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Green in action
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Green in action

Princeton rabbi offers ‘Simple’ ways to further Jewish environmentalism

As much fun as the holiday season can be, it is nevertheless one of the biggest offenders when it comes to wasteful behavior. Wrapping paper is admired for a minute but is soon shredded and discarded. Greeting cards that represent money and resources are cast aside after a few days. Why not wrap the presents using the Sunday comics section and send paperless “e-cards?”

These are just a couple of the suggestions offered in Simple Actions for Jews to Help Green the Planet: Jews, Judaism, and the Environment, Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins’s latest in a long line of books on social and spiritual matters.

Elkins — whose body of work includes the best-selling Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul — has come to the “party” relatively late and gives full credit to his twin sons, Yoni and Pesach Jeremy, who work with The Teva Learning Alliance, an organization that teaches school-aged children about Judaism and the environment. (Elkins dedicated Simple Actions to the twins: “[F]irst my sons, then my students, now my teachers.”)

“These guys have just done a revolution in our household,” Elkins said in a telephone interview with NJ Jewish News as he enumerated some of their own lifestyle changes. “My wife and I each drive a Prius. We eat only organic food. We buy locally. We carry our own bags into supermarkets; we’ll never touch a plastic bag.” In addition to being practically impervious to decomposition, Elkins said, plastic bags’ oil-based construction also enriches Saudi Arabia, “which I’m not interested in doing.”

Topics in Simple Actions include ways to save energy, reduce waste, and recycle; environmentally sound dietary considerations; and how to “Be a Green Jew,” among other issues. Every chapter has an “action program”/journal by which readers can keep track of what they are doing to follow Elkins’s suggestions. He has also included “a gazillion websites and names of organizations” to further readers’ education.

“Green” is becoming commonplace, Elkins said. “You see it everywhere. What does it mean? ‘Green’ simply is a codeword to make sure that this planet is here for our children and grandchildren. The real word is ‘sustainability.’”

In that regard, Elkins said, he believes Jews have always been “early adapters,” even before the phrase became popular.

“Judaism, by nature, has had a tendency toward preserving the planet. If people would have taken in its fullness seriously, they would have come to the environmental movement long before the last 30 years.”

“There’s one law in the Book of Deuteronomy that everybody quotes,” Elkins said. “It’s called bal tash’hit, meaning ‘do not destroy. Post-biblical commentators…have interpreted that to mean: do no destroy anything worthwhile on this planet.

“God gave us a phenomenal world; we want it to be here,” said Elkins, who is rabbi emeritus at The Jewish Center in Princeton and served for a time some five years ago as interim rabbi at Pine Brook Jewish Center in Montville. “We don’t want to say that we’re the generation that ruined it through global warming and contamination of the air, the water, the soil, the food.”

He recalled the talmudic story of an old man planting a tree. When a neighbor pointed out that the planter would be long dead by the time the tree matured, the old man replied, “When I came into this world there were many trees my ancestors planted for me. I’m planting for my descendents.”

“We have a responsibility to make sure there’s a planet here 50, 100 years from now,” Elkins said.

He remains optimistic. “I can’t open a magazine today without some organization — government, industry, education — advertising about sustainability, new departments, new programs. People just need more information. They’re hungry for how to do it more,” Elkins said. “It’s being done now, just not rapidly and widespread enough as it needs to be to really make sure that the [harmful] processes going on now don’t accelerate.

“But it just takes reminding and reeducating and enforcing old ideas from Judaism and other faiths and traditions about nature — and we’ll make some progress.”

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