Eco-Israel retreat reaches out to green Jews

When Jen Holzer lived in Israel for a year after college, she learned what it meant to “belong” to a piece of land.

“It’s an ancient idea: That the land is our home, and when we feel the land is our home, we’re compelled to take good care of it,” said the 25-year-old San Francisco resident.

Although she has felt this way in only a few parts of the United States, Holzer says that in Israel, she always felt an overwhelming bond with the trees, the dirt that housed their roots and the sky that sheltered their branches.

“We’ve become so divorced from the land. I believe we have to feel an emotional and spiritual connection to really care,” Holzer said.

So on March 14, she will travel to Malibu to figure out how to incorporate this kind of awareness into her American life, as part of the Green Zionist Alliance’s weekend retreat, dubbed “Blue, White and Green,” at Malibu’s Shalom Institute and Conference Center. Participants will learn about Israel’s environment and the movement to protect it, explore their personal connection to Israel and discuss ways to bring about positive change.

The retreat is designed specifically for young adult Jews in their 20s and 30s. Previously, the GZA held retreats in Conn-ecticut and Maryland; this is their first West Coast event.

Coordinators expect 30 to 50 participants who mostly hail from California, Washington, Oregon and Colorado. They will stay in cabins, eat vegetarian food, listen to lectures and engage in hands-on, outdoor activities. Most of the sessions will be discussion-based; Daniel Orenstein from the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Israel will be the scholar-in-residence for the weekend.

One of the goals is to create a safe space for young adults to discuss sensitive topics.

Becca Weaver, 23, education coordinator for GZA, said people expressed gratitude after the last retreat, held in Baltimore, for “having a safe place to discuss their relationship to Israel and Zionism, to question what the Israeli government does, to talk about how the country develops its land and cares for its forests.”

The Green Zionist Alliance was created in 2001 to bring a green voice to the World Zionist Congress, where charter members pointed out that “we’re not treating the land as well as we should, and that from a Zionist perspective, we need to do better,” said founding member Rabbi Michael Cohen, who lives in New York.

The retreats grew out of that conversation, and are planned in partnership with Zionist organizations Mercaz USA, Marom Olami and Hagshama. Cohen believes the retreats offer a different entry point for disconnected Jews.

“There are a lot of Jews out there involved in environmental organizations doing great work, but they’re not involved at all with anything Jewish and certainly not with anything related to Zionism,” he said. “Our hope is to bring unaffiliated Jews into the Zionist conversation.”

That people like Holzer, who is involved with her Jewish community, will attend as well fulfills coordinators’ hopes to have attendees with a variety of backgrounds at the retreat.

Holzer regularly goes to services at San Francisco’s Mission Minyan and has lived in Israel for extended periods, where she interned for an environmental nonprofit.

“There are a lot of people who are really passionate about taking care of the environment, which is not so far destroyed that it feels hopeless,” she said. “It’s also easier to feel effective there because the country is so much smaller.”

She hopes participants who have never been to Israel will be inspired by its environmental movement and that it brings people closer to the Jewish homeland.

“It’s hard to work as a steward of a land that is far away and unknown to you,” she said. “If it’s known to you, then it’s possible. Israel is my other home.”

To apply for the Green Zionist Alliance’s “Blue, White and Green” retreat, March 14 to 16 in Malibu, contact education@greenzionism.org. The deadline to apply is Feb. 23. Cost: $150.

Stacey Palevsky