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God is in the garden: the environment is important for Reform Jews, too

Tami Abdollah/KPCC

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I first glimpsed how a rabbi can influence a congregation’s environmental values three years ago, while I was reading Mark Gold’s Spouting Off blog

Still at Heal the Bay then, he wrote about a Yom Kippur sermon by Rabbi Joel Simonds: 

Joel spoke on Reform Judaism’s 200-year roots in social action and the need to fight for justice in an unjust world. He quoted from the prophet Amos: “Let justice well up like water, righteousness flow like a mighty stream.”  Then Joel wondered: If the prophet saw the devastation of our ecosystems and the decimation of our streams and rivers, would Amos still have made this analogy?

Joel asked simply: “How can we claim that our righteousness flow like a mighty stream when our streams have been flowing to create destruction or our streams have dried up?”

Because my life has been water for many years, the rabbi’s words resonated with me strongly. His powerful use of the water analogy and connecting to the impacts of climate change on water were extraordinary.

Rabbi Simonds is at University Synagogue, which describes itself as “a Reform synagogue where ritual rings true - where learning runs deep - where members matter - where compassion counts - and where love and care are real.”

RELATED: God is in the Garden: Exploring religion and the environment

A community like that differs from Valley Beth Shalom -- whose rabbi I profiled on the radio Tuesday as part of my "God is in the garden" series -- though not necessarily politically. Instead they differ in their relationship to the body of Jewish religious laws known as halacha.

Halacha includes the five books of Moses, the Torah, and centuries of Jewish legal commentary and opinion. Reform congregations consider this kind of historic Jewish law advisory; Conservative congregations consider it authoritative.

Across all traditions, American Jews debate and discuss what matters to environment policy. A group called the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life is now 20 years old; it creates general principles for energy and climate policy, based on, for example, the Midrash Kohelet Rabbah, 1 on Ecclesiastes 7:13: the idea that history teaches Jews to protect the Earth for future generations.  Working with other Jewish advocacy groups, the COEJL has also weighed in on fracking

One thing rabbis from every congregation I’ve heard about in southern California seem to share: a yen for a good yarn. Valley Beth Shalom's Rabbi Farkas told stories from Genesis and from the Talmud for the radio story in which I profile him and Judaism’s relationship to the environment. But he also had a personal family story that explains the Farkas family’s relationship to food security. Check it out on the left.