The Jew in the garden

Raised in Seattle, Rabbi Shaul Judelman had constant access to nature, and felt connected to the earth from a very young age. So when he began to plan his pilgrimage to Israel after completing his degree in international and intercultural studies at Pitzer College in 2000, he knew he wanted his trip to focus on environmentalism.

He began searching for kibbutzim that were religious and farmed organically, and eventually stumbled upon Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu in northern Israel. It was his time at Sde Eliyahu that would inspire him to stay in Israel permanently, and to move from his Conservative roots toward Orthodox Judaism and becoming a rabbi.

“In Seattle, we’re sheltered from the heart of the orthodox world,” said Judelman. “I met a lot of other young people who were [in Israel] and living very religious, Jewish lives, but not like any stereotypes I’d ever thought of. I was really blown away by the depth of the teachings and the community.”

Judelman was so inspired by the Orthodox community in Israel that he began what he called a “natural” transition toward Orthodoxy. He spent six years in an Israeli yeshiva, where he received his rabbinic ordination, and worked at what he called a “religious think tank” — a group of fellow rabbis and young religious adults who studied alongside him as he addressed environmental questions through Talmudic study.

“[Environmentalism is] like organ donorship,” explained Judelman. “Judaism says very clearly that to disturb a corpse is prohibited. But what if I told you I could save someone’s life by disturbing this corpse?” Since the question of organ donation has come up, rabbinic discussion and literature in that area have grown drastically. Judelman’s goal is to do the same thing with environmental policy.

Judelman’s think tank formulated environmental questions based on religious tenets and sent them off to more than 70 Orthodox rabbis and scholars. Citing Israel’s water crisis as a primary concern, they asked questions like, “Would it be acceptable to use charity money to buy a low-flow faucet or toilet?” The responses they received were varied, but Judelman’s ultimate goal was just to get the religious leadership to start thinking about and discussing environmental issues in religious circles.

“Rabbis have a lot of authority in the more Orthodox communities,” said Judelman. “When the rabbi starts talking about the [environment], it filters down into the community. If the rabbi says it’s important, people will take it seriously.”

Most recently, Judelman has been focusing his efforts on Jerusalem Volunteers for the Environment (JiVE), a volunteer-driven sustainability project run through the environmental non-profit Teva Ivri. JiVE works with visitors to Israel, including peer tours like Taglit Birthright, to teach them about environmentalism in Israel. The program gives visitors to Israel a chance to work in Jerusalem’s community gardens, speak to Israeli environmentalists, and participate in Jewish learning on the environment.

Judelman also hopes to be able to work across cultural and political lines to involve Palestinian communities in his environmentalist efforts. He is currently working with Palestinian friends and allies to develop an organic farm in the West Bank, though he said the project faces numerous political challenges.

“Palestinians who get involved in these projects face pressures and threats for what they’re doing, but there’s still a lot of individuals who are crossing the lines,” Judelman said. He emphasized, though, that there is plenty of work to be done, much of which can benefit from cross-cultural collaboration.

“We’re ultimately going to have to live [in Israel] together,” Judelman said, adding that perhaps the environmentalist efforts will help to bridge the gap between the Israelis and Palestinians. “It’s only by encountering each other and understanding each other that peace will come.”

For more information on JiVE, visit the Teva Ivri website at http://www.tevaivri.org.il/en. If you have questions about Rabbi Judelman’s work or environmental philosophy, you can contact him via email at organicjew@yahoo.com.

This piece originally appeared on Jew-ish.com.

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