Helping Jews see ecology as ‘moral issue’
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
Rabbi Lawrence Troster, 60, has been a Jewish environmentalist for almost as long as the moniker has been around.
More recently, he has begun to use a different credential: Jewish eco-theologian, or someone who thinks about modern environmental science in light of creation, revelation, and redemption, and reviews the sources to find new insights.
He’ll share those insights in three lectures in Whippany, in a series sponsored by the West Morris Section of National Council of Jewish Women (see sidebar).
Over the last 25 years, the Conservative rabbi has watched environmentalism move in the Jewish world from marginal to mainstream. And in the process, he’s made the rounds of the prominent Jewish environmental organizations, from the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life to Hazon, and has moved to the interfaith world, now serving as rabbi-in-residence at GreenFaith, Interfaith Partners for the Environment, a coalition based in Highland Park.
Troster places climate change as the number one issue on his communal agenda, followed closely by environmental justice.
“Everyone in the environmental world, religious or otherwise, is pushing on climate change because we are reaching a critical point. Some scientists are freaking out because of the lack of action,” he said in a phone interview.
He sees the Keystone XL Pipeline as “a symbol of the problem, one of the dirtiest forms of energy, and a good rallying point to get politicians to realize we really do care,” he said.
GreenFaith supports environmental action in congregations through a range of programs, including fellowships for clergy and lay leaders, a “green” congregation certification program, and resources on environmental justice.
“I am very concerned with environmental justice,” said Troster. “There is a moral connection between pollution and what it does to other people.”
In New Jersey, he said, a large number of Superfund sites tend to be found in poor and minority communities.
“People need to understand that buying, consuming something, and throwing it out, that’s a moral action,” he said. “The problem is, there’s a gap between the action and the results. People don’t realize the garbage burned in an incinerator in Newark affects the people who live there, or that something they do now will affect an island nation in the South Pacific that will soon be under water because of global warming. People also have trouble with the idea of results over time — that something might not affect people today but will affect future generations.
“That moral gap is a critical problem — how do we get people to see that what they are consuming and throwing away is an ethical issue?”
He added that the Jewish environmental movement “has not done as well as we should have on this issue.”
On his early years in the movement, he said, “At first, it was getting it on the communal agenda at all, and answering basic questions like, Why does there need to be Jewish environmentalism at all, and what does Judaism have to do with the environment?”
He occasionally gets that kind of pushback, but credits COEJL — established in 1993 by what became the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and the Jewish Theological Seminary — with putting environmentalism on the Jewish communal agenda.
“Organizations like Teva and Hazon have moved it along,” he added.
When Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth was released in 2006, about 4,000 DVDs were distributed to faith-based organizations, including GreenFaith, which showed it to over 100 congregations in the first six months, Troster said. Real action on the congregational level, he suggested, has happened within the last five years.
Troster’s own involvement in Jewish environmentalism began in his 30s, and was inspired by the work of Thomas Berry (1914-2009), a Catholic priest who wrote a series of books connecting cultural and spiritual values to natural history. Troster came across Berry while rereading Jewish texts in light of modern science to see if he could find a new understanding. Berry’s writing, he said, “blew my mind. I got to thinking about this stuff in a totally different way.”