Why Canadian Jews are increasingly focused on environmental issues

Photo from FreshRoots.ca

Tzeporah Berman is best known for her work as an environmental activist, including as the former co-director of Greenpeace’s climate and energy program and the co-founder of the environmental advocacy organization Stand.earth. What most people don’t know about Berman is that the very first cause for which she advocated involved her hometown Jewish community.

“I grew up in a very religious household. In fact, my first campaign was to have women counted in the minyan … because my parents had passed away and often we didn’t have a minyan, so we couldn’t say Kaddish in the morning,” she said. Thanks in part to her efforts, her synagogue in London, Ont., became one of the first Conservative shuls in Canada to permit women in its minyanim.

For Berman, environmental activism is a natural extension of her Jewish values. She said it’s an important part of tikun olam, repairing the world, but also tzedakah, which comes from the Hebrew word for justice. She said her environmentalism is “interwoven” with her Jewish identity.

“I feel like the strength of the Jewish community that I grew up in helped me understand the importance of community organizing, the importance of working together in your community for shared values. And so, I see my environmental activism as being born out of my experience in the Jewish community and upholding Jewish values,” she said. “I grew up understanding that tzedakah is not just about charity, it’s an expression of justice. It’s not about mercy, it’s about equity.”

Those values are especially relevant when it comes to climate change, because it disproportionately affects those who are least able to deal with it, she said. Berman noted that the areas of the planet that are hit hardest by heat waves and floods are home to the people with the fewest resources, the highest mortality rate and the highest refugee rates. In fact, she claims that more people today lose their homes as a result of climate change than war.

Sometimes, the two types of catastrophes can be very much related, and in ways that especially concern Jews. Dianne Saxe, the former environmental commissioner of Ontario and an environmental, climate and energy consultant, said there is strong evidence that climate change contributed to Syria’s civil war.

She said the country experienced its worst drought in 900 years, causing environmental refugees to flee the countryside and flood the cities, which increased civic unrest.

According to Saxe, the entire Middle East is very vulnerable to climate change – including Israel. It’s one of the three reasons Saxe believes that Jews should be paying more attention to global warming.

“You should care about the land of Israel. The Middle East is one of the areas that is going to be most heavily affected by the searing temperatures and water shortages that are already beginning to be apparent,” she said.

Like Berman, Saxe also mentioned tikun olam as a Jewish value that informs her climate activism. Her third reason for championing environmentalism as a Jewish issue is that Jews tend not to do well “in times of loss and destruction and upset.”

“We already see an astonishingly large number of people believing that the reports of thousands and thousands of scientists now about the climate crisis are only lies being purchased by Jewish money, and they point particularly to (Jewish billionaire George) Soros,” she said.

“So we have a particular amount to lose, both as Jews and as anyone who cares about Israel, and we have the obligation to repair and look after the natural world and we’re not doing it.”

Saxe called on the Canadian Jewish community to take on more environmental responsibility. A few Canadian organizations are focusing on Jewish environmentalism, but the movement seems to be lagging here when compared to its prominence in the United States.


One of the biggest Jewish environmental organizations in Canada is Shoresh, which is the Hebrew word for root. Risa Alyson Cooper, its executive director, said the organization’s goal is to “lead, inspire and ultimately empower our community to be shomrei adamah – protectors of the earth.” Shoresh aims to achieve that goal through nature-based Jewish education, and by demonstrating that sustainability is a Jewish value.

On its website, Shoresh explains how Jewish texts support the ideas of sustainability and environmentalism. It mentions the work of one of the pioneers of Jewish environmentalism as a modern movement: Rabbi Lawrence Troster, who grew up and began his career in Toronto before moving to New Jersey, where he died last year.

Rabbi Troster intertwined environmentalism and Judaism throughout his entire career. He wrote articles and prayers, helmed and counselled organizations and, in 2005, even attended an interfaith environmental conference in Tehran. He was the only rabbi present.

One of his most famous works is Ten Teachings on Judaism and the Environment, in which he cited a multitude of Jewish texts to support 10 different arguments for environmentalism being a Jewish value. They include man’s responsibility to properly care for the world God created, the Torah’s prohibitions on wasteful consumption and the extinction of species, and the Jewish obligation to save human lives.

Cooper said Shoresh tries to embody these Jewish values through three areas of focus: awareness, action and advocacy. As an example of an awareness program that Shoresh runs, Cooper mentioned the Shoresh Outdoor School. It’s open to students from kindergarten through Grade 6 who come to natural areas like gardens and woods and learn about ecology through a Jewish lens.

“For a lot of these kids, it’s the first time that they are seeing these intersections between … environmentalism and Jewish learning and living,” Cooper said.

When it comes to action, she mentioned the work Shoresh is doing at Bela Farm in Hillsburgh, Ont., as an example of how the organization provides opportunities for people to act on their Jewish environmental values. At the farm, Shoresh runs a native reforestation project, a bee sanctuary, as well as educational gardening and programming spaces. Shoresh co-ordinates with volunteers, day schools and synagogues to bring community members to the farm to see Jewish ecology in action.

Finally, when it comes to advocacy, Shoresh helps passionate Jewish people organize around environmental issues and arranges events on the topic. For example, before the recent federal election, Shoresh hosted an event on the environment in the riding of Toronto–St. Paul’s.

“There is so much beauty and deep wisdom in our tradition that can help us navigate the environmental crisis with which we are faced,” Cooper said. “If we believe that it is upon us to ensure that we’re leaving future generations with a livable earth, then it is upon us to square our actions with our beliefs.”

In Vancouver, Ilana Labow is working on the same thing. She is a consultant who focuses on food justice and security, and the founder of an organization called Fresh Roots, which believes in “good food for all.” She credits her Jewish upbringing and values for guiding most of her work associated with food and environmentalism, and says she started working in the field during her time at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Israel.

A class visits a Fresh Roots farm in Vancouver. (FreshRoots.ca photo)

Fresh Roots helps build farms with public schools, facilitates programs for students and is even piloting a universal school meal program in Vancouver. Labow said that in the beginning, teachers were using Fresh Roots gardens to do curriculum work, using them as a resource to teach biology, physics, math and even English.

“And we learned that food and the schoolyard farms became a pathway for so much more. A lot of it became a pathway for individuals to reflect on their daily consumer purchasing choices, for kids to go home and talk to their parents about what they want to see differently at home, in regards to food and in regards to all the other products that they come home to,” she said.

On top of that, they also became a means of fostering social connections, Labow said. In an era of increased isolation, the community gardens and farms have helped create and cultivate relationships, and, through those relationships, foster personal agency and empowerment, Labow said.

“Then, from that, feeling confident enough to have vision around how they can make the world a better place and feeling confident that they can follow through on that vision,” she added.

Labow, who grew up in Chicago, said she believes the Jewish environmental movement can reach the same level of prominence in Canada as it has in the United States. She pointed to the work Shoresh and other organizations have done over the past decade or so to expand the movement in Canada, and also mentioned all the young leaders she has seen.

Joanna Wexler, the chair of the board of directors of Shaar Shalom Synagogue in Halifax, sees that same excitement among the younger members of her congregation. In her various roles in the local Jewish community, which included director of Camp Kadimah and a Hebrew school teacher, she has implemented a number of ecologically minded programs over the years. But recently, she decided to create a youth-led environmentalism committee at her shul. It’s still in the earliest stages, but just the idea seems to have energized the younger generation of congregants.

“I don’t know that there’s been anything that engages the young people in our community as much,” she said. “But the fire in their eyes when I started talking about having an environmental movement start within our shul and try to connect with other environmental Jewish organizations across North America. I mean, it was a powerful response to an idea.”

Wexler doesn’t yet know exactly what the movement will look like at Shaar Shalom, but she was heartened by the impassioned response and the potential it represents, and hopes more synagogues throughout the country will follow suit.

“It is a powerful idea to engage all Jews, never mind young Jews, but especially young Jews – being passionate about things that they are passionate about, and taking a look at them through Jewish lens,” she said.

“I think if we can connect our synagogues and our Judaism with things that resonate with the younger generation, then we have an opportunity to engage people in their Judaism for a longer amount of time.”