Jewish Community Engages Nature
by George Fitting '10
April 1, 2010
Students, faculty and community members gathered in Memorial Hall on Jan. 31 for a Tu Bish’vat Seder, a ceremony that demonstrated the relationship between Judaism and the environment. Ted Merwin serves, from left, Eric Rosenstein ’12, Avi Fishelov ’11 and Abra Fein ’12.
If you believe the stereotype that Jews are an urban people, think again. According to Andrea Lieber, associate professor of religion and the Sophia Ava Asbell Chair in Judaic Studies, “One of the interesting things about Judaism is that all of its core texts emerged in an agricultural society. They have a lot to say about the human relationship with the land.”
Lieber and her husband, Ted Merwin, director of the Milton B. Asbell Center for Jewish Life and assistant professor of religion, are making sure that Dickinson’s Jewish students are aware of the environmental underpinnings of their faith and are exposing them to the emerging Jewish environmental movement that has attracted many Jews, especially younger ones, as a basis for either a religious or secular Jewish identity.
One opportunity to celebrate sustainability in a Jewish religious context occurred on Jan. 31, when singer/songwriter Eric Komar led Dickinson’s Tu Bish’vat Seder. This holiday that celebrates the advent of spring in the land of Israel exemplified how closely Judaism and environmentalism are related.
About 50 students, faculty and community members gathered in Memorial Hall for a joyful service, grounded in Jewish mystical practices, that incorporated the eating of a selection of fruits and nuts representing different levels of spiritual awareness.
Modeled on the Passover Seder, this contemporary Seder emphasized sustainability and environmental stewardship. The Dayeinu (“It Would Have Sufficed For Us”), a Passover song traditionally used to express humble gratitude toward God, was reinterpreted to this end.
“Had we safeguarded our forests, writing to Congress and asking for stricter logging restrictions but not cleaned up our streams … Dayeinu? Would it be enough?” implored Komar. “Had we cleaned up our streams but not cleaned up our rivers … Dayeinu? Would it be enough?” chanted back those gathered.
Sabbath, the traditional day of rest and worship that occurs on Saturday, also can embody elements of environmental responsibility. “Labor is seen as changing the natural world,” said Lieber. “Lots of people don’t use electricity, drive or do commerce on the Sabbath. It’s easy to extend these ideas to sustainability.”
Students keenly interested in the relationship between religion and environmentalism were able to learn more in March during an Alternative Spring Break. Fifteen students joined Director of Athletics Les Poolman and Professor of Mathematics Barry Tesman for a weeklong stay at Oz Farm near the Pacific Ocean in Point Arena, Calif.
The farm, which grows certified organic fruits and vegetables and uses solar and wind power for all of its electricity, was the site of a program led by the Jewish Farm School, which is partnered with Hazon, an organization that works to create a healthier and more sustainable Jewish community and world. Students combined planting, harvesting, hiking and trips to the ocean with cooking and studies with environmental activists from the San Francisco area.
Daniel Grover ’12, who attended the Hillel-sponsored Alternative Spring Break trip to Uruguay in 2009, opted for this year’s trip, too, explaining, “I was interested to see what connections the educators from the Jewish Farm School would make and how they’d situate environmental topics within the theological framework of Judaism.”
Carrie Evans ’12, who also traveled to Oz Farm, is president of Students Interested in Sustainable Agriculture. She wanted to learn “how agriculture is represented in religious texts in general and how that relates to the broader ideals of Judaism,” she said. “But I was also excited to learn about how their farming techniques compare to how we do things at the College Farm. It’s a whole different atmosphere out there.”
Erick Spindel ’13 attended partly because of the connection between the Oz Farm experience and Israel. “The whole farming concept reminds me of the kibbutz,” he said. “So in a way, it’s an American throwback to the whole idea of Jewish communal living that helped develop the state of Israel.”
A recent grant garnered by Lieber (for more information, see Page 13) will advance Jewish environmental interests even more. Lieber will teach classes about food, Judaism and sustainability to Harrisburg-area residents.
“I plan to do text-based teaching in Harrisburg and bring people to campus to show them Dickinson’s sustainability efforts,” said Lieber. Guest speakers such as Nigel Savage, executive director of Hazon, will be accessible to both Harrisburg residents and Dickinson students.
The Hillel chapter that Merwin advises also was recently selected by Hillel’s national organization to participate in the Small and Mighty program, which focuses resources on colleges and universities with small Jewish communities.
“It’s a big privilege for us to be a part of this,” he said. “We really need to do as much as we can with the opportunities we’ve been given to maximize Jewish life on campus.”
With a driven Hillel chapter and enthusiastic students, the strong relationship between Judaism and environmentalism will blossom,” Merwin said. “We hope that each of these things will bear fruit.”
Professor of American Studies Amy Farrell (center) offers students strawberries as Eric Komar strums his guitar.