Torah, environmental activism go hand-in-hand

Torah, environmental activism go hand-in-hand

The United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, is under way, and the Jewish world is paying close attention.
Jewish leaders are in Copenhagen armed with a statement signed onto by 22 North American Jewish organizations calling for action by the conference delegates.
While groups from all streams of Judaism signed the statement, I’d like to focus on one in particular: Canfei Nesharim (The Wings of Eagles), an organization that educates Orthodox Jews about the relationship between “traditional Jewish sources and modern environmental issues.”
A perception exists that environmental activism is something Orthodox Jews eschew. Canfei Nesharim, a 7-year-old organization, debunks that perception.
In fact, Evonne Marzouk, founder and executive director of Canfei Nesharim, said Orthodox Jews are embracing the environmental movement.
“We’ve been surprised and pleased by the reaction to the Orthodox community over the past seven years,” Marzouk said. “People are beginning to understand it as a Jewish issue and are taking action. It’s a process of education.”
She said Canfei Nesharim has developed partnerships on the environment with the Orthodox Union, Yeshiva University, Rabbinical Council of America and synagogues and schools.
“Jewish tradition has a lot to say about [the environment],” Marzouk said.
Locally, Dr. Frank Lieberman, associate professor of neurology and medical oncology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, sits on the scientific advisory board for Canfei Nesharim.
“I think there is a perception outside the Orthodox community that the Orthodox community is not interested in environmental issues,” Lieberman told me, “and I think that’s clearly a misperception.
He believes that perception extends from reluctance by Torah-observant Jews to acknowledge that mankind can control the environment — something that is clearly the domain of God.
“As far as I know, every Orthodox rabbi that has spoken or written about the environment has said it’s a responsibility incumbent on all to use human efforts, to the extent they can be used, to protect the environment,” Lieberman said.
So Orthodox congregations in Pittsburgh, Young Israel for instance, have signed on to citywide programs such as The Black and Gold City Goes Green to build awareness and take action on environmental issues.
Young Israel also joined a Canfei Nesharim program to urge congregations to deliver devarim torah (Torah commentaries) on environmental issues during Tu B’Shevat.
Internationally, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of the United Kingdom and arguably one of the leading Orthodox scholars of our time, has embraced the environmental issue as a Sabbath ritual and is asking the Jewish world to join him.
This coming Sabbath, Sacks wants the focus to be on environmental issues. He is calling on Sabbath-observant Jews to pray for sustainable habits of consumption and energy use.
While he realizes that there are disagreements over climate change, “there are some risks you just don’t take,” Ynet News reported him as saying, “and one is the risk of endangering the very viability of life on earth.”
It’s not the first time the Sabbath has been used among Orthodox Jews to spread an environmental message. Canfei Nesharim, and organizations from other Jewish streams, endorsed Shabbat Noach on Oct. 23-24, when the story of Noah was read, as a “climate healing Shabbat” and focused on actions people can take to check global warming.
The Copenhagen conference will be in the news over the next two weeks. It’s a time for Jews of all streams to come together to call for action on climate change — for our children’s sake.

(Lee Chottiner can be reached at or 412-687-1005.)

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