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Published in Science & Spirit on May 1, 2006

Heart and Soil

By Sara Toth

Every Friday evening, the members of Kibbutz Lotan gather in their dining hall and praise their God, “who brings forth bread from the Warth.” It’s a ritualistic prayer so basic that many observant Jews recite it dispassionately. But it resonates deeply in this Reform community of about 150 in southern Israel’s Arava Valley, where members of the collective settlement spend much of their time establishing a relationship with the land.

Kibbutz Lotan and two neighboring kibbutzim have committed to an environmental course based on the imperative to repair the world, known in Hebrew as tikkun olam. The kibbutzim are symbolic of a growing environmentalism among Reform Jews in Israel, a movement that extends beyond the cooperative farms.

In 2001, the Green Zionist Alliance was formed to tackle environmental challenges that affect Israel and the rest of the Middle East, and, in 2002, it became the first environmental party to have representatives in the World Zionist Congress. And just this past January, the Charles Bronfman Prize, awarded each year for humanitarian work that enriches Jewish life, was given to Aron Tal, a founder of the Green Zionist Alliance and a leader of Israel’s environmental community. The motivation for these new earth-conscious efforts, say those who are involved, comes from ancient ideas about the environment found in the Torah and other Jewish teachings.

Emphasis on tikkun olam combined with Judaism’s inherently flexible approach to religion and ideas about creation helps Jews new to environmentalism to be proactive and creative when it comes to ecological sustainability, a topic that only recently has become a real issue in Israeli policy and discourse. The Reform, or Progressive, movement emphasizes the development of new traditions that accommodate modern, personal needs and tastes while still adhering to the most basic moral values expressed in the Hebrew Bible and Jewish history. Reform Jews strive to uphold the essence rather than the letter of religious law, and they do not believe it’s necessary to adhere to each one of Judaism’s 613 commandments. Rather, they are to keep only the ones they feel are meaningful, says Rabbi Yehoram Mazor, executive director of the Israel Council of Progressive Rabbis.

While Reform Judaism is the largest movement of Judaism in the world, it is not officially recognized in Israel, where only Orthodox rabbis have the legal authority to perform marriages and act as chief rabbis. Yet the lack of official recognition is not stopping efforts to change Israel’s approach to the land and the life it supports—no more than it changes the way some Jews practice their religion.


“In the last decade or so, there has been a strongly heightened awareness to connect Jewish spirituality and environmental activism,” says Rabbi Warren Stone, founder and chairman of the Central Conference of American Rabbis Committee on the Environment, who currently serves the Reform congregation of Temple Emanuel in Kensington, Maryland. “There are significant areas of need to impact in Israel, and I think the Reform movement there has made inroads. [It] can share with others that these issues do have a Jewish component.”

Over the years, as the standard of living has increased, and Israel has developed into a modern, Westernized country, Israelis have overwhelmed landfills and diminished water tables. Zionism may focus on the land, but Israelis, for the most part, have sought to develop that land rather than preserve the country’s ecosystems, says David Lehrer, director of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, a regional research and education organization established by Green Zionist Alliance founder Tal and located on Kibbutz Ketura, a religiously progressive community about three miles south of Lotan.

Religiously progressive kibbutzim have been influenced, in part, by the classical, secular kibbutz movement that began in Israel nearly 100 years ago and played a substantial role in developing the country and defending its borders. Originally motivated by a combination of socialism and Zionism, many of these kibbutzim fell into economic crisis over the last two decades and are now recovering by exchanging some of their ideology for policies embracing capitalism and privatization. Kibbutzim that remain dedicated to communal living and influencing the national character are an increasingly rare phenomenon, meaning those Israelis who wish to nurture the fledgling environmental movement are finding fewer and fewer places for their ideas to take root.

And those actively trying to promote sustainable development don’t get much help from what Lehrer describes as a tense geopolitical reality that emphasizes short-term thinking. With calls to wipe the tiny country and its Jewish population from the face of the earth coming from more than one corner of the Middle East, it’s a challenge to convince people in Israel to make the long-term investments that environmental preservation requires, he says. For Reform Jews involved in conservation projects, however, repairing human damage to the ecosystem and changing the way people think about their natural environment are as important as observing Shabbat or keeping kosher. In fact, the idea of resting on the Sabbath, the day God finished creating the earth, shows how inherent the value of creation is to Judaism.


“Jewish tradition teaches that the earth is sacred,” and is connected to respect for human life, says Stone. “We should be concerned about how our children and grandchildren will live.”


Dedication to the environment, then, is a valid way to express Jewish values and faith.

“If we believe in the ultimate idea of monotheism—total unity—we have to respect not only the equal value of all humans, but also biodiversity,” says Doctor Michael Livni, a Canadian who immigrated to Israel more than four decades ago and has been part of Kibbutz Lotan since 1986. “We have to pay attention to our way of life and sustainability. We have to think globally and act locally.”

To that end, Kibbutz Lotan members operate a compost pile; maintain a bird reserve; tend an organic vegetable garden; construct buildings out of old tires and clay; and are in the process of installing a series of ponds to reclaim and filter used water from showers, cooking, and cleaning. Such measures preserve energy, produce less waste, and accommodate the millions of birds that pass over the kibbutz each year during migration season.


“It’s written right there in our faith,” to “till the earth and preserve it,” says Mike Kaplan of Lotan, referencing God’s commandment to Adam in the book of Genesis.

Jewish tradition overflows with references to the earth and its vegetation and creatures, including instructions on what to eat and how to eat it, as well as directives on how long to leave fields fallow between crops. According to Genesis, the earth, sky, animals, and plants were all created before humans, and (Green Zionist Alliance co-founder) Michael Cohen, a reconstructionist rabbi and a frequent guest at Kibbutz Ketura, thinks the order is significant.


“All of this environment has an intrinsic value to it because it was here before us; it has a value regardless of our needs,” he says. “All these things could live and go on living without us.”


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"Thus water, after having penetrated the soil, is collected in the clouds and seas; light, after having permeated the earth and brought forth the plants-these children of light-is yet concentrated in the sun, the moon and the stars; the seed, after germination in the ground, is taken from the earth to become the ripened fruit, so that the earth will have to receive in order to give again. Thus one immense bond of love, of giving and receiving, unites all beings."

- Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch

Did You Know?

The Dead Sea is a finalist in the contest to name the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.

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