Eilon Schwartz, founder of The Heschel Center, answers questions
What work do you do?
I’m the founder and executive director of The Heschel Center, an environmental NGO in Israel. I am also an academic, teaching at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
What does your organization do?
Only in the last decade has environmentalism gotten on the map in Israel. For years, “The Situation” — that is, the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians — dominated political discussion and prevented virtually any other issue from being seriously addressed. But the acute nature of environmental problems, coupled with the birth of an energetic civic society, led to a huge increase in environmental awareness.
The Heschel Center was born during that growth spurt, partially as a result of these processes, but also as a catalyst for them. Our goal was to envision and empower a movement for social change based on ecological health and social equity.
So, what does the organization actually do?
We run high-level leadership training programs for the next generation of environmental leaders — coming from fields as diverse as architecture, journalism, art, law, public health, agriculture, community organizing, education, and of course, environmental and ecological science. We work with journalists to help them reframe environmentalism as a social issue. We work with local municipalities, getting them to draw up plans for a sustainable future through large-scale citizen participation. We work with principals, schools, teachers, and kids, creating models for an ecologically literate education. We run a network of public-health advocates. We work with the national government on implementing a national plan for sustainability. We bring together Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, Oriental and European Jews, believing that environmentalism should reflect a larger, inclusive vision for the society.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m on a sabbatical at Brown University for the year (otherwise I wouldn’t have the time to write this!), and I’m taking advantage of my proximity to many potential donors in America to find new resources for our work. I’m also taking advantage of getting away from the day-to-day to think strategically about our next set of projects, and about maintenance and fine-tuning of existing ones.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I grew up in Levittown, Long Island, as a suburban Jewish kid. I knew that I didn’t want that when I grew up. I focused on Jewish studies in New York City and then promptly left to live on a kibbutz for 10 years, working as a farmer and an educator. Being in a beautiful desert landscape had a profound impact on my environmental identity, and although subsequently I have become very critical of romantic environmentalism, everyone should have a moment in their biography where they can notice the radical beauty of the world.
When I left kibbutz for the big city, I knew I wanted to keep connected to the great outdoors, so I decided to go back to school and learn environmental studies. (What I didn’t realize is that this would lead to far too many hours in front of computer screens and far too few hours in beautiful places.) Simultaneously, a friend of mine began an environmental NGO and asked me to chair the board of the fledgling organization. That gave me enough of an understanding of NGOs and of environmental politics in Israel to feel confident in starting my own organization, and to have a clear idea of what I wanted to do and why.
Who is your environmental hero?
I can follow the book trail, all the classics that inspired me: Rachel Carson, Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold. I’ve also been inspired by Jewish religious thinkers who critiqued contemporary culture and made a place for environmental thinking: Martin Buber, A. J. Heschel, Gershom Scholem, and A. D. Gordon, to name a few.
What is your environmental nightmare?
The blind faith in neoliberal economic capitalism — fundamentalist capitalism — and its prophets.
What’s your environmental vice?
I love (kosher) meat.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
Gloom and doom ecology guy.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
I learned to love the desert, but this year in New England I’m back in my childhood landscape and remembering how much the fall, winter, spring, and summer cycle is in my bones.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could it be done better?
We still speak too much about protecting the environment instead of talking about protecting people. We need to win the hearts and minds of a majority and then advocate policies that prove to people that this is a better way to live.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
Close the city centers to cars; charge cars for entering the city during congested times; subsidize mass transit; have designated bus lanes that are enforced; build bike lanes for commuting and not just recreation; build community gardens and farmers’ markets; have mixed zoning in the cities and mixed communities with affordable housing; advocate for community schools that kids can walk to. To paraphrase Thoreau, “In cities is the salvation of the world.”
What’s your favorite TV show?
On sabbatical, I’ve been watching Seinfeld and Simpsons episodes. In Israel, I watch a weekly political satire show with my kids.
What piece of advice might you give to others?
Slow down. Social-change organizations notoriously exploit their workers. A paradigm shift in attitudes and policies is not going to take place because someone slept four hours instead of eight hours. The immediacy of our pace of communications has a price. I actually think that is what an environmental-cultural critique should be trying to change.
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