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Jewish Women in Environmental Activism

Tree
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A tree.

 

"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."

—Genesis 8:22

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
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Judith Belasco.

Judith Belasco is the Director of Food Programs at Hazon, a Jewish environmental organization committed to building a healthier, more sustainable world. Judith oversees Hazon’s popular annual Food Conference, supervises the Hazon blog The Jew & the Carrot, and runs the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. 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
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Environmentalists Ellen Bernstein.

Photo courtesy of Ellen Bernstein.

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
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Mountaineering-scientist-activist Arlene Blum.

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 was awarded the 2008 Purpose Prize for people over the age of 60 who are taking on society's biggest challenges. 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
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Conservationist and activist, Betsy Shure Gross.

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.

Jill Hammer
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Jill Hammer.

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. She also co-directs Kohenet: The Hebrew Priestess Institute, an embodied Jewish spiritual leadership program with an earth-honoring, feminist orientation. 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
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Judith Helfand.
Photo courtesy of Judith Helfand.

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.

Paula Maccabee
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Lawyer and activist Paula Maccabee.
Photo by Greg Helgeson

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
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Evonne Marzouk.

Photo courtesy of Evonne Marzouk.

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 ten years in the Office of International Affairs at EPA.

Shelley Cole Morhaim
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Documentary filmmaker Shelley Cole Morhaim.

Shelley Morhaim is a filmmaker and environmental activist who founded Earthome Productions, a film company that promotes sustainable relationships between people and the natural world. She is a 2002 Women Who Dared honoree.

Karyn Moskowitz
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Karyn Moskowitz.
Photo courtesy of Karyn Moskowitz.

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
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Abby Phon.

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 Schneiderman
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Jill Schneiderman.
Photo courtesy of Jill Schneiderman.

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
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Jill Stein.

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, she ran for President of the United States. 

Jodi Sugerman-Brozan
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Jodi Sugerman-Brozan.
Photo courtesy of Jodi Sugerman-Brozan.

Jodi Sugerman-Brozan has spent the last 12 years at Alternatives for Community & Environment (ACE), which works to empower communities of color and lower income communities in New England to eradicate environmental racism and classism and achieve environmental justice. "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."

 

We welcome your comments, stories, and links about these women and other Jewish women environmental activists. Please share them below.

12 Comments

How about Yaira Robinson at Texas Interfaith Power & Light, and Joelle Novey at Interfaith Power & Light (MD.DC.NoVA)?

Bringing education for a sustainable future to K-12 teachers around the US since 2003, and now internationally, through the non-profit organization The Children's Environmental Literacy Foundation (CELF)www.celfeducation.org: Katie Ginsberg, Founder and Executive Director, and Patti Bressman, Director of Programs and Operations. Their mission is to establish sustainability as an integral part of every child's K-12 learning experience.

Education not only informs, it can stretch and reshape minds with new ideas. It has the power to transform students themselves into agents of change, helping to create a sustainable future for us all. Education for sustainability is essential for todayÌ¢‰â‰ã¢s students to make wise decisions for their own well-being and for the good of the planet and all its inhabitants. For ten years, Katie and Patti have been creating and delivering professional development programs that train teachers to integrate local and global environmental, economic and social justice issues into their existing curriculum and after-school programs. Their student programs train students to become peer leaders in sustainability and stewardship issues.

There are a few hundred more missing from your list. How about extend it to Jewish women from around the world? A good place to start would be Israel where women are spearheading dozens and dozens of projects, campaigns and companies. -Karin Kloosterman Editor - Green Prophet

Nili Simhai should also be on this list. Nili is Director of the Teva Learning Center (www.tevacenter.org) and 2009 recipient of the Covenant Award for Jewish Education. Teva is the largest residential Jewish environmental education organization, educating students from day schools, congregations and other communities around North America.

In the early 1980s I was surprised by a book on pagan spirituality, The Spiral Dance that seemed to be as much about organizing communities and changing society as Goddess worship. I was less surprised to discover that the book's author had been born Jewish. In 1984 we were both participants on a "Witness for Peace" trip to Nicaragua, one whose morning minyan featured the very Jewish nature-centric "Tree of Life" meditation from The Spiral Dance, followed by a round of "Hine ma tov."

In subsequent years, along with anti-nuclear and anti-globalization activism, Starhawk has been a leader in affirming ways to live sustainably on the planet. Her work with Permaculture (and her application, post-Katrina of those ideas to the vanishing marshes that once helped protect New Orleans) sets an important example for all of us, and provides tools for building a sustainable society.

You can find out more about Starhawk at http://www.starhawk.org and http://www.starhawksblog.org

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. She is the founder of Jews for Animal Rights and runs Micah Publications, which specializes in the publication of animal-rights and vegetarian literature. The Jewish Vegetarian Year Cookbook is a great resource, as are Kalechofsky's vegetarian and animal rights haggadot!

Ellen Bernstein also started Shomrei Adamah many years ago, whose mission was to explore and illuminate the ecological roots of Jewish tradition and make them accessible to wide audiences.

The woman who wrote the first contemporary Tu B'Shvat Seder, Dr. Ellen Bernstein! She is the author of The TreeÌ¢‰â‰ã¢s Birthday: A Celebration of Nature (1988) which is out of print. She is also the editor of Ecology and the Jewish Spirit: Where Nature and the Sacred Meet (Jewish Lights, 2000).

Also, Rabbi Naomi Hyman, who co-authored with Ari Elon and Arthur Waskow Trees, Earth, and Torah: A Tu B'Shvat Anthology (Jewish Publication Society, 1999).

It is exciting to learn about such dynamic and accomplished contemporary environmental activists. Another person to know about is Judith Helfand, award winning documentary filmmaker, whose films are about environmental and women's health issues. She uses the medium of film as an effective tool for social justice activism.

Deborah Newbrun, in San Francisco - environmental educator and camp director for over 30 years.

Sixteen years ago, an unprecedented blockade took place, over many months, on Vancouver Island. What became known as the Clayquot Protest, was a protest against the logging of old growth forests; it was a highly successful campaign.

Although it was a grassroots movement without an intentional hierarchy, two leaders emerged from this period: Tzipporah Berman and Valerie Langer. Both are extraordinary women - they must be included here!

I am sure many resources exist on-line.

I do not know Tzipporah's current work, but Valerie is spearheading the movement toward using straw paper in the printing industry in Canada.

Another woman to include is Judith Helfand - award-winning documentary producer and writer - including Healthy Baby Girl, Blue Siding (can't remember the title), among others.

I am sure I could think of more if I took the time...

With thanks for all your lovely and important work,

Wendy

Great feature! Here are a few other Jewish women environmental activists to add to the list:

Barbra Batshalom, Executive Director of The Green Roundtable, Jodi Sugarman-Brozan who helped build Alternatives for Community and Environment (ACE), Barbara Lerman-Golomb of Hazon and COEJL, and Evan Namerow of Environmental Defense Fund.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Jewish Women in Environmental Activism." (Viewed on December 17, 2017) <https://jwa.org/discover/throughtheyear/january/environment>.

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