The Orthodox environmental organization Canfei Nesharim has linked Tisha B’Av to the BP oil spill in an article that recently appeared on the Washington Post’s “On Faith” website.
Launched in 2002, the Manhattan-based Canfei Nesharim has been providing environmental resources based in Jewish texts; synagogues participate in a year-long pilot project with guided workshops and projects several times throughout the year.
To find out more about Canfei Nesharim’s approach to Tisha B’Av, which begins at sundown on July 19, and the Three Weeks of mourning that precede it, NJJN caught up with Ora Sheinson of Hillside, cofounder and president of Canfei Nesharim. Sheinson, a member of the Jewish Education Center synagogue Adath Israel, is an environmental litigation associate in the Newark office of the international law firm Patton Boggs, LLP.
NJJN: What’s environmental about Tisha B’Av?
Sheinson: Tisha B’Av, in its essence, is a holiday about mourning the destruction of the Temple. So at a basic level, nothing. But all holidays are given to us not only to think about a past specific event, but also to think about how its lessons apply to what we are doing today. One of the main reasons the Temple was destroyed was people’s lack of love for their neighbors and lashon hara [literally, wicked tongue or gossip] — baseless hatred. People didn’t act together as a community. Canfei Nesharim teaches that environmental activism and conservation are really about caring for and loving one’s fellow person. When we degrade the environment, that affects other people. It’s a lack of caring for other people and for future generations. The reason we do not have the next Temple is that we are still not worthy. We still lack that love.
NJJN: Why connect the BP oil spill with the Three Weeks?
Sheinson: We live in such an insulated world, especially on the East Coast. We don’t see the effects of environmental degradation. We have plenty of air conditioning, and we don’t run out of water. It’s hard to grasp when we hear dire predictions that there is really something to worry about. Contrast that with some communities in Africa where they see a lake that is their main source of water dry up. They really understand the environmental problems. BP is a tremendous disaster, and it’s close enough for people in America to touch. Sometimes, a tragedy like this wakes people up to realize there are changes they can and must make in the way they live. Tisha B’Av is a time of communal reflection. Waking up is really what Tisha B’Av and the Three Weeks are about. We pull back from certain physical things we enjoy to reflect, to help us understand — in this case, how our personal actions really do affect the environment and what that means on a practical level. We are preventing the rebuilding of the Bais Hamikdash.
NJJN: How does what you’re advocating represent a specifically Orthodox approach to environmental advocacy?
Sheinson: We make sure we are offering a firm solid basis in Torah, that everything we advocate is in line with Torah values and comes from a Torah perspective. This is a traditional environmental wake-up call but with the addition of Torah values. We shouldn’t need a physical or visual reminder to do the things the Torah says. But on a practical level, sometimes we need that reminder.