Jewish environmental education takes root in the Bay Area

Late last month, a group of Jewish educators sat in a breezy redwood grove in Golden Gate Park and discussed how to harvest wood from trees in a sustainable way.

Much of their discussion centered on a midrash they had just studied: a Torah commentary that was essentially about — believe it or not — that exact topic.

Yes, even thousands of years ago, Jacob considered the size of his environmental footprint by planting and tending to acacia trees so that future generations would have the resources to build a sanctuary.

This lesson is one of dozens assembled by the nonprofit Canfei Nesharim, believed to be the only Orthodox agency that focuses on Judaism and the environment.

Soon, children and teens around the Bay Area will be introduced to this and many other environmental lessons of Judaism thanks to a new partnership between Canfei Nesharim (“wings of eagles”) and the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education.

“Kids are looking for more than Bible stories,” educator Corinne Taylor-Cyngiser said. “They’re wondering: How does this matter to me?”

Taylor-Cyngiser was one of the people discussing sustainable forestry April 29 in Golden Gate Park, just a two-block walk from the BJE office on 14th Avenue and Balboa Street.

She is the Bay Area regional director for Rosh Hodesh, a program for teenage girls that, like Canfei Nesharim, links ancient Jewish thought to modern adolescent issues such as self -esteem and peer pressure.

“It’s wonderful to make teens understand that Judaism has something to say about the things they care about,” she said.

That’s exactly what staff at Canfei Nesharim want to hear, said Toby Rubin, associate director of community and teen initiatives at the BJE.

Canfei Nesharim “is unique in that it’s anchored in our tradition and provides a foundation for educators to bring it into their classrooms,” Rubin said.

“They’re filling a huge gap in the Jewish world.”

Canfei Nesharim was founded five years ago in New York. Its environmental curriculum of 54 Torah commentaries provides teaching resources to educators in day schools, synagogues and JCCs — and even to individuals who simply want to host an environmental-themed Shabbat dinner for friends and families.

“Perhaps more than any other, the Bay Area Jewish community is ready to access the wisdom of the Jewish tradition regarding the environment,” said Jonathan Neril, project manager for Canfei Nesharim.

Neril grew up in Lafayette, studied at Stanford University and currently lives in Israel. In late April, he led two workshops at the BJE — and in nearby Golden Gate Park — attracting a variety of Jews: educators, scientists, environmentalists, gardeners and rabbis.

During both workshops, participants engaged in chevrutah study, breaking up into small groups to discuss how Jacob planted acacia trees, and how those trees sang when they were eventually cut down and turned into planks for a sanctuary.

Participants agreed the trees sang because they were used for their intended purpose, and that Jacob’s grandchildren took only what they needed, no more.

Quite the contrast to the way most Americans live today, group members pointed out.

“When God created the world, he created a song for all of creation,” Neril said. “Would that aluminum or rubber sing with the way I’m using it? Am I using it to its fullest potential? Is there a holy purpose?”

Today, most of us don’t have any idea how our consumer goods are produced, Neril added.

“That gap is the source of a lot of environmental abuse,” he said. “A solution to environmental issues will have to involve bridging that gap.”

Canfei Nesharim and the BJE believe that the Torah — and educators’ ability to incorporate it into their teaching — can build that bridge.

Canfei Nesharim and the Bureau of Jewish Education will offer a second series of free workshops about Jewish environmental education the week of Aug. 18, to be taught by Rabbi Yosef Leibowitz and sponsored by the San Francisco-based Gaia Fund. Specific dates and times to be announced. The workshops are for educators and community activists. To sign up, contact Sara Nesson at snesson@bjesf.org or (415) 751-6983 ext. 129.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.