In 1988, writer, teacher, and ecological advocate Rabbi Ellen Bernstein, founded Shomrei Adamah (Keepers of the Earth), the first Jewish ecological organization in the U.S.
She sought to draw attention to the “ecological heart” of Judaism—and help the Jewish community use spirituality to better understand the natural world, and vice versa. She talked to Lilith editorial assistant Arielle Silver-Willner, about her advocacy work, ecofeminism, and her latest book The Promise of the Land: A Passover Haggadah (2020), which asks us to see Passover as an ecological holiday and an opportunity to renew our devotion to the land that sustains us.
Arielle Silver-Willner: You’ve described the ecological crisis as a “spiritual crisis,” and that this is, in part, what led you to found Shomrei Adamah. What were your goals as you began this work?
Rabbi Ellen Bernstein: My initial goals upon founding Shomrei Adamah were to create educational materials that illuminated the ecological (which often coincide with spiritual) dimensions of Jewish texts and practices, and to inspire folks to “green” their synagogues. I always believed that Judaism was ecological at its heart, but that the ecological dimensions had been overlooked for centuries, since we humans understandably tend to focus on the human aspects of our stories, not the ecological ones.
ASW: Where do you see the most notable connection(s) between Judaism, feminism, and ecological justice?
REB: Many cultures understand the land/earth as a feminine energy (and the sky as masculine). In Hebrew, the words for land—aretz and adamah—are feminine. The land is generative and brings forth life. The land, the earth, is the source of our lives—the source of our food, our shelter. It is our habitat and we are its inhabitants. For generations we have overlooked the life-giving nature of the land/the earth and have treated her as a commodity—we have exploited the earth for our own private gain.
Throughout history, many people have not had adequate access to land and have been unable to grow their own foods and have agency over their own lives. Judaism has a deep appreciation of the land—however, we overlook the deep ecological meaning of the land in the Bible and Jewish sources, just as we do in our contemporary lives. In theory, according to the Bible, we are not allowed to “own” the land, because God owns the land. It is for everyone to hold and care for as a joint trust. We are to be stewards of the land. If everyone had the same access to it, we would not suffer the kind of gross inequalities and injustices that we are dealing with today.
ASW: You’ve made some important insights in your writing, about how we use language to talk about the natural world, spirituality, and gender—What pieces of language do you feel we should embrace or do away with when discussing these subjects and their connections?
REB: I try to avoid the word “environmentalist.” The word “environment” literally does not mean much—it refers to your surroundings. “Environment” doesn’t capture the life-giving essence of the land, the earth. Furthermore, the word “environmentalist” has become highly politicized and associated with the left only. I believe we will never be able to help restore the earth until we speak across the political divide and across the religious/secular divide. As long as we use language that alienates the other side, we will just be fighting a war of ideology. Working for restoring the earth, planting trees, establishing neighborhood solar co-ops, cultivating urban farms and gardens—these are activities that everyone can agree upon and engage in—that will help improve the health of the earth and our communities and our individual lives.
ASW: Have you noticed a different kind of energy for the ecological work today, now that it is more at the forefront of our political and social consciousness? How so?
REB: I think it’s important for ecology to be at the center of our cultural consciousness—not just political and social. The land, the earth is the heart of our lives—it is not an issue to be acted upon like numerous other issues. It is a way of life—of being in the world.
I think the farming/sustainability/regeneration movements are the most exciting examples of people embracing a deep ecological livelihood. In the Jewish community, the Jewish farming movement is the most vibrant manifestation of this—young Jewish farmers are turning synagogue and Jewish community lands into community farms, and often giving food away—sharing with those people most at risk in the community.
ASW: Your book, The Promise of the Land (2020), is an ecologically-focused Haggadah. With Passover around the corner, what is one ecological idea you would like to see the Jewish community bring into our observance of the holiday?
REB: Passover celebrates freedom. However we will only be free when our earth is healthy and able to support our lives for the long term. If the earth’s systems are polluted and overheated, it will begin to break down and will be unable to support the kind of life we have enjoyed. When life is compromised there can be no freedom. I hope that people will start to understand the life-giving nature of the land: the Promise of the Land—all that land promises us if we take care of her.
I speak of land universally as any land. The “promised land” is the land with which we live in reciprocal relationship.
ASW: What are some ways that you practice ecological advocacy in your daily life, that our readers may like to adopt?
REB: Learning to love the land is the first step that can help people find their own individual ways to protect it. There are a million ways to restore the earth. Advocacy is one way. I take walks daily and I try to love the places in which I visit. I make a conscious effort to settle into my heart and tell the trees that I love them.
Growing a garden or even some plants indoors, working in animal shelters, purchasing food locally, giving money to local environmental justice organizations, paying attention to where you invest your savings and making sure you are not supporting coal and oil companies, are other ways. Reading is important—What excites you about the natural world? What could sustain your interest? Explore and educate yourself about ecology and the work of an environmental organization that strikes your fancy.
I integrate all these things into my life. I recently moved back to the city so that I don’t need to drive anymore and can participate in local organizations that I love. It’s important for folks to find ways that inspire and excite them—that will sustain them for the long term. The climate crisis is not going away and we need to find activities that will nurture us as we do our best to help nurture the earth.
Rabbi Ellen Bernstein is an eco-theologian, spiritual leader,writer and creative. She founded Shomrei Adamah, Keepers of the Earth, the first national Jewish environmental organization in 1988. Her books include Let the Earth Teach You Torah, Ecology and the Jewish Spirit, and The Splendor of Creation. Ellen also created the first ecologically-centered Tu B’Sh’vat (Jewish New Year of the Trees) seder in 1988 and popularized Tu B’Sh’vat as a community-wide inter-spiritual ecological arts celebration for all peoples. In 1990 she organized an All Species Parade in Philadelphia in honor of the 20th anniversary of Earth Day; 1000 people participated in the parade and 30,000 people witnessed it. Her most recent book, The Promise of the Land, A Passover Haggadah is the first comprehensive, ecological haggadah (guidebook) for Passover (Behrman House, 2020). In 2020 during the pandemic, Ellen launched the Earth Seder movement, helping to organize several dozen world-wide Earth Seders on Zoom. To learn more about Ellen please visit www.ellenbernstein.org and www.thepromiseoftheland.com.