Fight Fracking in Illinois!

Those who care deeply for the welfare of the earth have been watching with alarm at the growth of hydraulic fracturing (aka “fracking”) throughout the US.

Fracking (yes, fracking) is a means of extracting natural gas that involves drilling deep into the earth, through the aquifer into hard shale deposits. During the process, a pressurized mixture of water and chemicals is injected into the rock, causing a kind of mini-earthquake. Natural gas is then released through the cracks, eventually making its way to the surface, where it is piped to compressor stations.

During the compression process, toxic chemicals are burned off into the air while the used chemical fluid is either sent away or stored in on-site pits where it evaporates. The rest of the chemical fluid, however, remains deep underground.

As you might guess, communities where fracking takes place have reported increasing incidents of water contamination, environmental degradation and serious health problems. State and federal agencies have received thousands of complaints from people all over the country whose lives, homes and communities have been literally poisoned by fracking operations.

Continue reading “Fight Fracking in Illinois!”

Celebrate and Take Action This Tu B’shvat!

It’s utterly frigid here in Chicago. As I lose feeling in my toes, however, the Jewish calendar tells me it’s Tu B’shvat: the Birthday of the Trees, and the first harbinger of Spring.

And so my Tu B’shvat offerings for you:

An email I wrote on behalf of Jewish Voice for Peace: this Tu B’shvat, please take action to save trees and uprooted communities in Israel/Palestine;

– From the Velveteen Rabbi: a lovely two-page Tu B’shvat Haggadah that covers all the bases quite gracefully. (Mazel Tov to the Velveteen Rabbi, who recently received her smicha and is now, as she puts it, “running and playing with the real rabbis.” Rabbi Rachel: don’t you know you’ve been a “real” rabbi to many of us for quite some time now…)

– For Tu B’shvat reading material, I encourage you to read this inspiring piece on “Spiritual Environmentalism” by Wangari Maathai, Kenyan tree-planter extraordinaire:

Human beings have a consciousness by which we can appreciate love, beauty, creativity, and innovation or mourn the lack thereof. To the extent that we can go beyond ourselves and ordinary biological instincts, we can experience what it means to be human and therefore different from other animals. We can appreciate the delicacy of dew or a flower in bloom, water as it runs over the pebbles or the majesty of an elephant, the fragility of the butterfly or a field of wheat or leaves blowing in the wind. Such aesthetic responses are valid in their own right, and as reactions to the natural world they can inspire in us a sense of wonder and beauty that in turn encourages a sense of the divine.

That consciousness acknowledges that while a certain tree, forest, or mountain itself may not be holy, the life-sustaining services it provides — the oxygen we breathe, the water we drink — are what make existence possible, and so deserve our respect and veneration. From this point of view, the environment becomes sacred, because to destroy what is essential to life is to destroy life itself.

I feel my toes warming up already…

“The Largest Art Project the World Has Ever Seen…”

Here’s a pretty awesome global statement arriving just ahead of UN climate talks in Cancun, Mexico: the first global art show on climate change has just opened, launching several huge art projects seen from space designed to highlight the hazards of global warming.

The massive scale of the project is fairly breathtaking. Organized by activist Bill McKibben and his 350 Earth environmental advocacy group, thousands of volunteers ranging from New Mexico to China, Egypt, India and Spain, have gathered for a week long photo-performance project – using human bodies as the main media.

Click here for some amazing pix of the projects. The picture up top was taken of the effort in Santa Fe, in which over one thousand residents held blue posters in a dry riverbed to depict what it would (should) look like if there was actually water flowing through it.

In his email to 350 Earth supporters, McKibben wrote:

We’re not going to solve the climate crisis with art. We know that–we’re deeply based in science and politics. But we’re not going to solve the climate crisis without a movement. And art is one of the ways that movements express themselves, one of the things that reach human beings in powerful and deep ways. So by next week, when the UN climate conference in Cancun opens, we’ll be focused on a new set of ideas and tactics, asking your help for all sorts of practical and political things.

But today–today just know you’re part of the largest art project the world has ever seen.

Thank God We’ve Still Got Pete Seeger

If you’re starting to feel cynical and worn out at what’s going on in the world, just remember how long Pete Seeger has been fighting the good fight for us all. Check out his latest protest song, “God’s Counting On Me, God’s Counting on You.” (Note among other things, his pointed reference to the BP oil disaster.)  Click below for the lyrics:

Continue reading “Thank God We’ve Still Got Pete Seeger”

My Favorite Rabbis: Everett Gendler

Most people probably don’t realize this, but rabbis need rabbis too.

And there are a lot of great rabbis out there. Over the years I’ve been personally inspired by many of them: remarkable, talented leaders whose work challenges me, drives me and constantly reminds me why I do what I do. So with this post I’m debuting a new series I’m calling “My Favorite Rabbis:” ongoing profiles of the contemporary rabbis whom I consider to be my own spiritual teachers.

I’ll start by introducing you to Rabbi Everett Gendler, a Conservative rabbi whose moral courage has provided Jewish leadership for some of the most important progressive causes of our day. Today, some fifty years since he became a rabbi, I believe he remains on the cutting edge of the issues that truly matter.

This MLK weekend, it is certainly appropriate to note that Rabbi Gendler was one of the first rabbis to become actively involved in the struggle for civil rights in America and played a critical role in involving American rabbinical leadership in the movement. It’s doubtful that American rabbis would have stepped up to this struggle nearly as much had it not been for Rabbi Gendler’s prophetic influence.

During the early and mid-1960s, Rabbi Gendler led groups of American rabbis to participate in numerous prayer vigils and protests throughout the South. Of course many know that the legendary Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma in 1965. I imagine far fewer are aware that it was in fact Rabbi Gendler who persuaded Heschel to do so.

Heschel biographer Edward K. Kaplan writes:

Despite fears for his safety from his wife and the twelve year old Susannah, (Rabbi Heschel) agreed to join the march at the urging of Rabbi Everett Gendler, a pacifist and former student. Gendler had led a group of rabbis to Birmingham, Alabama to work for voting rights and remained in touch with the Reverend Andrew Young, King’s Executive Assistant at the SCLC. (From “Spiritual Radical: Abraham Joshua Heschel in America,” p. 222)

Rabbi Gendler was also instrumental in arranging Martin Luther King’s keynote address at the Rabbinical Assembly’s convention on March 25, 1968. This now-legendary speech took place at the Concord Resort hotel in New York’s Catskill Mountains just 10 days before King’s death. (That’s Rabbi Gendler to the left of Dr. King in the pic above).

Today, decades after King’s death, Rabbi Gendler remains an eloquent Jewish advocate for the path of nonviolence. His work has taken him across the world – most notably to India where he and his wife Mary teach the principles of nonviolence to Tibetan exiles.

I’m personally honored to serve with Rabbi Gendler on the Elder’s Council of the Shomer Shalom Institute for Jewish Nonviolence. In this picture, he leads a workshop at JRC in 2008. Shomer Shalom founder Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb (someone whom I may well be profiling in the future) is sitting next to him.

Rabbi Gendler has also been a long time advocate for Palestinian human rights – and his courageous stands have made it possible for new generations of rabbis to find their own voices on this painful issue. When Rabbi Brian Walt and I first began Ta’anit Tzedek and were looking for rabbis to join our campaign to protest the blockade of Gaza, we immediately turned to Rabbi Gendler, who joined our effort without hesitation. It is difficult to describe how much it means to know there are rabbis out there like Everett, someone who has been putting himself on the line for so long, and upon whom we always know we can rely for guidance and support.

Rabbi Gendler was also one of the first Jewish leaders to embrace environmentalism and vegetarianism long before they became fashionable. As the rabbi of a green synagogue myself, I recognize a tremendous debt to Everett, who more than anyone helped to put environmental issues on the radar screen of the Jewish community.

From a 2008 article in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal:

On a ferociously cold evening in November 1978, Rabbi Everett Gendler climbed atop the icy roof of Temple Emanuel in Lowell, Mass., and installed solar panels to fuel the synagogue’s ner tamid (eternal light)…

Gendler’s conversion of that eternal light marks the first known action to green a synagogue, making it more spiritually and ecologically sustainable, and Gendler himself, now Temple Emanuel’s rabbi emeritus, has been hailed as the father of Jewish environmentalism.

There so much more to say about Everett and his work. I suppose the most essential thing I can say about him is that he was and remains a spiritual maverick. His work remains as relevant and courageous as ever.

As we honor Dr. King this weekend, it’s critically important to honor those who continue his to walk his path in our own day. For me and so many others, Rabbi Everett Gendler is the one who teaches us how to walk that walk.

Jewish Ritual Reinvented

If you’re in New York or are planning to be, you need to get to the Jewish Museum and check out their latest exhibit, “Reinventing Ritual, survey of “the explosion of new Jewish rituals, art, and objects that has occurred since the mid-1990s.”

The exhibit celebrates the post-modern age as a time in which Jewish ritual can be radical as well as a return to its elemental basics:

This attitude of innovation is shared by a wide range of artists inclusive of generation, nationality, and religion. Contemporary artists and designers focus on Judaism as a lived experience by transforming the physical acts of ritual into new forms.

Outstanding works of industrial design, metalwork, ceramics, video, drawing, comics, sculpture, installation, and textiles from Europe, Israel, and North America reveal the diversity within Judaism. The exhibition will present works in thematic groups and environments that suggest the spaces and situations in which ritual is performed.

Here at JRC, we’re particularly honored that our new synagogue building is included in the exhibit. The Museum was interested in our LEED Platinum rated facility because “its principle of active conservation is at the heart of the exhibition.”

If you can’t make it to NYC, you can still see and read about many amazing pieces from the exhibit at the Museum website (like artist Michael Berkowitz’s combination wedding dress/amulet, above).

Evanston in the LEED!

evanstonI’m proud to announce that my hometown of Evanston has just passed an extraordinary environmental ordinance requiring new commercial buildings over 10,00 square feet to meet the LEED Silver standard. This makes our fair city one of a small handful of municipalities in the nation that have mandated LEED building standards for privately-funded commercial buildings.

Evanston has long made environmental concern a top civic priority.  In October 2006, the city unanimously voted to sign the US Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement. The city has also partnered with the Network for Evanston’s Future, a local coalition of citizens’ groups, to jointly develop a climate action plan through a citizen-based process.

Mazel Tov, Evanston – we’re proud our city is leading the way!

More JRC Kudos!


I’m told this one is pretty huge: JRC’s new synagogue building was recently chosen as one of the top ten green projects of 2009 by the American Institute of Architects.  Here’s an excerpt from their announcement:

The new synagogue for the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation (JRC) in Evanston, Illinois, replaces the group’s original building and is located adjacent to a residential area, public park, community center, and tracks of the Skokie Swift commuter train. The design balances the limitations of a small site with an ambitious program that promotes worship, education, and community objectives.

Offices, early childhood classrooms, and a chapel occupy the first floor; the religious school and library are on the second floor; and a sanctuary, social hall, and kitchen are on the third floor. This strategy allowed cost-effective construction of high-volume space for the sanctuary.

JRC’s commitment to the principle of tikkun olam—Hebrew for “repairing the world”—is manifest in the building’s architecture. On a modest budget, the synagogue achieved a LEED Platinum certification, a primary goal of its board of directors. JRC has become a community leader, demonstrating benefits of green design.

More Greening in the News


Just in time for spring, some spiritual greening news for you:

The AP did up a nice piece about religious environmental efforts that featured JRC. It was picked up by a number of news outlets, inluding the Washington Post.

And check out this trailer for a documentary commissioned by Chicago magazine that spotlights six local green efforts, including – that’s right – our humble shul…

The Sunshine of Your Love…


Celebrated a sublime Birkat Hachamah this morning at JRC. Began with meditation as the sun rose through the east window-wall of our sanctuary, then followed with yoga sun salutations – both led with profound depth of spirit by congregational member Carole Caplan. After this powerful prelude we participated in the Birkat Hachamah service itself (above).

As part of the liturgy, I added this verse from last Shabbat’s Haftarah:

For you who revere my name the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. (Malachi 3:20)

We then listened to this commentary from the great Rabbi Milton Steinberg, z”l:

After a long illness I was permitted for the first time to step outdoors. And as I crossed the threshold, sunlight greeted me. So long as I live I shall never forget that moment. The sky overhead was very blue, very clear, and very, very high. A faint wind blew off from the western plains, cool and yet somehow tinged with warmth – like a dry chilled wine. And everywhere in the firmament above me, in the great vault between earth and sky, on the pavements, the buildings – the golden glow of sunlight. It touched me, too, with friendship, with warmth, with blessing. And as I basked in its glory there ran through my mind those wonderful words of the prophet Malachi: “For you who revere My name a sun of righteousness will rise with healing on its wings.”

And I remembered how often I had been indifferent to the sunlight, how often, preoccupied with petty and sometimes mean concerns, I had disregarded it. And I said to myself, How precious is the sunlight, but alas, how careless of it we are.

How precious indeed, especially upon a day such as this; a day in which, as Jewish tradition would have it, the sun returns on its twenty-eight year cycle to the place it originally occupied at the time of it creation.

This Pesach may we all bask in the sunlight of God’s liberation…

PS: It was a briliant and clear morning in the Chicago area (see pic below)!