My maternal grandparents were always on the ramparts politically and socially, so for me, activism was the air I breathed. In high school, Thoreau was a big influence; in college, I made a film about the dangers of nuclear power which radically changed me.
As a young mother, the dioxin in diapers — the notion that babies’ little bottoms were in contact with a known carcinogen — propelled my husband and me to switch to cloth diapers, which we washed at home. When my oldest daughter was in nursery school, I volunteered as the “Shabbat Mom” — it involved helping with lunch — and I watched these kids throw everything in the garbage. At the same time, I was a volunteer at a soup kitchen in Trenton, and I saw kids there who routinely went to bed hungry. It was all so disturbing.
In 1993, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) was getting off the ground, and I became very active, speaking at synagogues about the connection between Judaism and the environment, about stewardship and the need to live “sustainably.” I worked with an interfaith group in New Jersey called GreenFaith whose mission it was to get churches and synagogues to switch to renewable energies: solar, wind, hydroelectric. I wrote a lot, on topics like toxic lawn spray — suburbanites have an insane fear of dandelions. I created environmental curricula; I was more or less on a rampage. In 2001, COEJL sent me and seven other Jewish environmental educators (plus rabbis) to the remote Tongass National Park in Alaska. It was a silent retreat — except for Shabbat, when we davvened, sang and had discussions. For 10 days, we sea-kayaked, ate organically, saw the effects of clear-cut forests. The experience was life-changing.
From 2004 until recently I worked at COEJL, first as its Communications Director and then as Executive Director. I originated a Chanukah campaign called “How Many Jews Does It Take to Change a Light Bulb?” We delivered compact fluorescent bulbs (CFL’s) — which are energyefficient, affordable, and can be bought just about anywhere by now — to synagogues and Jewish institutions, for their own use and for congregants’ home use. We distributed 50,000 bulbs — that prevents 18,000 tons of carbon dioxide from going into the atmosphere. Across the US, we had Jews changing their light bulbs for Chanukah. Some synagogues have put in solar nerot tamid [eternal lights].
We also brought the Al Gore film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” to synagogues. Why? Because people need to understand that the imperiled environment is a Jewish issue — it’s a spiritual issue, it’s a religious issue. Judaism’s new social justice cause is the environment.
Barbara, whom would you like to invite into Lilith’s sukkah?
My mother. In the 1950’s, she had three natural childbirths when it was unheard of. She was progressive in a lot of ways. Also, Rachel Carson.
Who’s a significant role model?
Nachman of Bratslav, the 18th-century Hasidic rebbe. He gets it: He prayed out-of-doors.
What shakes your lulav?
The Garden of Eden. Also, Brooklyn, where I gave up my car, use the public park, and live in much less square-footage than I did in the suburbs. Our family’s carbon footprint is heading towards neutral.
The Earth is a fragile sukkah. What one act of repair can we undertake?
Go online and figure out your carbon footprint. It’s easy and fun. Then multiply that number by everyone on the planet, and see how many Earths we would need to sustain your habits.