editor-in-Chief of the award-winning blog, The Jew and the Carrot. She writes about food justice, sustainable agriculture, religion, and environmental philosophy and has published several cookbooks including, Little Book of Jewish Feasts, Modern Jewish Cooking, Little Book of Jewish Appetizers, and a 400-recipe treasure trove of global Jewish cuisine, The Jewish Cookbook.
Paula Maccabee, described by her daughter Leora (of TCJewfolk.com) as a “kick ass Jewish environmental activist,”is a lawyer and advocate for Just Change Law Offices. For over 15 years she has worked to protect private rights and public interests with a practice focused on environmental, energy, and agricultural law, and by advocating for organic farming and protecting communities from harmful energy powerlines and pollution. She also worked to protect the environment as a member of the Saint Paul City Council, the Project Coordinator of the Minnesota Air Toxics Campaign for the Sierra Club, Minnesota Chapter, and as a Board member of the Environmental Justice Advocates of Minnesota. Current projects include an effort to prevent wetlands destruction and water pollution from a copper sulfide mine and efforts to protect an inner city community from high voltage power line impacts.
Evonne Marzouk is the founder and Executive Director of Canfei Nesharim. Connecting traditional Jewish texts with contemporary scientific findings, Canfei Nesharim educates and empowers Jewish individuals, organizations, and communities to take an active role in protecting the environment in order to build a more sustainable world. Evonne has spoken worldwide on the Torah-environment connection, and also currently leads “Maayan Olam,” a Torah-environment committee serving three synagogues in Silver Spring, MD, where she lives with her husband and son. In 2009, she was selected as one of The New York Jewish Week's "36 under 36." In addition, Evonne has worked for twenty years in the Office of International Affairs at EPA.
Shelley Morhaim is a writer, filmmaker, and environmental activist who founded Earthome Productions, a film company that promotes sustainable relationships between people and the natural world. In 2013, Morhaim was appointed to the Maryland State Arts Council. Among her credits are the award-winning documentary The Next Industrial Revolution and the Arts Education in Maryland Schools (AEMS) film Hard Fun: Transforming American Education Through the Arts. Morhaim has served on the boards of the Baltimore Jewish Council, the Women’s Institute of Notre Dame, and the Democratic Party State Central Committee. She is a 2002 Women Who Dared honoree.
Karyn Moskowitz’s passion for food justice inspired her to found New Roots, a nonprofit organization that works to develop a just and sustainable food system in the Ohio River Valley region, connecting farmers with low income residents in the area’s “food deserts.” She is also partner in GreenFire Consulting Group, LLC, a small public interest environmental law, research and consulting firm that represents whistleblowers and helps grassroots organizations protect the environment. Karyn lives and works in Louisville, KY with her ten-year old daughter Cicada Ruth Hoyt. She was one of 10 “Green Jewish Women” honored by Jewish Woman Magazine in the Spring 2009 issue, received a 2004 Rockefeller Fellowship, and was the 1998 Green Party nominee for Oregon’s U.S. Senate seat.
Abby Phon is an environmentalist, actress, producer and artist. Phon recently was the executive producer and star of the TV pilot “Life Without Green,” about a young Jewish woman that addresses how a major American city balances environmental innovation with economic growth. "Life Without Green," the first scripted TV drama uniting politics, economics, and sustainability, was accepted into the 2010 Boston International Film Festival and was endorsed by eco-minded celebrity, Ed Begley Jr. Over the past four years, Phon has served as committee member and event host for the Jewish National Fund's JNFuture young professionals division, the oldest voice speaking on behalf of the environment and community development in Israel. While living in LA, Phon volunteered with the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life of Southern CA (CoejlSC), participating in many events including the clean up of the Ballona Wetlands. She is also a long time member of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
Jill S. Schneiderman is Professor of Earth Science at Vassar College where she teaches not only earth science but courses in feminist environmentalism, gender and natural resources, and environmental justice. Earlier endeavors include her work as editor of and contributor to For the Rock Record: Geologists on Intelligent Design and The Earth Around Us: Maintaining a Livable Planet. She writes regularly as a "Featured Blogger" for the Shambhala Sun blog on the subject of geology and contemplation. In 2010 she began a 16-month course of study as a Mindfulness Meditation Teacher through the Institute for Jewish Spirituality so that she can enhance her effectiveness as an educator.
Jill Stein is a physician and founder of the Massachusetts Coalition for Healthy Communities, a non-profit organization that helps inform and empower citizens to build healthy communities, sustainable economies, and democratic institutions. A candidate for Massachusetts governor in 2010, she was the Green-Rainbow Party nominee for governor in 2002, a candidate for the state legislature in 2004, and for Secretary of State in 2006. In 2012 and 2016, she ran for President of the United States.
Jodi Sugerman-Brozan is MassCOSH’s Executive Director. She brings more than 25 years of experience working for environmental and social justice in Boston. Before joining MassCOSH in April 2017, she was the Executive Director of Bikes Not Bombs which uses the bicycle as a vehicle for social change for five years, and before that played various roles at Alternatives for Community & Environment, an environmental justice organization located in Roxbury, Massachusetts for 15 years. "Concepts like Tikkun Olam and Tzedek have allowed me to make connections between Judaism and my passion for justice that have both sustained me as an organizer and changed the way I approach the work. I have been fortunate to have many opportunities to gather with Jewish activists to explore deeply the connections between our work and culture. Each gathering and discussion rejuvenates me and deepens my commitment to both Judaism and social change."
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