Tisha B’Av and Environmentalism

Romans Destroy Jerusalem - painting of city wall on fire
Romans Destroy Jerusalem

Tisha B’Av (the 9th day of the month of Av) which we commemorate this year on August 10 – 11, reminds us that over 2,600 years ago Jews failed to heed the warnings of the prophet Jeremiah, with the result that the first Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, the first of many negative things that occurred on that day, including the destruction of the second Temple as well.

Today there are many “Jeremiahs” warning us that now it is the entire world that is threatened by climate change, species extinction, soil erosion, destruction of tropical rain forests and other valuable habitats, and many other environmental threats. For example, as long ago as 1992, over 1,700 of the world’s leading scientists, including 104 Nobel Laureates, signed a “World Scientists Warning to Humanity,” stating that, “human beings and the natural world are on a collision course,” and that “a great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.” More recently, some climate scientists are warning that we may soon reach a tipping point when climate change will spin out of control with disastrous consequences if major positive changes do not soon occur.

On Tisha B’Av, Jews fast to express their sadness over the destruction of the two Temples and to awaken us to how hungry people feel. So severe are the effects of starvation that the Book of Lamentations (4:10), which is read on Tisha B’Av, states that, “More fortunate were the victims of the sword than the victims of famine, for they pine away stricken, lacking the fruits of the field.” Yet, today over 70% of the grain grown in the United States is fed to animals destined for slaughter, as an estimated 20 million people worldwide die annually because of hunger and its effects and almost a billion of the world’s people face chronic hunger.

Jewish sages connected the word “eichah” (alas! what has befallen us?) that begins Lamentations and a word that has the same root “ayekah” (“Where art thou?”), the question addressed by God to Adam and Eve after they had eaten the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Perhaps failure to properly hear and respond to “ayekah” in terms of stating “Hineini” — here I am, ready to carry out God’s commandments so that the world will be better — causes us to eventually have to say and hear “eichah“.

The reading of the book of Lamentations on Tisha B’Av is meant to wake up the Jewish people to the need to return to God’s ways, by showing the horrors that resulted when God’s teachings were ignored. The readings on Tisha B’Av help to sensitize us so that we will hear the cries of lament and change our ways. Rabbi Yochanan stated, “Jerusalem was destroyed because the residents limited their decisions to the letter of the law of the Torah, and did not perform actions that would have gone beyond the letter of the law” (“lifnim meshurat hadin“). (Baba Metzia 30b). In this time of factory farming, climate change and other environmental threats, widespread hunger, and widespread chronic degenerative diseases, perhaps it is necessary that Jews go beyond the strict letter of the law in efforts to prevent further environmental degradation.

This Tisha B’Av, I hope that we will begin to heed its basic lesson that failure to respond to proper admonitions can lead to catastrophe. The Jewish people must make tikkun olam (the repair and healing of the planet) a major focus in Jewish life today, and consider personal and societal changes that will improve the environment. By doing this, we would be performing a great Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s Name) by working to meet our mandate to be a light unto the nations.

All of us can and must contribute to this new stewardship, even with modest changes to our lifestyle. In 1999, the Union of Concerned Scientists wrote, “Just as we don’t claim that people need to stop driving their cars completely, we don’t argue that they need to stop eating meat entirely. But reductions in both areas — driving and meat consumption — will certainly benefit the environment.

In view of the many threats to humanity today, I hope that Jews will enhance their commemoration of the solemn but spiritually meaningful holiday of Tisha B’Av by making it a time to begin striving even harder to live up to Judaism’s highest moral values and teachings. One important way to do this is by applying Jewish values in efforts to shift our precious, but imperiled, planet onto a sustainable path.

JOFEE Network Gathering

You’re invited to the JOFEE Network Gathering from September 14-17. 

The JOFEE Network Gathering is the annual gathering place for thought leaders, enthusiasts, and program professionals throughout the Jewish Outdoor, Food, Farming and Environmental Education world. With some of the best Jewish outdoor educators from around the world leading workshops, hands on learning sessions, panel discussions, and keynote addresses, participants will take away new experiential education tools and resources and build new relationships with like-minded Jewish professionals across the country. Whether you have been a JOFEE-nik from the beginning or are newly interested in bringing JOFEE programming back to your community, the JOFEE Network Gathering is the place to be.

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Proposed PA Bill Supports Solar Energy While Threatening Water Quality

Solar panels in Pennsylvania. Photo courtesy: https://understandsolar.com/pennsylvania/

In the Pennsylvanian Congress, an administrative bill is making its way through various iterations to become law and it has some questioning the particulars as a catch-22: solar energy for quality water.

The bill, whose prime sponsor is Republican Senator Thomas McGarrigle, presents a smorgasbord of changes to various departments and administration officers.  But of the recent changes appears to both help and hurt the environment. While the bill may help solar energy by changing trade laws in Pennsylvania, it harms the environment by allowing more toxins into water supplies.

The proposed changes are to the  2004  law entitled the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards Act which pushed energy supplying companies to meet certain renewable energy requirements over the course of 15-years. As of now, when companies generate electricity from solar power, they receive Solar Renewable Energy Certificates or SREC. Each SREC represents one megawatt hour of electric energy generated from solar power. In Pennsylvania and nine other states, there is a market for these certificates. In order to meet solar energy generation requirements, electrical utility companies must generate a certain amount of their energy through renewable sources. In Pennsylvania, by 2020, 18 percent of the energy produced must come from renewable sources, with 0.5 percent of that coming from solar power.

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Why Is This Night Different?: Thoughts on Tu B’Shvat

By Richard H. Schwartz

By מרכז להב"ה מגאר Pikiwiki Israel, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25110674

Olive Tree. Photo: Pikiwiki Israel.

One of the highlights of the Passover seder is the recitation of the four questions which consider how the night of Passover differs from all the other nights of the year. Many questions are also appropriate for Tu B’Shvat, which starts on Friday evening, February 10, in 2017, because of the many ways that this holiday differs from Passover and all other nights of the year. [Read more…]

Nostalgic for Last Week’s America?

oathSo much of the America I had taken for granted as recently as last week has disappeared.

President Donald Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” feels increasingly appropriate, leading many Americans wonder if Trump will really remain President for four years of will one of the many scandals swirling around him lead to his impeachment, or if Trump’s erratic behavior and plummeting popularity will lead his cabinet to invoke Section 4 of the 25th Amendment.
[Read more…]

Local Congregation Embraces Green Philosophy

Shmita_Banner[1]— by Gari J. Weilbacher

Since biblical times, the Jewish people have taken every seventh year in the land of Israel as a Shmita, “sabbatical,” for the land and for forgiving debts.

At Mishkan Shalom of Philadelphia, Rabbi Shawn Zevit, with the partnership of Rabbi Yael Levy, staff, President David Piver and the many lay leaders and teachers, will lead the congregation through a year where each aspect of congregational life will embrace the Shmita philosopy.

“Our strategic plan has been aligned with Shmita in all facets of life, including adult education, religious school, spiritual practice, social action and sustainability,” Zevit said.

If we can eat more locally grown food; get our students to recycle more; have our religious school families carpool more; use recyclable products for our meals and onegs, “joys,” then as a congregation and as a Jewish community we will be able to reduce our footprint on the earth.

In addition to adopting Shmita principles and practices for the year 5775, the congregation is joining the Jewish Environmental Network to explore ways to embrace the fundamentals of Shmita in everyday life and living, not just during a Shmita year, but for the foreseeable future.

247954_365651916850399_757209207_nMore information about Mishkan Shalom’s Shmita initiatives, and a complete schedule of services for adults, teens and children, can be found at the congregation’s website.

To learn more about Shmita, read Hazon’s Shmita Sourcebook, written and compiled by former Shmita Project Manager Yigal Deutscher, with the support of Anna Hanau and Nigel Savage.

The Shmita Sourcebook is designed to encourage participants to think critically about the Shmita Cycle – its values, challenges, and opportunities – and how this tradition might be applied in a modern context to support building healthier and more sustainable Jewish communities today. The Shmita Sourcebook is a 120-page sourcebook that draws on a range of texts from within Jewish tradition and time, tracing the development and evolution of Shmita from biblical, historical, rabbinic, and contemporary perspectives.

The Shmita Sourcebook is designed to be accessible to people with little Jewish background, as well as rigorous and challenging for someone with more extensive Jewish learning. Our intention for the sourcebook is to offer an educational background so we can collectively be exploring the possibilities of Shmita together. We do hope this will serve in establishing a shared, common ground. From this place, we can continue the work, expanding upon our own curiosities and understanding of Shmita, and creatively apply the values of this tradition to our own lives in all the diverse ways that are possible. We hope you enjoy the sourcebook, and it finds good use in your hands, and in your community.

Congregation Beth Israel Joins GreenFaith Environmental Program


Temple Shalom of Aberdeen, N.J., another participant of the program, working with young members of the congregation to plant seeds in the community garden.

Congregation Beth Israel, a Reconstructionist Jewish community based in Media, Pennsylvania, has announced its participation in the GreenFaith interfaith program for environmental leadership. Beth Israel is the first Reconstructionist congregation to join the GreenFaith certification program, joining more than 65 other houses of worship.

The GreenFaith program follows a two-year certification process that includes programs for spiritual practices, physical stewardship, and environmental justice. Beth Israel has already completed several audits of its energy usage, waste handling, and grounds maintenance.  

The synagogue recently completed an overhaul of its heating systems which included conversion of the heating plant from oil to gas, replacement of old inefficient equipment and upgrade of the building’s controls and zoning capabilities. The results:

  • a better heat delivery;
  • a projected 30% reduction in fuel usage and related emissions; and
  • an expected reduction of more than three-quarters in heating costs.

All of this will save more than $10,000 per year.

More after the jump.
Other efforts have included installation of more efficient lighting systems, more extensive recycling, and educational programs for religious school students and the general congregation.

Future activities within the certification process will include:

  • spiritual and educational programs within the Beth Israel community and with other communities;
  • further improvements in sustainability and environmental impact of Beth Israel facilities and its members’ homes; and
  • programs to address the environmental burdens on disadvantaged communities.  

Beth Israel’s teen community has already begun Walking the Walk, a nine-month interfaith dialogue and service project that involves teens from local Jewish, Muslim, and Christian congregations and will include urban gardening with Urban Tree Connections.

“As Jews we know that we are both a part of the whole and responsible for the whole. We are global citizens with a Jewish mandate right here, right now, to protect the earth,” Beth Israel Rabbi Linda Potemken said. “The GreenFaith process offers Beth Israel a creative, practical and spiritual approach to fulfilling our responsibilities in a concrete, structured fashion.”

“I’m delighted that the Beth Israel community has chosen to undertake the rigorous GreenFaith certification process,” Beth Israel President Jennifer Lenway said.  

Beth Israel has always been an engaged, diverse community whose values include building a better world as well creating a community for our members, practicing the traditions of our heritage, and providing education for our children and adult members. The spiritual, stewardship, and justice components of GreenFaith will support all these missions.

Jewish Groups Praise New Environmental Protection Agency Rules


The new rule sets separate standards for emissions from coal plants and natural gas plants. Coal plant in Rochester, Minn.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) and the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) applauded yesterday the Environmental Protection Agency’s release on Friday, of a revised standard limiting carbon dioxide emissions from new power plants.

“Carbon dioxide emissions are the leading cause of climate change, which is one of the great moral challenges of our time,” said JCPA President Rabbi Steve Gutow. “This proposal takes an important step towards addressing the effects that our electricity generation can have on the Earth and human health.”

COEJL and the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism collected hundreds of signatures from the Jewish community in favor of the original rule proposed last year. The new rule responds to concerns raised in public comments to the prior proposal, by setting separate standards for emissions from coal plants and natural gas plants, and providing flexibility for industry while achieving similar outcomes.  

More after the jump.
“We hope that these revised regulations will be made final after the comment period and implemented without delay,” said Gutow.

“These rules were released during the holiday of Sukkot,” noted Sybil Sanchez, director of COEJL.

Ecclesiastes Rabbah (1:4) reminds us that

One generation goes, another comes, but the Earth remains the same forever.

Eating and sleeping outdoors in our sukkot makes us appreciate some of the many gifts we receive from the Earth — clean, breathable air, and fertile land in a stable climate. But we are confronted by the fact that the Earth is changing before us, and these resources will not be here for future generations unless we act now. Adopting these rules is an important part of that action.

The release of the proposed standards is a key point in the implementation of President Barack Obama’s Climate Action Plan, which he announced last June.

“We look forward to the release of standards for existing power plants, as well,” concluded Sanchez.

Off Green: Papering Over Our Environmental Problems

How has the surface temperature of Earth been changing?
This video dramatizes 130 years of planet-wide temperature changes relative to the local average temperatures. Red means warmer and blue means colder. Global climate change is of more than passing interest — it is linked to global weather severity and coastal sea water levels. (Astronomy Picture of the Day.)


DILBERT ©2013 Scott Adams. Used by permission of Universal Uclick. All rights reserved.

This is the second installment of a series of articles giving examples of “green” initiatives that do little other than distract, along with ideas about what we should be doing instead.

Trees are the lungs of our planet. Carbon dioxide levels rise and fall in an annual cycle, as plants convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. As forested land is depleted, our planet loses its natural ability to mitigate the damage that we are doing to the atmosphere.

Accordingly, we should avoid cutting down trees whenever possible, but it should be done in a way that makes sense.

Our School Will No Longer Be Printing Out Forms To Send Home

Each summer I have to fill out numerous forms with the same information for my children’s camps, schools and afterschool programs, the PTO, etc. However, one of the schools has announced that it was “going green,” and would no longer be printing out the required forms. Instead, parents would have to go online to find them.

I was delighted to hear this, and imagined that I would go online and see an online form which would be pre-populated with my data from last year which I could review, correct and then approve by clicking on a button. However, that is not exactly what the school had in mind. The forms were not to be submitted online, but instead needed to be printed out by the parents, completed by hand and mailed in.

Somehow, parents print out their own forms does not strike me as any “greener” than the old system, where the school would print it out for us. The only difference is who pays for the copies.

The story of “Offgreen” banking, and ideas on how to do better follow the jump.
Banks guilting us into forgoing receipts

Similarly, some banks are trying to use a cloak of “greenness” to save themselves some money. As the ATM screenshot to the left shows, the bank is trying to guilt us into forgoing a 2-inch by 2-inch receipt.

It’s easy being GREEN.
You can save paper to save trees and save the Earth.
You can reduce 0.49g carbon footprint at this time.

If I breathed even once during the time I read this message, I have exhaled 0.98g of carbon! Twice the potential savings for not having any record of my deposit.

The electricity used by a 60 Watt light bulb gives rise to the production of 10 grams of carbon every second. That is the equivalent of 20 ATM receipts every second.

My car discharges almost 20 pounds of carbon for every gallon of gasoline it burns. Each gallon of gasoline is the equivalent of over 18,000 ATM receipts. Instead of debating whether or not I should be printing a receipt, I should have debated whether or not to drive to the ATM in the first place!

A round-trip ticket from Sydney to Australia for one person involves the emission of 2776 kilograms of carbon dioxide. This is the equivalent of more than five million ATM receipts!

We need to focus our environmental efforts where they will be the most effective. When school and banks make these gestures in the name of “greenness” the results are either counter-productive or negligible.

How can we keep our eye on the ball?

What should we do instead?

  • Put clean used paper in a recycling bin instead of the trash.
  • Reuse the back side of paper from the recycling bin when you need to make a sketch or jot a note.
  • Take electronic notes instead of paper notes.
  • Read articles and emails online instead of printing them out.
  • Buy poly lumber furniture made out of quality artificial recycled post-consumer plastic and rubber. Not only you would be saving the trees and keeping soda bottles and automobile tires out of our ubiquitous landfills, but you would enjoy a quality material which is weather resistant, attractive and maintenance free.

Off Green: Distractions on the Road to Saving the Environment

Fighting the climate change is probably the most important issue facing our generation. Many people of good will would like to do their part to address this problem, but don’t really know where to start from.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of disinformation out there, which leads people to take steps that might make them feel “green,” but don’t really help much, if at all.

Accordingly, this is the first of a series of articles giving examples of “green” initiatives that do little other than distract, along with ideas about what we should be doing instead.

This installment is all about drinking water. Future articles will delve into paperwork and electricity. Please send me feedback on these articles along with your ideas.

First part of series follows the jump.


Got Water?
Enjoy a drink and refill your bottle here!

Why support tap water?

  • Tap is regulated by the EPA, and held to stricter safety standards than bottled water.
  • Tap keeps plastic waste out of landfills and oceans.
  • Tap protects the privatization of a basic human right.
  • Tap avoids plastic bottle production, which relies heavily on petrochemicals and fossil fuels for raw materials, manufacture, and transport.
  • Tap only costs $0.002 per gallon.

Led by students, Hampshire college ended the sale of bottled water on campus in Fall 2012.

Bottled “Green” Water

The municipal waters in the areas where most of us live are perfectly healthy to drink, and yet many of us choose to drink bottled water. 20 billion barrels of oil go annually into making the water bottles that Americans throw out, creating 25 million tons of greenhouse gases.

Nestlé’s bottled water comes from Dallas, Texas, meaning that we are simply substituting Dallas water for Philadelphia water, and paying the supermarket and polluting the environment for the privilege. Other waters come from more exotic locations like Fiji. It is still the same H2O by another name, but it is being shipped around the world to quench our thirst.

Nestlé Waters, “The Healthy Hydration Company,” tries to “green-wash” their product:

To reduce the global environmental impact of PET bottles, Nestlé Waters created a new generation of packaging: the Eco-Shape PET bottle.

True, their new bottle is 25% lighter than its predecessor — largely due to a shorter bottle cap. Nevertheless, 25% lighter is still 75% too heavy compared to the truly environment-friendly alternative of a reusable water bottle, canteen or cup. In fact, the smaller cap makes the bottle more difficult to reuse, and is more prone to being swallowed by small children.

Oddly enough, most of our National Parks continue to sell bottled water, even though they have some of the most pristine water in the country on site. In fact, 30% of the Grand Canyon National Park’s recycling waste used to come from disposable bottles before it has gone bottled water-free.