Transportation and sustainability consultant Tanya Paz, centre, participates in Tu b’Shevat Circle: Teachings from the Earth, an event spearheaded by Or Shalom Synagogue in partnership with Jewish Family Services, JQT Vancouver and UNIT/PITT Society for Art and Critical Awareness. Or Shalom’s Rabbi Hannah Dresner is seated on the stool to Paz’s right. (photo by Matt Hanns Schroeter)
More than two dozen individuals whose work involves food security and climate change issues met on Feb. 9 for Tu b’Shevat Circle: Teachings from the Earth, an event spearheaded by Or Shalom Synagogue in partnership with Jewish Family Services, JQT Vancouver and UNIT/PITT Society for Art and Critical Awareness.
Those who gathered work or devote time to such organizations as Grandview Woodland Food Connection, Sustainabiliteens, Coquitlam Farmers Market and Extinction Rebellion. They came together to explore various topics, including how their Jewishness intersects with their work in secular organizations, envisioning a sustainable world and the Jewish community’s role in social justice.
“I noticed that so many of these organizations are spearheaded by young Jews and felt it important to create an opportunity for them to see one another and recognize this aspect of kinship in their work … and whether this commonality enhances the work, draws them into kinship or stimulates any collaboration,” said Or Shalom’s Rabbi Hannah Dresner.
Or Shalom brought on Carmel Tanaka to organize a gathering. Through meetings with young adults and stakeholder groups, Tanaka met a number of people whose careers relate to food security and social justice, but most weren’t working for Jewish organizations nor were they connected to one another within a Jewish context. She and Dresner agreed it was worth bringing them together to see what conversations would blossom.
Tanja Demajo, chief executive officer of Jewish Family Services, said JFS provided funding for the event because they believed in the value of the project.
“There are a lot of Jewish and young Jewish people who are interested in food security and questions of accessibility, which is very interesting from a perspective of … whether this work is modulated by [Jewish] values and how this translates to day-to-day practice,” she said. “At the end of the day, it didn’t really matter if the different participants were working in a Jewish or non-Jewish community.”
Some attendees revealed that, for them, being Jewish is secondary to their focus on environmental issues.
“The room was full of people who identify in varying degrees with their Jewishness and, for some, it’s an important aspect of their identity and, for others, it isn’t integral,” Tanaka said.
Dresner spoke to the indelible connection between environmental action and Judaism. “In my understanding of Judaism, saving our world is at the heart of what it means to have a Jewish spiritual life,” she said. “Creative energy, or the vitality of spirit, is always flowing toward us. It’s what I’d call the ‘world that’s always coming,’ or the ongoing nature of creation. We can encourage and aid this vitality, helping to direct it where most needed, or we can impede the flow. When we are selfish and impede creative flow, the result is a deprivation of generative spirit, spirit denied to corners of creation, and we see results like species blinking into extinction.”
The rabbi wants to spend more time with young Jews working in social justice. “The Judaism I believe in mandates their work as the highest mitzvah of our moment,” she said. “It’s a misconception born of the compartmentalized Judaism in which many of us were raised not to understand that attention to the environment is a Jewish priority.”
Aaron Robinson, chair of Grow Local Society Tri-Cities, a food security group that runs the Coquitlam Farmers Market, said his work for the organization won’t ever have a Jewish mandate, but his Judaism is tied into what he does. “Personally, I can never underestimate the role that Jewish values play in the way I see the world, especially when it comes to tikkun olam,” he said, adding, “I guess it’s become engrained in me, but it was nice to bring it back to the surface to see, wow, there is this Jewish connection to all this work that we’re doing.”
Robinson appreciated the opportunity to connect with other Jews working in similar fields and hopes the conversations will continue.
Some people discussed not feeling supported by the Jewish community to undertake the work they do within a Jewish context. Tanaka said she believes the Vancouver Jewish community hasn’t focused attention on these issues until recently, citing the 2019 climate march and protests as a galvanizing factor, and said it’s time for the local community “to support young Jewish adults who are doing this kind of work … because these are Jewish issues at the end of the day.”
Some at the event suggested funding for environmental advocacy was needed. Dresner said there was also a desire for bridge building. “They seem to be asking for an arm of organized Jewish community to create some occasional containers for their gathering, just to share within the hybrid of their niche or to explore potential collaborations,” she said. “Or Shalom will be looking at finding funding to continue holding this group and its outgrowth in a loose, nurturing embrace.”
Demajo said the JFS food security program has already benefited from the event. “Being exposed to more city-wide programs and initiatives and being exposed to all different voices gives a different perspective to JFS,” she said, “because it opens up new ideas.”
Shelley Stein-Wotten is a freelance journalist and comedy writer. She has won awards for her creative non-fiction and screenwriting and enjoys writing about the arts and environmental issues. She is based on Vancouver Island.