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Jewish 'greens' join science, spirituality
By Paula Amann
Washington Jewish Week
February 28, 2001

WASHINGTON-- An environmental health specialist ends her PowerPoint presentation with a quote from the Talmud. A lobbyist cites what he half-jokingly suggests could serve as a biblical pitch for solar energy: "Let there be light."

Science, politics and spirituality didn't always mix so comfortably. Yet all three melded in seeming harmony at the Mark and Sharon Bloome Jewish Environmental Leadership Institute in Washington, D.C., this week.

Judaism embodies "an ethic of the earth, caring for creation," said Rabbi Warren Stone of Kensington's Temple Emanuel, a conference participant, "from the creation story to the Shabbat tradition of nonconsumption to the sabbatical of the land. The land and living things have rights, in Jewish tradition."

Stone serves as a board member of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), which sponsored the Sunday-Tuesday institute in tandem with the annual gathering of the Jewish Council on Public Affairs (JCPA).

"Between the U.S. and Israel, there's a lot of environmental work to be done and we need to be part of [it]," said Lori Yadin of North Potomac, coordinator of a pre-institute Shabbaton hosted by Shomrei Adamah, a local Jewish environmental group that addresses such issues as Chesapeake watershed pollution and suburban sprawl.

"For many, this type of weekend, this a jumping-off point, a way for them to become involved."

In a shift from most Jewish gatherings, activists in their 20s and 30s seemed to dominate the COEJL events, joining graying boomers whose environmental efforts date back to the 1970s.

"It's definitely lopsided toward the young side," said Stephan Sylvan, a District participant and Shomrei Adamah (Guardians of the Earth) member.

Time was that Sylvan and his peers took their activism outside the Jewish community.

"We found our outlets elsewhere, in the secular world: the Sierra Clubs, Audubon, the Natural Resource Defense Council," said Sylvan.

With the advent of groups like COEJL and Shomrei Adamah, that has changed, he argued. "Many of us were very concerned environmentally as Jews, but we didn't know it," said Sylvan. "We didn't know these were Jewish values. It was an epiphany for many of us."

Along with the spiritual, COEJL conference participants focused on the down-to-earth details of energy policy and other "green" concerns.

As if to echo a lead editorial in The New York Times that morning, a panel discussion on Monday honed in on the vexing question of global warming.

"The science is clear and getting scarier," said Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources Institute.

He cited findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which point to the burning of oil, gas and coal as the major cause of climate change.

The IPCC, which draws on the work of 2,500 scientists around the world, released findings last month that suggest the process is proceeding faster than expected. Along with rising sea levels, warmer oceans and shrinking glaciers, researchers are finding evidence of impacts on living things, such as the algae that inhabit coral reefs.

Devra Davis, an environmental health specialist at the Heinz School of Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, studies health effects for the IPCC.

She is concerned that the burning of fossil fuels leads to a kind of "double jeopardy": both global warming and respiratory illnesses. Air pollution leads to premature death from sulfur dioxide found in fine particulate matter and to asthma, which is linked to nitrogen oxides, prime ingredients in smog.

"If it's wrong for people to die in cars because they're drunk and we try to prevent this, what is keeping us from preventing deaths from air pollution?" asked Davis, citing a recent article in the British medical journal Lancet projecting 8 million avoidable deaths by 2020 from particulate matter alone.

COEJL's executive director Mark Jacobs tied this back to Jewish traditions of protecting the most vulnerable.

"The poor, children and the elderly suffer most from air pollution," noted Jacobs.

During a question-and-answer period, participants asked about everything from the precautionary principle of Judaism or as Davis prefers, "better safe than sorry" to the value of planting trees.

Davis, a COEJL board member, voiced some discomfort with putting personal lifestyle changes ahead of social policy.

"We learn to clean up after ourselves in kindergarten, [but] there are some messes we have to clean up as a society," she said. "There are some things we have to do as a chavurah."

A microcosm of that chavurah lodged at Sylvan's District apartment during the COEJL conference. He reported hosting a fervently Orthodox Vermont maple syrup farmer, a Boulder climate scientist, a Los Angeles political economy graduate student and an urban planner from Santa Barbara a sampling of who shows up when green meets Jewish.


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