What work do you do?
I’m a rabbi in the Washington, D.C., area; I’ve been privileged to serve as the rabbi of Temple Emanuel for the past 18 years.
I also serve as the national environmental chair for the Central Conference of American Rabbis and am on a variety of boards, including as co-chair of the Religious Campaign for Forest Conservation and the Religious Coalition on Creation Care. I’m on the board of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life and the advisory board of Carbonfund.org. A professional highlight was attending the climate-change talks in Kyoto in 1997 as the representative of many Jewish organizations.
How does it relate to the environment?
I’ve come to see my environmental work as a core expression of my religious faith and central to my goals as a spiritual and community leader. Many — from a variety of faith traditions — share this view. We work together on climate-change, forest, and wilderness issues. Being in Washington, D.C., we have an unparalleled opportunity to partner our religious perspectives with other environmental activists and scientists and to work for political change. After years of feeling like voices in the wilderness, we are now finding that our views are actively solicited in the halls of power. I’ve had the privilege of leading interfaith delegations to the House and Senate, White House, and World Bank. Right now, I’m particularly interested in the greening of institutions. I’d love to see our federal government adopt a greening policy for all government offices. How wonderful to hear Speaker Nancy Pelosi call for the greening of the U.S. Capitol!
winding road led you to your current position?
Aren’t the most interesting roads long and winding? I grew up along the south shore of Boston. My home backed a forested landscape, and I would spend hours with my brother finding creatures, discovering plants, caves, and natural wonders. We had cherry, pear, and apple trees in my backyard, which I helped pick every year. Come to think of it, I also loved “cherry fighting” with my brother from one tree to another. You know, I haven’t thought of that in decades.
I suppose that my first (albeit brief) taste of activism on behalf of the environment came on the first Earth Day, in 1970, when I was still a college student. And my love for wilderness areas continued to grow during the 1980s, when — by then a young rabbi — I served a congregation along the Gulf of Mexico. I remember wonderful hours at the Padre Island National Wildlife Refuge, watching the whooping cranes on their migration, the sand cranes and the gulf birds, with our then-young daughters. When we moved to the D.C. area in 1988, I found places of refuge here as well, regularly hiking with my dogs and, later, our young son, to Great Falls, around the Chesapeake Bay, and in Rock Creek Park.
Then in 1990, as a rabbi, I organized a religious presence in front of the U.S. Capitol with members of our new Green Shalom Committee. I suppose this was something of a turning point for me, when I moved beyond a personal love and appreciation for the environment into activism on its behalf as a religious and community leader. We led a prayer service on spirituality and the earth. Since that point, I’ve become ever more involved in the convergence of religion and the environment, and have been active as a spiritual voice on the environment with diverse interfaith organizations.
In my life travels, I have always sought out places of natural beauty, from the Sahara Desert of Tunisia to hiking the seaside fishing villages of Italy and living in the hills of Jerusalem overlooking the Judean desert. I’d say that I found my God and my spirituality in the wildness and beauty of nature.
I’ve been truly fortunate. My early love of both the outdoors and the values and traditions I learned in my observant Jewish home came together seamlessly in my life’s work as an environmentalist rabbi!
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
Well, focusing on the environmental piece, that would be the profound letdown that I experienced after returning from Kyoto as a delegate in 1997. I had been profoundly moved, feeling a depth of connection with Jesuit priests, Buddhist monks, Muslim imams, and Hindi and Sikh spiritual leaders. Each speaking from the voice of his or her authentic spiritual tradition, we affirmed our religious responsibility to act. Amidst Buddhist chanting, I blew the Shofar, a ram’s horn, the blast of sound that has been Judaism’s ancient call to action since the days we wandered, searching for our way, in the desert. We set up a daily prayer vigil of chants and prayers for all delegates to hear. And I felt great optimism, seeing Japanese auto factories that had already retrofitted vehicles with hybrid engines at low cost. I expected that our own country would see both the urgency and the opportunity for action and vision.
Instead, I returned home with others similarly inspired, only to face a potent corporate lobby of auto and oil companies and a real dearth of effective leadership willing or able to counter it. I am enormously heartened by what appears to be a recent will to act. But I continue to shake my head in wonder and frustration at a decade of time lost, when we have not a moment to waste.
What’s been the best?
Working with my synagogue leadership, religious school, and Green Shalom Committee to green our congregation over the past 18 years.
I am tremendously proud of the work that my congregation has done. To describe only some of what has been accomplished: Temple Emanuel has had many years of energy audits, we developed environmental policies passed by our board, added solar panels for our “Eternal Light,” use wind power, and recycle. We have built with sustainable building materials, created energy-efficient zones, added a biblical garden, and built a symbolic and beautiful sanctuary based on the banyan tree. We have developed interfaith programs in the D.C. community, taken our students on trips to the Chesapeake, and involved them in numerous cleanups and other environmental projects. We have become a “zero carbon footprint” community as well.
These initiatives have taken us beyond our own congregation. I and others from our temple community serve on the Washington, D.C., Green Advisory Board, which works to green D.C.-area congregations. We have encouraged greening through COEJL as well as through the Central Conference of American Rabbis and our local ministerium.
To acknowledge my 18th year at Temple Emanuel, the congregation published a Green Shalom Action Guide [PDF] on our website. In Hebrew, the number 18 corresponds to “life.” I can imagine no better “l’chaim” — “to life” — toast.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
The failure of Congress to pass CAFE [Corporate Average Fuel Economy] standards 10 years ago! Japan was retrofitting vehicles while our leadership was consigning the issue to further “scientific” review. The idiocy can be hard to endure.
Who are your environmental heroes?
I start with Amos, Isaiah, Zechariah, and Micah, who spoke boldly, warning that injustice would wreak its own havoc upon the earth. My modern spiritual mentor is Abraham Joshua Heschel, who with eloquent words and deeds brought spirituality and social justice together in activism. When Heschel walked arm in arm with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala., he said: “I felt that my feet were praying!” Whether on issues of the environment — in my view, the great social-justice issue of the day — or on other pressing matters of social concern, I often recall his words: “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” And I deeply respect the activism of the Rev. William Sloane Coffin.
I am continually inspired by the work of John Muir, and, more recently, by Edward O. Wilson’s The Future of Life and The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth. I also appreciate the symbolic stance of Julia Butterfly Hill, who provocatively lived in an ancient redwood tree in Humboldt County, Calif., for two years to prevent loggers from cutting it down. Her words: “I suddenly realized that what I was feeling was the love of the earth, the love of creation. Every day we, as a species, do so much to destroy creation’s ability to give us life. But that creation continues to do everything in its power to give us life anyway. And that’s true love.”
What’s your environmental vice?
I am not completely vegetarian. I try, but not hard enough.
Read any good books lately?
I really enjoyed George Leonard’s Walking on the Edge of the World: A Memoir of the Sixties and Beyond. Leonard is a visionary who wrote of the need to transform education and consciousness to help us develop new ways of seeing ourselves and the world. His ideas focus on how to tap our deepest selves, our deepest human potential through a unity of the physical and the spiritual. And a perennial favorite is Hal Borland’s Twelve Moons of the Year. Borland, an extraordinary writer, captured the subtleties of daily organic change. I’m currently reading Bill McKibben‘s Deep Economy, a wonderful blueprint for activism.
What’s your favorite meal?
Sharing a three-hour traditional Moroccan meal with my family and friends — including vegetables, chickpeas, and raisins atop a mountain of couscous, and ending with hot mint tea, Moroccan pastries, and an inability to rise from the cushions.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I have always been somewhat out of the mainstream, I suppose. I’ve always gone off the beaten path. But I’m thrilled that there’s so much more company on that path these days!
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
That one’s easy for me. I am enticed every year to Big Sur, Calif., and the miles that stretch below Point Lobos. It’s my place of retreat. The spiritual power of the place — the wildness of the land, sky, cliff, and bird — it just speaks to me. Twice now, I’ve seen a magnificent 12-foot condor sweeping down from the cliffs into the sea.
I find that I can draw upon this place even when I’m not there. I hope all who are reading this have such a place in their lives. I encourage you to take a moment in whatever busy day you are living today to close your eyes and go to the natural wild place that does it for your soul. Breathe it in, see it in your mind’s eye and go there, sit in silence for a while, smell the wind, feel the sun, bask in that place for a few moments, make a mental picture to carry with you today, and bring it back to your life.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
Two things: A 5-cent-per-gallon gas tax or tithe, which would go for reforestation and alternative-energy development. And, on a more spiritual note, a bold new 11th commandment: “Be mindful of your footprint on this earth: Thou shalt not destroy this sacred and fragile earth!”
What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?
The Daily Show, with Jon Stewart; it’s the only way I’ve been able to stand the news in the last five years or so. For movie, My Cousin Vinny; no obvious environmental connection, but I love the movie’s warm heart, each perfectly drawn character, and how my wife and I laugh in all the same places each and every time we watch it.
Which actor would play you in the story of your life?
Ben Stiller, who knows how to play a young rabbi with edgy and passionate interests and a flair for pushing the threshold of a religious community. And hey, you’ve got to have a sense of humor for this line of work.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Take a daily walk through the woods or in any natural setting near you. Notice the miraculous and subtle daily changes all around. Walk in silence and soak it into your being! You will be awed and amazed at what you see in a year’s time!