Celebrate Green Shabbat this weekend - and save the planet

Ahead of the first ever Green Shabbat, community leaders reflect on what the environment means to them


Congregations across the UK will take part this weekend in the first ever Green Shabbat, which coincides with London Climate Action Week.

Shuls have been asked to take part in five separate activities, including inviting speakers to discuss climate change and holding single use plastic-free ‘Green Kiddushim’, with locally-sourced, seasonal and vegan food.

Participating congregations have been asked to switch to eco energy suppliers and the Eco Synagogue project, which has coordinated Green Shabbat, has offered to perform ‘green audits’ of shuls.

Shuls have also been encouraged to screen a film on the environment, such as Sir David Attenborough’s BBC film, Climate Change — the Facts.

Edwin Shuker, a Board of Deputies vice president, said: “During this Green Shabbat, we are asking more synagogues to be kick-starting more conversations, with more of their members, about the critical need to safeguard our planet.

“We must take this responsibility seriously, before it’s too late.”

The flagship Green Shabbat will be held at New North London Synagogue.

Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis

What can the humble almond teach us about our response to climate change?

Rabbi Shlomo Zalman HaCohen Kook may have provided the answer, a century before the world was even aware of the problem.

He once posed the following question on the famous Biblical rebellion of Korach, about which we will read this week, as Jewish communities across the country mark the first ever ‘Green Shabbat’: The Torah tells us that after the disharmony caused by the rebellion, Aaron the High Priest was commanded to place his staff in the tent of meeting, whereupon it miraculously sprouted almonds. What was the message of this miracle? Why almonds?

The Mishnah (Ma’asrot) teaches that some almonds taste sweet at first but have a bitter aftertaste, while other almonds initially taste bitter but eventually leave a sweet taste on the tongue. 

Whenever we are challenged as individuals or as a society, there are often two routes available to us.

The first is the easy route: not to diverge from what we’ve always done and not to step outside of our comfort zone. It seems sweet at first but ultimately it never provides the solutions that we need and the end will be a bitter one.

However, there is a better route: to engage in what may, at first, seem like the greatest of hardships. We can challenge ourselves and push beyond the limits that we have set – and if we do that, the reward will be the sweetness of success.

Climate change has presented us with one of the most profound challenges ever faced by human civilisation. It requires each of us to change our habits, to engage in pursuits which may not come naturally, which may be inconvenient and which may even cause us pain. But the lesson that Rabbi Kook taught is that the easy route rarely leads to the desired outcome. 

This is a problem that we have neglected for too long. According to the UN, global emissions of carbon dioxide have increased by almost 50% since 1990 and emissions grew more quickly between 2000 and 2010 than in each of the three previous decades.

However, there is still time for us to act.

May this Shabbat help to provide an impetus to individuals and communities everywhere to truly challenge themselves and not just for a single Shabbat. Let us embark upon a journey, despite the obstacles, to a future of sweetness for the generations who will inherit this world.

Rabbi Danny Rich

 In a single verse — ‘The heavens are the heaven of the Eternal One, but the earth God has given to humankind (Psalm 115:6) —the Psalmist, according to Abraham ibn Ezra, affirms that humanity is God’s steward on earth.

This duty is one of many possible themes for Green Shabbat as the Jewish community not only reflects on the responsibility of individuals and synagogues to ensure that behaviour is environmentally conscious but also to consider the wider implications of climate change, the misuse of natural resources and the pollution of land, sea and air.

I must declare an interest as not only a nature lover but the owner of a garden with an aviary of self-propagating doves and finches and a thriving pond of fish.  I have also taken an interest in the saving of an individual animal species despite criticism that such concern is a dilettante luxury when it is predicted that some regions of the earth will become uninhabitable and severe food shortages may result.

Be that as it may, the facts speak for themselves.  The recent United Nations Report on Bio-Diversity concluded that around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history.   The report found that the average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20%, mostly since 1900, and estimated that more than 40% of amphibian species, almost 33% of reef-forming corals and more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened.

It is true that species have always disappeared, from the dinosaurs to Britain’s last wolf, hunted to extinction by the early seventeenth century, but does it matter?

It does, I suggest, for two reasons.  First, the diversity of nature is, according to Jewish tradition, a part of God’s creative outpouring of which humanity is the keeper.

But further, the demise of species is invariably a sign of real ecological damage.

I am drawn to the Babylonian Talmudic midrash (Sanhedrin 108b) which records the raven rebuking Noah: “You must hate me, for you did not send a scout from the species of birds of which there are seven pairs in the ark, but from a species of which there is only one pair.

"If the power of the sun or the cold had overwhelmed me, would not the world be missing a species?”

Ancient wisdom or sentimental nonsense?  The answer may really be in your hands.

Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner

“Our tradition is full of examples where our ancestors offered leadership and vision, doing what was right, not just what was easy. Whether Abraham going out from his father’s home, Shifra and Puah who as midwives attempted to thwart Pharaoh’s attempts to kill all the male Jewish children or Moses coming to deliver his people, Judaism is about standing up and being counted.

Today, the challenge we face is the threat to our environment and it is our turn to take a stand.

How should we act, when the issue we are facing is so monumental and all-encompassing? The environment offers such a significant challenge that we don’t need a single Moses-like figure — we all have the opportunity to be our own leaders in whichever ways we can.

Already amongst us, we have people and communities taking action. Within Reform Judaism, our youth movement, RSY-Netzer, has a long-standing commitment to promoting ethical food consumption.

Their events are vegetarian, they try to minimise the food they waste and they educate our children on the importance of caring for the environment. Now they are going even further, with events only for their leaders starting to become vegan.

Synagogues are standing up too. Many Reform communities across the country are taking the lead. They are engaging with the eco-synagogue initiative which coordinates sustainability across denominational lines. Teams of individual members are working together in many congregations to develop creative new green ideas. Buildings are being improved or even replaced to make better use of energy and resources.

We don’t all need to build new buildings to play our part, though. In every synagogue or community space, we need someone to put their hand up and lead the way in promoting greener ways of running our communities.

We need all to be a whole world of leaders, helping to build a greener corner of our planet. Every one of us can do it — we can all be the change we want to see in the world. We have no choice.

This is the duty of our generation.

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg 

My memory begins with green hills opposite the house where I was born. Love of nature has framed my life. I seek God in all life: trees, birds, animals, the human spirit: ‘No place is devoid of God’.

I want my children to inherit the same wonder as I did. More, we have a collective responsibility to all the world’s children to bequeath to them a viable, biodiverse, sustaining planet.

Therefore, I feel terror at the devastation of the world’s beauty, the devouring of the spine and lungs of its health.

When on Yom Kippur I say ‘Bagadnu — We have betrayed’ I feel visceral shame at belonging to a generation destroying God’s earth. The kabbalists called sin, ‘tearing branches off the tree of life’. Once this was a metaphor: now it’s the literal truth.

Judaism regards justice, compassion and the service of God and life as the supreme values. We must not displace them with the idolatry of wealth, economic growth and power. These are only means to an end: caring for all life.
We must reconsider our habits. ‘Consume and throw away’ is a criminal formula. We must try to eat, dress and travel in ways which don’t lay the earth waste with monocultures, poison the elements, perpetuate human injustice, cause indescribable suffering to animals and leave a trail of packaging to rot for centuries. In the supermarket, I sometimes wonder who pays the true price for what we want to buy as cheaply as possible.

That is why I am passionate about Eco-Synagogue, why David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg are my heroes and why I believe we must all be activists for the planet. Every home and community should have a policy on consumption and waste and put the environment high on its charitable priorities.

It’s claimed this is up to governments and individuals make no difference.

But if we don’t say no to needless waste, investment in fossil fuels and disregard for nature, our politicians won’t get the message. Then they, and every leader in finance, industry, urban planning, law and religion must act and be held to account.

Maimonides taught that the fate of the world is exactly balanced. Our next action will tip the scales for good or bad.  

Rabbi Nicky Liss

In April, Waterloo Bridge was controversially turned into a garden by climate change activists Extinction Rebellion. Whatever your view on their tactics, they, together with the impressive Greta Thunberg, catapulted climate change to the top of the news agenda — and kept it there.

There are many other pressing issues competing for our attention. The tragic antisemitism crisis that has engulfed the Labour Party shows no sign of easing. British society is becoming more polarised.

But Judaism is clear that environmentalism is part of our tradition: Ecclesiastes Rabbah, a midrashic work written over 1,500 years ago, identifies the challenge.

Upon creating the first human beings, God guided them around the Garden of Eden, saying: “Look at my creations! See how beautiful and perfect they are! For your sake I created them all. Make sure you don’t ruin or devastate My world.

“If you do, there will be no-one else to repair it.” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13)

While governments have a duty to work together to make large-scale changes to tackle climate change, we have a responsibility to play our part, too.

The Rabbis of the Talmud were aware of the challenge of persuading people to take small steps today which will have a profound impact on the generations ahead.

When Choni was travelling he saw an old man planting a carob tree.

When Choni enquired how long it would take for this tree to bear fruit, the man told him it would take 70 years.

Choni asked how the man could be sure he would live that long. The man answered that indeed he would not be alive but his grandfather planted a tree so that he could benefit and so he was planting this tree so that his descendants could likewise benefit. (Ta’anit 24a)

Climate change is a shared challenge.

Our individual actions may be small but they are significant.

The Sefer Hachinuch, a thirteenth century work, teaches that who we are and what we stand for is defined by our actions. (Mitzvah 16)

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