Monday, August 31, 2015

Earth Etude for Elul 17 - Taking Stock of the Future

by Rabbi Lawrence Troster

During the month of Ellul it traditional to do a heshbon ha-nefesh a spiritual accounting of what we did in the past year so that we can do teshuva or repentance for what we have done wrong or failed to achieve. Indeed, the first step of teshuva is the recognition of doing wrong. We then can move on to trying to fix that wrong and gain atonement.

One of the characteristics of the modern world is our ability to analyze possible future outcomes in a way that our ancestors could not. So we can take a future heshbon ha-nefesh if we want even given the inevitable uncertainty. In fact, we can help to shape much of the future in our lives and in the world. While there are still many things that we cannot predict or control but there is much that we can do that shapes the future for ourselves and the world.

When it comes to climate change, we know the various possible scenarios that will occur depending on how much carbon we emit into the atmosphere in the coming decades. We know that climate change is happening and it is not in our power now to completely stop it. But we can prevent it from becoming much much worse and we can mitigate some of its impact. Some of the greatest impacts will be on those who were least responsible for causing climate change and have the fewest resources to deal with it. It is morally imperative that our teshuva includes pushing for our country to supply the necessary aid to help those countries survive climate change. This is our future heshbon ha-nefesh: we know where we can go wrong not only where we went wrong on climate change. We must begin our teshuva for the future now.

One of the spiritual ways forward is to treasure each day, hopefully leading to an understanding of the possibilities that lie before us. The favorite biblical verse of the philosopher Hans Jonas (1903-1993) was Psalm 90:12: “Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” How do we get a heart of Wisdom? It is not an easy thing to do: most of our days are taken up with all the things that ordinary life demands. But if stop for some time each day to think, prayer or meditate we might be able to rejoice and appreciate this moment while also considering the many possibilities that lie before us—how our actions today affect the future and how we can begin our teshuva right now.

Rabbi Lawrence Troster is the coordinator of Shomre Breishit: Rabbis and Cantors for the Earth, a project of Aytzim and GreenFaith.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Earth Etude for Elul 15 - Elul, the Month for Climate Action

by David Krantz

Tekiah! In Elul, we hear the call for the quintessential sound of the shofar every morning. It’s meant as a daily wake-up call to action. Appropriately, the word Tekiah itself also means “disaster.” Day after day in Elul, the shofar shouts: “Disaster! Act now!”

Just as an alarm clock gives us notice that we have to get to work, the shofar reminds us that time marches onward and that our mistakes won’t correct themselves. We must actively engage with the world to repair it and our relationships with each other. The process of repentance and repair starts with recognition, and it’s time that we recognize that with human-induced climate change threatening the Earth as we know it, our relationship with our environment is greatly in need of repair in order to avert disaster. But how can we repent and repair our relationship with the Earth? Every day of Elul, we can take one step forward to mitigate and abate climate change.

Start small, such as by changing your light bulbs to save on energy. Think bigger by calling your elected representatives and telling them to take action on climate change. And magnify your impact by joining with others and becoming more involved with the Jewish-environmental movement.

This month Aytzim, for example, joins the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, a network that will enable us to deepen our work with partner organizations and develop new organizational cooperation. You also can join a network — there’s even one that’s dedicated to Jewish environmentalism. Jewcology — think Jewish ecology — is a project of Aytzim, and it’s free to join. It’s like a Jewish-environmental Facebook of sorts, except instead of reading about your friends’ summer vacations, you can discover more good green ways to change the world: You can find and connect with Jewish-environmental organizations, share blogs, pedagogical resources and events.

If you are a rabbi, cantor or maggid, or studying to be one, you can join Shomrei Breishit: Rabbis and Cantors for the Earth. Run as a joint project of Aytzim and GreenFaith, Shomrei Breishit is the only international Jewish-clergical group focused on Jewish environmentalism.

As the new academic semester starts, college students can help bring Jewish environmentalism to campus by starting an Aytzim student chapter .

Just after Elul ends, those who live in the Northeast can join with thousands of others to attend Moral Action on Climate events in Washington.

And, of course, there is a plethora of Jewish-environmental organizations in need of fiscal support. You can help Aytzim and find others by consulting the map of Jewish-environmental initiatives.

Unlike when we as individuals hurt the feelings of our friends, our repentance with the Earth is societal, and our success is dependent on collective action. Each of us needs to act in concert. So spread the word! Share this article; start climate-action conversations with your friends and relatives; and discuss climate action at synagogues, JCCs and schools. Listen to the imperative of the shofar’s daily blast: “Act now!” “Act now!” “Act now!
And heed the shofar’s call to action. Tekiah!

David Krantz is the President of Aytzim: Ecological Judaism.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Earth Etude for Elul 14 - The Pool is Closed

by Rabbi Natan Margalit, Ph.D.

“The Pool is closed.  Have a good night. God Bless America” the lifeguard announced as I climbed out of the public pool at 5:00 pm on an August evening. I was a bit taken aback by that “God bless America.”  Well, of course. Yes, it's America, we’re in a public pool, why not? I hope God blesses America. We need to work for our own country, of course. Im ayn ani li, mi li – If I am not my own advocate, who will be for me? Said Hillel. But, it seemed to say more: God bless America –rah rah, go home team! Beat those enemies. Fear, pride, and narrow-mindedness seemed to lurk in the shadows of that “God bless America.” Hillel continued: Ve’ im ani rok l’atzmi, ma ani? If I am only for myself, what am I?  “God Bless America, and everyone in the rest of the world as well,” I wish she had said.

Just like a cell is nested in an organ, which is nested in a body, nested in a family, nested in a community – all life is connected in complex interdependent relationships. When we isolate ourselves and operate under the illusion that it’s only me, when we only look at my advantage in the competition with others instead of including our points of cooperation as well, we break the complex pattern that keeps life going.  

When we come this December to climate change negotiations in Paris, if each country only looks to its on narrow interests instead of its connection to the whole, the whole earth will be brought a step closer to climate disaster.

When I go to the food store and only look at the cheapest price I can pay, and I don’t ask myself where that chicken, that fish, came from? How was it raised? What was it fed? I am breaking the connection to the living web that gives me the bounty I enjoy every day. 

When I argue with my family and my friends and don’t consider their point of view, don’t think about what needs they are expressing but only look at my own injured pride, my own comfort and my own ego, I am cutting myself off from the reality that we are all in this together; we are all struggling to do our best, and we all need one another, even when we argue.  

It’s Elul. Hillel concluded: Ve’im lo akhshav, ay’matai? If not now, when?  It is time to return to life, to our sense of connection, to seeing my own county as worthy of blessing, but only as it joins in the blessing of all the world; to seeing myself as important and worth standing up for – but only truly alive and well when I’m connected to my family, friends and all this living, sacred world.  If not now, when?  

Natan Margalit was raised in Honolulu, Hawaii. He received rabbinic ordination at The Jerusalem Seminary in 1990 and earned a Ph.D. in Talmud from U.C. Berkeley in 2001. He has taught at Bard College, the Reconstuctionist Rabbinical College and the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. Natan is Rabbi of The Greater Washington Coalition for Jewish Life, in Connecticut and Visiting Rabbi at Congregation Adas Yoshuron in Rockland, Maine. He is Founder and President of Organic Torah Institute, a non-profit organization which fosters holistic thinking about Judaism, environment and society. He lives in Newton, MA with his wife Ilana and their two sons.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Earth Etude for Elul 13 - Returning to Memories, Reflecting on Progress

by Rabbi Shoshana Meira-Friedman

When I was a teenager, my grandfather would set aside mailings from the Sierra Club to give to me when I visited. He knew I cared about nature, and that I identified as an environmentalist. (I never quite knew what to do with the mailings. I think I cut out a few photos from a calendar to hang on my wall.)

As I grew older, Pa – a first generation Jewish immigrant, who went from rags to riches in a generation – asked me how I could make a living from environmental work. I remember saying something vague, because I really didn't know the answer.

I went to college and majored in Environmental Studies. On visits to my grandparents, I was able to answer more of Pa's questions. He began to see the potential for me to support myself. And he began to see the consciousness of our country around air, water, conservation, and climate take on new depth. When I told him I wanted to be a rabbi, Pa sat me down and asked me to explain why it was important to me. I don't remember what I said, but I remember what he said. "I understand. You're a humanist with a Jewish spirit."

It's a phrase that has guided me in my rabbinate since that moment, and as I reflect this Elul it is particularly poignant. Pa died in 2010, 33 days before my Nana, and four years before I was ordained. I am now in a fulfilling pulpit position, and I am making a living in a meaningful and joyful job. I am also working as a person, a Jew, and a rabbi to mobilize voices of faith on the climate crisis. They would have loved to see this.

And they would have loved to witness this moment in human history, as finally, finally, the concerns of the environmental movement begin to move into mainstream political and social spheres. We have so far to go, but we have also made great strides.

May we move from strength to strength in our work for a better world, inspired by those who came before and loving those with whom we walk.

Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman is the Assistant Rabbi at Temple Sinai of Brookline. She was ordained by Hebrew College in Newton, MA, and is a leader in the interfaith climate movement in Boston.

Earth Etude for Elul 16 - Return to Our Pond

by Rabbi Dorit Edut

Frozen for months, life had chilled out for too long last winter. We began to wonder if a new Ice Age was coming more swiftly than predicted. Disaster was whispering in the wind from which we tried to hide all skin lest the frost take a bite. We stayed indoors and cancelled many a get-together because of the fierceness of this weather. On the pond in front of my daughter’s home, the white heron appeared once in March, as if sent by Noah, but all was solid ice.

In early April evenings, the story of our Exodus from slavery to freedom was told and we began to feel again in our fingers, toes, and inner recesses the need to move forward, to act with the courage of our ancestors and confront our world.  This time the heron found a patch of water amidst the melting ice and he, too,  looked relieved.

Spring rains brought flooding waters in some places but a rainbow of colorful flowers appeared then in June and July gardens– and we knew that our reprieve had been granted once again.  Geese and ducks glided by in the shaded waters of the pond, with newborns in tow.  We invited friends over to join in feasts of ripe cucumbers, tomatoes, eggplants, beans, corn, peaches, berries, all sprinkled with fragrant herbs from our abundant gardens.  The summer pleasures encourage healing and strengthening of bodies,  minds, and spirits until they have almost reached a stage of perfection.

Yet then it is that we also start to turn towards fall, the time of our New Year, the ingathering of harvested crops and friends and new projects – for winter is sure to come again and no one knows how long it will last this time or who we will have become when the heron returns next spring.  We look now and see our reflections in the pond’s waters and  quietly pray with a full heart, saying thanks  for all this and asking or  hoping for more.

In the floating leaves which appear on the water’s surface, we are aware that another year has passed, and we have left much to be done to repair our world. Can we stave off winter? Perhaps not, but we may prevail over its excesses by the warmth of deeds of lovingkindness, reaching out to those who stand on  the shores of other ponds, big and small, where our  white heron Ehas also flown.

Rabbi Dorit Edut, after over 40 years as a Jewish educator in Metro Detroit, was ordained in 2006  at the Academy for Jewish Religion, a pluralistic Jewish seminary, in Riverdale, NY. After serving as a congregational rabbi and teaching, four years ago, Rabbi Edut brought together a diverse group of clergy and civic leaders in Detroit to find ways to help revitalize the city of Detroit with a focus on its youth, resulting in the Detroit Interfaith Outreach Network (DION) where religious and faith groups share their projects and gain support from this network. DION has  held as series of interfaith services and social/educational programs to spiritually uplift Detroit and has created programs for career exploration, conflict resolution, and arts and cultural awareness for youth  and families in Detroit.

Earth Etude for Elul 12 - Remembering Earth

by Steph Zabel

I thought the earth remembered me, she took me back so tenderly, arranging her dark skirts, her pockets full of lichens and seeds.

This line from Mary Oliver’s beloved poem, “Sleeping in the Forest,” often runs through my mind. Especially when I leave behind my city environs and return to the embrace of the forest and green, wild places.

Teshuvah, return.

Some of us may be more drawn to the outdoors than others, but I believe that each of us has heard a call to return to nature at some point in our life. A return to nature can simply be a momentary remembrance, a moment of connection and acknowledgment. Even the most citified person, with feet always on concrete, can be stopped in their tracks by the pink glow of a sunset, the tremendous power of a thunderstorm, or the pure beauty of a newly opened flower.

Nature calls to us in many ways, in many languages and colors and scents and whispers. It is simply up to us to be aware of these communications.

For me, I most strongly hear how the earth speaks through the beauty of plants. I see the divinity of all life reflected in the body of plants. The flowers, leaves, seeds, and roots of these beings contain healing for our own bodies and spirits.

I see this in the way a flower blooms and then sets its seeds, in the changing colors of autumn leaves, in the waxing and waning rhythms of the seasons, in the abundance and diversity of life that meets us everywhere. The scent of a flower, the light through trees’ leaves, the feel of the grass underneath my feet and through my fingers, all return me to the Source of everything.

The earth will always remember us, and will endlessly call us back to her. We must simply listen. And then we will remember to the earth. 

Steph Zabel, MSc, is an herbalist and educator based in Somerville, MA. For over a decade she has combined her passions for natural medicine, community outreach, and education. She holds a Master’s degree in ethnobotany, and is a graduate of several herbal apprenticeships including a three-year training in clinical herbalism. Steph worked in the botanical collections of the Harvard University Herbaria and now focuses on teaching practical & inspiring herbal classes and offering dynamic wellness sessions. Steph is the founder of HERBSTALK, Boston’s vibrant community herbal conference, through which she creates accessible educational opportunities for all plant enthusiasts.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Earth Etude for Elul 11 - The Freedom of Dance; the Prayer of Protest

by Maggid David Arfa

Shalom Shachna, the son of Holy Angel, the grandson of the Maggid of Mezeritch, learned to dance from the Shpoler Zeide.  For the rest of his life he would share with all who would listen how the Shpoler Zeide was a master of dance and able to achieve Holy Unifications with each step of his foot.  Adapted from Tales of the Hasidim by Martin Buber.

“For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer….Even without words, our march was worship.  I felt my legs were praying.”  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Sometimes, when I can no longer stand my careless abuse of the Earth, I know I have to take a stand- In the streets with my neighbors.  Teshuvah as protest.  The power is in the action.  My legs hold real power to help me remember what’s most important and start fresh. 

Amazingly, it used to be common knowledge that the power contained in our legs affects the cosmos.  An ancient midrash says every commandment has a corresponding place in our body and day of the year. We are not only saying ‘As above, so below’, but also ‘As below, so above’  This teaching was carried forward into Medieval Kabbalah providing a unique form of empowerment.  The Kabbalists actually taught that the cosmos needed our prayers and our actions for its own healing.

The Hasidic creativity of the pre-modern world transformed this teaching applying it specifically to everyday dance ( song and story too!).  Did you know the Shpoler Zeide continued to dance with the lightness of youth well into his old age?  Once, a Jewish life was in danger.  A giant cossack soldier was cruelly treating him like a cat treats a mouse.  The giant declared that if anyone could out-dance him, then he would spare the life of this simple Jew.  However, if not, than both dancer and hostage would die!  Everyone was so scared.  It was the Grandfatherly Shpoler Zeide who stepped forward.  He danced the Bear-Dance with such focused power and vigor that the cossack was unable to keep up.  He fell down laughing saying, ‘You win old man, you win’.  For the Shpoler Zeide, dance was a superpower!  Able to affect Teshuvah with a single bound.

Reb Nachman of Bratzlav, actually prescribed dance as a remedy for the hopeless despair that prevents joy.  He knew, the act of dance was enough to raise joy high in the saddest of souls.  Dance as medicine.  How’s that for creative health care! 

Now we come to Rabbi Heschel and his creativity.  He’s not just protesting, he’s praying with his legs!  This power still reaches us, like light from a distant star. It is testimony to Rabbi Heschel’s strong cosmic powers.
How many of us are inspired to do more because of Rabbi Heschel?  The power of praying legs in protest.  

This Elul, let’s bring all of the enchantment we can muster to our Teshuvah. Let’s add our modern awareness for the evolutionary miracles that allow legs to stand, ankles to rotate, and 26 humble bones in the foot that allow us to stand steady even on uneven ground.  The spontaneous freedom of dance, the improvisational prayer of protest reminds us that we can choose a new path. We can alter the shape of tomorrow.  As Emma Goldman said, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want your revolution!”  Rally Ho!

For additional background on the powers of dance see, “The Mystery of Dance According to Reb Nachman of Bratzlav” in The Exegetical Imagination by Michael Fishbane. 

Maggid David Arfa (Mah-geed; Storyteller) is dedicated to Judaism’s storytelling heritage and ancient environmental wisdom. He has produced two CD’s, "The Birth of Love: Tales for the Days of Awe", and a light-hearted collection, "The Life and Times of Herschel of Ostropol: The Greatest Prankster Ever To Live". His full-length performance, "The Jar of Tears: A Memorial for the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto" won the Charles Hildebrandt Holocaust Studies Award for artistic excellence, depth of vision and technical mastery. David’s workshop ‘Try Stories for a Change’ trains organizations to build volunteers and raise funds through authentic storytelling and listening circles. Other workshops explore the relationships between wonder, grief, hope and activism. David earned his MS in Environmental Education and degrees in Wildlife Ecology and Environmental Policy. He is now studying Clinical Pastoral Education and is the Director of Education for Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams. David lives in Shelburne Falls, MA.  For more information see

Monday, August 24, 2015

Earth Etude for Elul 10 - Guatemalen Etudes for the Earth

by Rabbi Margaret Frisch Klein

An etude is a song, a song of praise. This summer I spent time bouncing on a bus as part of American Jewish World Service’s Global Justice Fellowship in Guatemala. Part of a two year program, we studied text together, we lobbied together, we learned organizing skills together and then we experienced Guatemala together.

It is hard to reconcile the beauty of the land together with the brokenness of the country. In 1954 there was a coupe organized in part by the United Fruit Company and the CIA to protect US interests and land ownership. There was a bloody civil war, a genocide really, with a peace accord that was signed in 1996. But these struggles are not yet over. On September 6, 2015, there will be yet another election and land rights and land ownership are some of the hotly contested issues.

For the Mayan people, the indigenous people, the land is very important. We were witnesses to several Mayan blessings to start our meetings. The first was at an NGO Codecut which trains Mayan women to be midwives. Their circle included colorful candles symbolizing sun, rest, water, purity, blood, transparency, air, sky and the green natural world. We told the story of Shifrah and Puah, the two midwives in the book of Exodus whose civil disobedience enabled the Jewish people to survive. I watched as the head of Codecut, Maria Cecelia, beamed as the story was told. Unfamiliar with the story, she understood the connection as her face lit up with joy and appreciation at the parallels. Their song was an etude for the earth.

Later in the week we visited CCDA. By now the candle ritual was expected and understood, but this NGO added a Maize Dance. During this dance we learned the importance of the struggle for the land. It is not unlike the story of Abraham buying a burial plot for Sarah and the struggle that has ensued ever since. This is the very land that grows maize and provides nourishment for the people through the ubiquitous tortillas, also made as part of the dance. Their dance was an etude for the earth.

CCDA is a grassroots organization of small farmers in 11 regions of Guatemala. They advocate successfully for land rights, help local farmers increase their yields and protect land from environmental damage. Those increased yields help members gain access to health care and education. They can track accounts of human rights abuses against the indigenous, mostly Mayan farmers.

Some of this has come with the sale of their organic coffee beans, Café Justica, to global partners. Some of it is even more local. In their Patio Systemes, there was one woman who explained that with just one chicken on her patio, she was able to put her daughter through 6th grade and now she is entering high school. The woman herself does not read or write.  “We’re not just in the business of buying and selling coffee,” said Leocadio Juracán, Coordinator of CCDA. “We are using the resources we have to work for justice in our communities.”

This advocacy comes with risk. There are 84 arrest warrants out for leaders of CCDA. Yet, they are making a difference in protecting their land rights, frequently from large multi-nationals who would like to engage in strip mining or who would like to put in large hydro-electric dams.

When Rosh Hashanah comes, I will be proud to be serving CCDA honey on my table, making it an extra sweet new year. And I will remember the Guatemalan etudes for the earth.

Rabbi Margaret Frisch Klein is the rabbi of Congregation Kneseth Israel in Elgin, IL. She recently returned from Guatemala as a Global Justice Fellow with American Jewish World Service. She chairs the 16th Circuit Court Faith Committee on Domestic Violence and works with Community Crisis Center, the U46 School District, and the Coalition of Elgin Religious Leaders. She blogs as the Energizer Rabbi,

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Earth Etude for Elul 9 - Weeds and Debris

by Maxine Lyons

I started to think about teshuvah and Rosh Hashana early this summer while cleaning out my flowerbeds of weeds and debris. I noticed the different roots in my garden - fibrous roots spread laterally underground and re-appear in other places, taproots that remain steadfast in one place and grow downward deep into the earth. I was musing about how some people are like taproots- making a bold, firm stance whereas others are like the plants with fibrous roots, appearing and reappearing, showing their influences by reaching out in a variety of places and spaces.

Weeding is an ongoing effort especially those that proliferate in shaded areas with strong and tenacious roots. If you do not remove the whole root bulb, they will grow strong again and threaten to become invasive. So are our bad habits, those nagging and sometimes distracting, often unproductive habits that continue to invade our thoughts and sabotage new behavior if we do not attend to them. The most effective way for me to make changes in my daily life is to “root out” the reason for the continued habit and replace it more consciously with a more life-enriching choice. It is a recurring challenge to change these habits but when I succeed in small ways to trade the old ones with more healthful ones I feel as if I am doing teshuvah.

I resonate fully with Stanley Kunitz in the question he asks in his inspiring book, The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden—“Why is the act of cultivating so compelling? The garden has been a great teacher in everything I cherish. And it leads to a meditation on the connection between the self and the rest of the natural universe.” I feel that planting and growing plants and vegetables connect me deeply to the earth and its preservation.

This year we are hearing a compelling environmental message stated clearly by the Pope in his encyclical. He clearly emphasizes the relationship between religion and the environment, calling for everyone to take the crisis in climate change seriously through joint actions, to create new paradigms and new solutions to environmental disregard and harm.

Additionally, The Shalom Center’s rallying cry that gained 380 rabbis’ signatures for the Rabbinic Letter On the Climate Crisis recognizes that justice and caring for the earth are interwoven, taught by our ancient texts as well as joining the forces of justice and healing the earth being taught in our experiences today  (calling for a new sense of "eco-social justice –tikkun tevel, “the healing of all the earths’ inhabitants)."

This growing consciousness of the interconnectedness of all life forms compels us to act on behalf of the environment. Every small action we each take has a ripple effect on the whole of life, and we have to choose wisely in what we do that impacts the well being of the earth, and helps sustain us and everything around us. In this season of dedication to reflection and change, as we practice our teshuvah, may we continue to grow within ourselves as we tend our flower and vegetable gardens in the spirit of love and positive actions in the world.

Maxine Lyons is a Newton resident and joyful gardener, interfaith activist/board member with Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries (CMM), and participant in spiritual accompaniment programs.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Earth Etude for Elul 8 - Creativity and Teshuvah

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

Creation. Whether you consider it to warrant a capital C or simply a lower case c, the word expresses how the Universe began. The act of creation holds within it creativity. Creativity was present from the start of the Universe.

When we look around, we can see that continually the Universe is created anew, with newness filling every moment of every day: new growth of plants, animals, and other organisms, new stars being born, precipitation falling anew, streams and rivers renewing and changing their course as the water tumbles down mountains and hills, and so much more.

We see creativity in the more-than-human world, but we are more familiar with it in the human world -- new books, new symphonies, new works of art, new gardens, every generation and every human feels a drive to create something new. 

Jewish tradition teaches that we are partners with G!d in the on-going creation of the Universe. Yet, all of the created world constantly exhibits creativity, not only through intentional human thought, but also as the result of the laws of nature.

For us human beings, creativity can be a useful tool in our teshuvah, our return to G!d. If we find ourselves slipping into the blues or even depression, if we find painful thoughts and memories coming to the fore, our creative efforts can transform and heal the places of pain, grief, anxiety, or fear within us. New expressions of our ideas, thoughts, feelings, and memories become a form of teshuvah, of returning to a place of peace and wellness of spirit, of growing ourselves and our relationship with the sacred. 

As we journey through Elul, may our creativity take center stage and bring us, and the world, to a new and better place.

Rabbi Katy Allen is a board certified chaplain and serves as a Nature Chaplain and the Facilitator of One Earth Collaborative, a program of Open Spirit. She is the founder and rabbi of Ma'yan Tikvah - A Wellspring of Hope, which holds services outdoors all year long. She is the President pro-tem of the Boston-based Jewish Climate Action Network. She received her ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion

Friday, August 21, 2015

Earth Etude for Elul 7 - Community and Covenant

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen 

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about community and covenant. 

Rabbi Avi Olitzky defines community as “a circle to which you feel you belong that will miss your presence; it reaches out to you when you’re absent, and you long for it when you’re not there.” 

Covenant, berit, is a promise, generally bilateral, requiring the participation of both parties that are bound by the covenant. 

In the Torah, G!d enacts three covenants. First is G!d’s promise to all humanity after the Flood, never again to wreak such destruction. The sign of this covenant – actually a one-way agreement, because G!d promises, but humanity is not obligated – is the rainbow. 

The second is G!’d’s covenant with Abraham, promising to make numerous his descendants and to give them the Land of Israel for their possession. (Gen. 17) Circumcision, brit milah, is the sign of Abraham’s acceptance of and loyalty to G!d. 

The enactment of the third covenant takes place at Mt. Sinai, when G!d gives the Torah to the Israelites and outlines the terms of the covenant. Shabbat is the sign of this covenant. 

The three covenants provide intimations about three kinds of community. 

The rainbow is of the more-than-human world, outside of us, a reminder that community extends beyond humanity to the Universe and all it contains. 

Circumcision is a reminder that our relationship with G!d is personal, that we must look inward in order to fully maintain our relationship with the Sacred. 

Shabbat is a reminder to connect with humanity, to interact, celebrate, rejoice, remember, and observe, and to do it with others. 

Community: a circle to which you feel you belong that will miss your presence; it reaches out to you when you’re absent, and you long for it when you’re not there. 

The more than human world – it calls out to us, but often we do not hear it. We are connected in our very DNA to all of life; we are connected through stardust beyond the living world to the nonliving world. If our hearts are open, we long for the more-than-human world when we stay away too long. 

Our hearts and our souls – if we ignore them, putting our shoulders to the grindstone of what must be done, our spirits will shrivel and die. 

Our human community – we all need each other, physically, spiritually, and emotionally. 

To become one, one with the Universe, one with ourselves, and one with all humanity, to the best of our ability, that is our holy task on this Earth. 

As we continue to journey through Elul and toward Rosh HaShanah, let us seek l’chadesh, to renew our covenant with the Universe, with our souls, and with humanity. Let us engage in teshuvah and return to the heart of the three covenants and the three communities upon which we depend.

Rabbi Katy Allen is a board certified chaplain and serves as a Nature Chaplain and the Facilitator of One Earth Collaborative, a program of Open Spirit. She is the founder and rabbi of Ma'yan Tikvah - A Wellspring of Hope, which holds services outdoors all year long. She is the President pro-tem of the Boston-based Jewish Climate Action Network

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Earth Etude for Elul 6 - Bringing Truth to Power

by Hattie Nestel

To bring truth to power on any day is always rewarding, but to bring truth to power on Yom Kippur acquires even deeper meaning.

The first I time I spoke truth to power sufficiently to be arrested was on Yom Kippur, 1983, at the invitation of Scott Schaeffer-Duffy and the Atlantic Life Community, ALC, a mixture of Jewish and Catholic activists from the East Coast founded by Philip Berrigan and his wife Liz McAlister.

After meeting Philip Berrigan in 1982, my two sons and I went to ALC retreats in WashingtonDC. ALC activists encouraged me to join them in blocking a Trident nuclear submarine in Connecticut on Yom Kippur 1983 during a non-violent direct. My two sons, Kenny, 17, and Gad, 9, enthusiastic joined me.

A Trident launch on Yom Kippur enhanced its meaning to our little family. Perhaps twenty of us, including Kenny and me, decided to risk arrest by going under police barricades to block the entrance to the launch. Police arrested us, and Gad blew the shofar continuously until police released us.

To have taken the step of being arrested shocked and liberated me. “Beating swords to plowshares and spears into pruning hooks” from Isaiah 2:4 informed many ALC actions I participated in.

I was born in 1939 in a mostly gentile suburb of Philadelphia to Conservative Jewish parents. I lived my first six years in a household dominated with the knowledge and fear of what was happening to Jews in Nazi Germany and Europe.

From the earliest age, I remember the confusion and fear of waking up at night to the sound of American air raid sirens during World War II. My parents drew down all the blackout shades until we heard the all clear sirens.

Fear welled in me when we went to the neighborhood movie theater where there were newsreels about the war. We watched clips of Hitler with saluting flag waving, cheering mobs of thousands. I knew that Hitler and his Nazis hated Jews and although I do not remember being told I was a Jew, I just knew it. I have never forgotten those images.
I often overheard my parents whispering about buying guns for Jews in Nazi occupied countries. They worked in their own way to stop Jewish death and destruction.

During the war, my father planted a backyard Victory garden with a small strawberry patch he gave me at the end of the yard to water and pick. Unfortunately, the strawberry patch abutted our backyard neighbor’s house where the children knew we were Jewish. While I picked strawberries, they threw stones at me and called me a Jesus killer. Again, being Jewish made me fearful.

As I lived through young adulthood, I began to understand more deeply what happened during the Holocaust. My mother remembered and often retold her experience of being in Cuba in 1939 when Jewish refugees aboard the St. Louis ship were not allowed to dock.
My mother gave me the book, Blessed Is the Match, about Hannah Senesh, who resisted the Nazis and was eventually executed for attempting to liberate Hungarian Jews. From then on, I avidly read everything about the Holocaust. I read story after story, history after history of Jewish persecution. Those stories are like cells in my body. They are never far from my mind.

For the past year, activism has led me to work with many others to stop a fracked gas pipeline proposed to traverse Massachusetts.

I see the pipeline as a destroyer of life, another instrument of climate destruction. I resolved to tell the stories of those whose lands would be destroyed by the pipeline. I took a course and slowly learned to use a video camera and edit footage. I have completed thirty-seven interviews airing on thirty community cable access stations in Massachusetts. I am resolved that families and land will not be destroyed without a fight. I will not be a bystander. This is my current way of beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.

I do not know where I will put my body on Yom Kippur this year, but I know it will be somewhere on the pipeline route praying that it can be stopped.

Hattie Nestal is an activist living in Athol, MA.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Earth Etude for Elul 5 - Dandelions and Teshuvah

By Thea Iberall, Ph.D.

As an act of service, I take care of the lawn and gardens at my local Unitarian Universalist Church. The first time I mowed the lawn, I used the hand mower so as to not pour carbon pollution into the atmosphere. People laughed at me, saying this is so old-fashioned. As I doubled-down into my task, I replied, “It’s the wave of the future.”

In the lawn are dandelions which are weeds that don’t belong. But what is a dandelion anyway? Is it a weed or a flower? If we think of it as a weed, it is something to destroy because it ruins our desire for a perfectly neat green lawn. If we think of it as a flower, it is a living aspect of nature.

We want neatness and stability, but nature is about bountifulness and change. It is about cycles and balances. We can no longer afford to compete with nature for our own needs, greeds, and pleasure. We can no longer afford to keep our conveniences at the cost of our planet.

The Hebrew word teshuvah means ‘turning.’ Jewish repentance or turning from sins is more than regretting what one has done. It is about understanding our behavior. We can regret we have lived using conveniences like power mowers and automobiles and electric mixers. But teshuvah also means ‘answer.’ I’ve heard that there is nothing more important than being good. Even if we are frail humans who mess up, we can commit to being good by doing good acts. Good acts like living in harmony with nature, like maybe even not mowing a lawn or using a convenience. Do something the hard way and use the extra time it takes to reconnect with G!d.

Thea Iberall is a poet, storyteller, and climate activist and the author of The Swallow and the Nightingale - a fable about a 4,000 year old secret brought through time by the birds. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Earth Etude for Elul 4 - Fearing God as a Response to Fear

by Andy Oram

Fear is a recurring state that runs throughout life. These days, our fears increasingly hone in on environmental degradation. The drying up of aquifers, the threat of flooding that our major cities face through rising oceans, the disappearance of bees that keep the food chain going--such apocalypses outstrip almost everything we’ve feared in the past. Except for medieval plagues and nuclear war, nothing else in history can cause such legitimate fear as what we’re doing to the environment.

These facts engender toxic mental reactions that are sometimes termed eco-despair. This spiritual disorder is blamed not only for rage and depression but for denial, withdrawal, and inaction. When I regularly hear educated people say, “I really don’t know much about global warming,” I see eco-despair in action. There are plenty of ways to learn about this all-encompassing threat; the sufferers from eco-despair just can’t put themselves in a position to find out.

While the Tanach frequently addresses our fear of life’s ills and dangers, in the Psalms and elsewhere, it also talks mysteriously of fearing God. In plain language, the phrase seems to suggest that fear of punishment from the heavens provides us a strong motivation for acting rightly, but this obvious interpretation is odd and uncomfortable. It risks draining the joy from performing mitzvot. It could seem to weaken our love for God, as well as for life itself. Yet even Deuteronomy, a book famous for God’s expressions of love, repeatedly stresses the injunction to fear God.

Some readers try to massage the many references to the fear of God, substituting something gentler such as awe. The problem with this translation is that awe is less persuasive than fear as a reason to perform the commandments. But there is another way to squarely face fear of God.

The Zohar treats fear of God in depth, taking off particularly from Job 28:28, which starkly claims,”Fear of God, it is wisdom.” Fear of God may, according to Deuteronomy and elsewhere, lead us to follow the commandments, but how can it lead to wisdom? Even more strikingly, how can it be wisdom?

According to the Zohar, fear of God is itself a mitzvah. They distinguish it in the strongest terms from ordinary fears: our fear of losing a job, of flying in an airplane, of global warming. However, if the fear of what happens to us in this world is a distraction from fearing God, so is the fear of what happens to us in the world to come--the obvious, plain interpretation of the praise given to fear of God throughout the Tanach. (The world to come is mostly a later construct.) Fearing God’s punishment is just as bad as fearing an airplane crash. Both types of fear trap you in the shell of the commandments, so that you never reach the commandments’ root.

My interpretation of Job 28:28 and the Zohar is hard to articulate, but points to a way of handling ordinary fears and countering eco-despair. One has to take up all one’s fears--pack them up in your old kit-bag, to quote a classic song--and somehow convert them into the fear of God. By fearing God you harness the fear that leads to despair and inaction.

We do not know exactly what this kind of fearing God feels like, but it could very well be wisdom. When one succeeds in substituting the fear of God for everyday fear, perhaps the path to solutions will appear.

Fear is the reaction of a thinking person to the hazards of life. It comes naturally to anyone educated in the problems of Earth’s environment. We cannot ignore or repress the fears, but by converting them to fear of God we can turn them a mitzvah: an action taken to improve the world.

Andy Oram is a writer and editor at O'Reilly Media, a leading media outlet in the computer field. He is also an activist in the Jewish Climate Action Network as well as other progressive political organizations, and a member of Temple Shir Tikvah of Winchester, Mass. Some of his writings can be found at

Monday, August 17, 2015

Earth Etude for Elul 3 - Fields Open

by Judith Felsen, Ph.D

There is a sadness only we can fix,
a problem only we can solve
in sitting with our own mistakes
which have yielded tragic crops.
The foods we made we cannot eat.
Our spoiled  waters now do poison us.
Our air is filthy and its haze blocks out the sun.
Asphyxiation is upon us as if we are water-boarded
by our hands alone.
Do we not see our temple walls destroyed?
Do we not see the light which comes between
the crumbled stones of our own infestation?
Today we sit upon the grounds which we have bled
and feel the aching cries of seeds of grief, of greed.
In tears the light is here upon us as we sit brokenly in open land.
May our lamentations bring us till in hand
as we atone for  deeds we now undo.
The earth which cries to us requests its care
and orders conscious conservation as its reparation.
Our fields and minds once opened to receiving light
can then prepare to greet our King.
Mistakes become recycling and our waste becomes our compost
as this Elul follows grief to our correction.
We too can see the fox, remember, learn, and look ahead to greener days
and know our time has come.

Copyright 2015 Judith Felsen, Ph.D.

Judith Felsen holds a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, certificates in hypnotherapy, NLP, Eriksonian Hypnosis, and Sacred Plant Medicine. She is a dancer of sacred circle dance, an AMC kitchen crew, trail information volunteer, trail adopter, and daily student of Torah and Judaism. She is enrolled in Rabbinical Seminary International. She has studied Buddhism, A Course in Miracles, and other mystical traditions. She is a hiker, walker, runner, and lives in the White Mountains with her husband and two large dogs. Her life centers around her Jewish studies and daily application.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Earth Etude for Elul 2 - Elul: A Time to Start Shifting Our Imperiled Planet onto a Sustainable Path

by Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D

The Hebrew month of Elul has arrived. It is the traditional time for heightened introspection, a chance to consider teshuva, improvements in our lives, before the “Days of Awe,” the days of judgment, the “High Holidays” of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

The shofar is blown every morning (except on Shabbat) in synagogues during the month of Elul to awaken us from slumber, to remind us to consider where we are in our lives and to urge us to make positive changes.

How should we respond to Elul today? How should we respond when:

  • Science academies worldwide, 97% of climate scientists, and 99.9% of peer-reviewed papers on the issue in respected scientific journals argue that climate change is real, is largely caused by human activities, and poses great threats to humanity.
  • Every decade since the 1970s has been warmer than the previous decade and all of the 16 warmest years since temperature records were kept in 1880 have been since 1998. 2014 was the warmest year recorded and 2015 is on track to break to be even warmer.
  • Polar icecaps and glaciers worldwide have been melting rapidly, faster than scientific projections.
  • There has been an increase in the number and severity of droughts, wildfires, storms, and floods.
  • California has been subjected to so many severe climate events (heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and mudslides when heavy rains occur) recently that its governor, Jerry Brown, stated that, “Humanity is on a collision course with nature.”
  • Many climates experts believe that we are close to a tipping point when climate change will spiral out of control, with disastrous consequences, unless major positive changes soon occur.
  • While climate scientists believe that 350 parts per million (ppm) of atmospheric CO2 is a threshold value for climate stability, the world reached 400 ppm in 2014, and the amount is increasing by 2 - 3 ppm per year.
  • While climate scientists hope that temperature increases can be limited to two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), largely because that is the best that can be hoped for with current trends and momentum,  the world is now on track for an average increase of 4 – 5 degrees Celsius, which would produce a world with almost unimaginably negative climate events .
  • The Pentagon and other military groups believe that climate change will increase the potential for instability, terrorism, and war by reducing access to food and clean water and by causing tens of millions of desperate refuges to flee from droughts, wildfire, floods, storms, and other effects of climate change. 
  • Despite all of the above, many people are in denial, and most people seem to be “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic as we approach a giant iceberg.”

In view of the above, we should make it a priority to do all we can to awaken the world to the dangers and the urgency of doing everything possible to shift our imperiled planet onto a sustainable path. We should contact rabbis, Jewish educators, and other Jewish leaders and ask that they increase awareness of the threats and how Jewish teachings can be applied to avert impending disasters. We should write letters to editors, call talk shows, question politicians, and in every other way possible, stress that we can’t continue the policies that have been so disastrous. We should urge that tikkun olam (the healing and repair of the world) become a central focus in all aspects of Jewish life today.

The afternoon service for Yom Kippur includes the book of Jonah, who was sent by God to Nineveh to urge the people to repent and change their evil ways in order to avoid their destruction. Today the whole world is Nineveh, in danger of annihilation and in need of repentance and redemption, and each one of us must be a Jonah, with a mission to warn the world that it must turn from greed, injustice, and violence, so that we can avoid a climate catastrophe and help shift our imperiled planet onto a sustainable path.

Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D., is the author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival, Who Stole My Religion? Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal our Imperiled Planet, and Mathematics and Global Survival, and over 200 articles and 25 podcasts at He is President of Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA) and the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians (SERV). He is associate producer of the 2007 documentary “A Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World.”

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Earth Etude for Elul 1 - On the Search for Teshuvah at Walden Pond

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

Today is the first day of the month of Elul. We are on the countdown to Rosh HaShanah, one month away. 

Welcome to the first of this year's Earth Etudes for Elul, a daily feast of reflections to help us in the process of teshuvah, of re-turning to the Holy One, re-turning toward our best innermost self.

The journey toward self-discovery, 
and self actualization 
is one of constantly looking through the trees 
for the deep well of water 
from which we take refreshment, 
and courage. 

The way forward is not clear, 
rarely is it obvious, 
often it is hidden,
frequently the route 
is circuitous. 

So much is in the way!
Some obstacles are the size of whole trees.
Others are as small as a single leaf.
All are part of Creation.

And behind them,
is the water. 

Our souls are awaiting. 

We can find our way.

Let us journey together.

Rabbi Katy Allen is a board certified chaplain and serves as a Nature Chaplain and the Facilitator of One Earth Collaborative, a program of Open Spirit. She is the founder and rabbi of Ma'yan Tikvah - A Wellspring of Hope, which holds services outdoors all year long. She is the President pro-tem of the Boston-based Jewish Climate Action Network. She received her ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion