Interview: Rabbi Natan Levy

Rabbi hopes to pass on green baton


Rabbi Levy (right), teaching about sustainability in the Torah  in the London School of Jewish Studies allotment

Rabbi Levy (right), teaching about sustainability in the Torah in the London School of Jewish Studies allotment

Rabbi Natan Levy stands in the backyard of the London School of Jewish Studies, showing off his budding radishes, broad beans, chives, figs and rhubarb. "We're growing an etrog for Succot, but so far it's not going so well", he joked, pointing to a knee-high brown bush.

But Rabbi Levy will probably not be around to see the etrog harvested. Finishing up with his Shenley Synagogue congregation, the "eco-rabbi" and his family plan to leave by the end of July "as long as we find the place we are the most needed".

California-born Rabbi Levy has been one of the few Orthodox voices on social action, passionate about the environment, sustainability and what Judaism teaches about such issues. He is the rabbinical expert for the LSJS Responsibility Unit, setting up the school's allotment, and takes tours for the JCC to Kew Gardens and Hampstead Heath, teaching about Judaism and nature.

Growing up just outside San Francisco, social activism and the environment were key features of his upbringing. Now he smiles when described as an "activist".

"It's not like Greenpeace - I'm not a rabbi who chains himself to buildings. Seriously though, we can't change the world ourselves. If all Jews stopped driving their cars, then that's probably equal to one day's electricity in Shanghai. Our job is education. And we can do that. Teaching sustainability in Torah at LSJS and in schools is how I can make a difference. Personally, I'm not doing enough at all. I work in the allotment. I use the allotment to teach what the Torah says about nature. I take the beans and rhubarb home to the kids, but they probably prefer fish fingers. We try to bike instead of drive. That's it, really."

He agrees that Jewish social action here has a way to catch up the American model. "Yes the UK is behind the States on things like this. This community is more traditional, which is great. I can go to Limmud and expect to eat kosher there. But because of that traditional stance, things can also move much slower. I wonder if some of the young people involved in social action here feel the normative tradition has let them down, because it doesn't speak to them on social action issues. I was asked not to use my title as a rabbi when I did an event for the JCC. It showed me how a rabbi is perceived - you don't want to spend time with a rabbi."

His passion for environmentalism did cause friction with the Shenley community. "We were not the right fit. My community is comprised of people with extremely busy lives, who come home late from their jobs in the City. There's not much time for social action.It's a real challenge how to help them look beyond their very important personal needs. I don't have the answer. The role of the rabbi is to speak a bit of truth to power. But it has to be done judiciously. If I say 'don't drive your cars', then people turn off. If I give a sermon about Fairtrade chocolate, people think 'there he goes again.' I realise now that the key is to ask questions like 'do we live in a just world?'"

He acknowledged that few would carry on his work. "I don't know who will keep doing this. But social action leaders don't have to be rabbis, they just need to be meshuggah about the issues.

"We all like to think of ourselves as so important, but the world doesn't fall apart when we leave. More and more people care about these issues. Maybe I won't harvest everything I plant, but I know we will keep planting."

Rabbi Natan Levy leads a Hampstead Heath nature walk with the JCC on June 19. More info on www.jcclondon.org.uk

    Last updated: 10:47am, June 10 2011