The Associated’s Center for Funds and Foundations (CFF) held a briefing today on the state of environmental activism and programming in the Baltimore Jewish community. It was a remarkable moment, demonstrating that greening is being woven into both our community’s deeds and identity. While we still have miles to go, this was a great boost. Many thanks go out to Mark Smolarz (CFO and COO of the Associated), Nancy Kutler and Lauren Klein of the CFF, as well as Ben Greenwald (past-chair of the Associated) and Ben Gershowitz (VP of Facilities), and many others who made this event possible. Over 45 people, both funders and staff, attended.
The panel of presenters included Ben Greenwald, who spoke about our desire to fund a Sustainability Officer to assist the community in its energy efficiency and conservation efforts; expand our rotating loan fund (more on this in a few weeks when we get our protocols in place); and the desired creation of a general Green Fund to support local greening projects of all sorts.
Jakir Manela, the farmer and creator of Kayam Farm, spoke about their successes and, as always, wowed and charmed the gathering.
Mollye Lipton, a senior at the Cardin School and a founder of JEYO (the Jewish Enviromental Youth Organization) spoke of their projects and desired goals.
I spoke briefly about BJEN.
The goal of the gathering was to find synergies and connections between funders and current and desired programs and initiatives. Time will tell how successful this introduction has been.
I also had the honor of delivering the devar torah to this august gathering. I attach it here:
“Yesterday [Yom Kippur], we spent a lot of time thinking about ourselves, even more to the point, thinking about our deeds: deeds of commission and deeds of omission; things we did that we shouldn’t have done and things we avoided that we should have done.
Yesterday was a reminder, an urging, for us to focus on the impact of our deeds.
Impulses are nice, intentions are good, desires are powerful, but it is the DEED that finally matters.
For after all is said and done, there is one question that we will all be held accountable for: Did we, or did we not, do the right thing?
For 100 years or so, we have built an astonishingly vibrant economy utilizing the very best that nature and human ingenuity have to offer. We have taken what we wanted, used it up and tossed it aside, turned around and gotten some more.
Who knew, who believed, that we would run out of stuff so soon? Who knew that the air and sea could hold only so much trash? Who believed that our disposable, fossil-fueled society could so readily and quickly degrade our very large earth?
Who knew that our once innocent affluent lifestyle would put in peril the well-being of every creature on this earth, not only 100 years from now, or 50 years from now, but frighteningly right now?
Once, we could claim we did not know. But now we can’t, for we do know. So now we must act. None of us wishes to impoverish or imperil our children and our children’s children through our own deeds of affluence, or indifference.
And while we may be rusty at this greening effort, living in harmony with the cycles and resources of the earth is not foreign to us. We lived it 3000 years ago. We were born into it as a people. We read about it in our Torah and speak of it in our daily prayers. It is time we reclaimed a name that we jettisoned and demeaned for the past 2000 years: the title of Am Ha’aretz, the people of the land.
Our tradition is of the land, we must return to it and preserve it.
There is a midrash about the story of Noah – and his failure to act to preserve his world. “When Noah came out of the ark, he opened his eyes and saw the whole world completely destroyed. He began crying for the world and said, God, how could you have done this? ... God replied, Oh Noah. when I told you I would destroy the entire world, I lingered and delayed, so that you would speak on its behalf. But when you knew you would be safe in the ark, you were content. You thought of no one but you and your family. And now you complain? Then Noah knew that he had sinned.” (Midrash Tankhuma, Parashat Noach).
We too are being warned. We too are being asked to cry out, and act. We have so little time and so much to do. We dare not keep silent. And we dare not keep still.
Years ago, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner published his theory of personal puzzle pieces. He posited that we each come into this world with our own jigsaw puzzle. But the set is incomplete, in two ways: it has both missing pieces and extra pieces. Each of us were born with extra pieces that belong to others, and missing pieces that somehow got bundled in someone else’s puzzle.
The thing is, we don’t, we can’t, fully know what these pieces are. We don’t know who really owns our extra pieces, nor even what those pieces are. And we do not always know what pieces we are missing, or who is in possession of them.
One of the grand adventures of life is found in the exchange, almost always accidental. Sometimes it happens in the most casual and fleeting of ways. I remember once I was in a small store on a country road in Vermont many summers ago. I had stopped for some snack and a drink. I cannot remember what business I had up there, where I was going or what my plans were, but I do remember that I was in one of those throes of young adulthood (I was about 20 at the time), wondering both about the grand mysteries of all life and worrying about the particular mysteries of my own. I would not say my spirit was in turmoil, but neither was it in repose.
I roamed the narrow aisles of this picturesque store, gathered my snack and drink, and went to check out. Remarkably, despite the remoteness of this place, there was a short line at the cash register. There were two people waiting, both with their backs to me. The person at the front of the line was moving with dispatch. I could not have stood in line more than 90 seconds. But in that time, as I moved into the space of the woman in front of me, I was washed over with a wave of peace. It was clearly emanating from this woman. She was short, no taller than I was, and much older. Her hair was gray, cropped in a not-unattractive but efficient manner, the way one cuts one’s hair not because one doesn’t like it but just so as not to be bothered by it. I am not sure I ever really saw her face. But I was overcome by the glow of peace that surrounded her.
It felt to me like an aura, of both a gentle resignation at life’s unfairness and hurts, and unblemished joy in the goodness and blessings that still abound. It was not an innocent, Pollyanna peace, but a deep, hard-earned, battered-edges peace.
Now of course, this whole thing could have been merely a projection, an imagining on my part, I suppose. But you still have to explain why then, why her and that feeling?
Either way, I figure that was a moment of puzzle piece exchange right there – the meaning and power of which I am still trying to figure out.
On the other hand, an exchange of pieces can knock you off your feet. When you meet your bashert (your “intended,” your beloved). Or it could be with a teacher, a coach, an author long gone of a book that touches you.
Much of life’s great joy and wisdom is passed along through these chance encounters.
As Yom Kippur looms, almost upon our door, my mind turns to the mystery of these puzzle pieces. And I began to ruminate on Rabbi Kushner’s powerful and suggestive metaphor, crafting a few “principles” to help us better understand how it works.
1) The exchange of pieces is unearned. Neither giver nor recipient merits this exchange, though both benefit from it. (The one discarding something they cannot use; the other receiving something they need.) These exchanges are not intentional or planful. They just happen. One cannot boast about it or take pride in it. One can only marvel at it.
2) The exchange of pieces is non-reciprocal. That is, most times, the flow is only in one direction, from giver to recipient. This uneven, one-sided aspect is neither good nor bad. It just is. Ideally, over the expanse of space and time, the marketplace of exchange evens things out and we all end up with just the right pieces to complete our puzzle. But any one-way transaction can be full and complete in and of itself. True, when lovers are involved, or teachers, or friends, the exchange is mutual, but that is only one form of exchange, not a necessary form.
3) The exchange of pieces is unconditional. There are no strings, on either side. The one who gives has no additional responsibilities; the recipient can make no claim on them, cannot hold them responsible for the impact of their piece, and cannot require them to even acknowledge their gift. Indeed, the giver may not even know the exchange happened. (I doubt the gray-haired woman knew her affect on me.) Likewise, the giver cannot expect or seek expressions of thanks, for they gained as much in giving up a bit of clutter to them, as the recipient gained in receiving it.
4) The awareness of this exchange can happen either immediately or much later. Sometimes the exchange can be felt in the moment, like a bolt or a salve or a wave of peace. Other times it happens in stealth, and it is only in retrospect that one can look back and say, Ah, that is when it began, that is when it must have happened. I imagine that in fact most exchanges are acknowledged only in delay. Which is why days like Yom Kippur are so valuable, for they clear away the rubble and distractions so that we can find new pieces hidden under our quotidian debris.
5) The exchange of pieces should awaken feelings of gratitude. Not, as we said above, that this gratitude should or even can ever be openly expressed or directed to the source of the piece. But when fully experienced, the exchange of puzzle pieces is a twice-received gift: the value of the piece itself and the gratitude for it. Perhaps this is the glory of the exchange: it loops back on itself, weaving a web of benefit and gratitude securely, enduringly around the recipient.
The introspection that engulfs us on Yom Kippur is lapping at the door, so it is not surprising that these thoughts should spill into my mind at this moment. And they take on an additional resonance and awareness for me when placed in the context of our ailing earth and the resultant impact on those less privileged than we.
Perhaps, then, we need to extend this lovely personal metaphor of puzzle pieces and craft a sixth principle of the exchange: exchanges can happen gobally, at a distance. Without even knowing the names of the recipients, when we conduct our lives in ways that protect the world, we offer pieces of health, sharing, prosperity to others all around the world.
Even more, Rabbi Kushner conjured up pieces that confer only goodness. In this sixth principle, we realize that we can also exchange pieces that are toxic, that some unearned exchanges can harm as well as help.
Bottom line, I imagine, for this Yom Kippur message, is that exchanges happen, both personally and globally, both for good and for ill. And to the best of our ability, in all our transactions, we should exchange pieces of healing and hope, and banish all pieces of pain and destruction.
Gemar Hatimah Tovah – may you inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life.
Yesterday, I participated in an interreligious gathering at the Episcopal Cathedral of the Incarnation. It was convened on behalf of the Baltimore County/Baltimore City Watershed Agreement, offering religious leaders and activists insights into the goals and challenges facing us as we work toward replenishing and renewing our seriously degraded water-systems.
We were greeted by the Episcopal Bishop, Rt. Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, an impressive man who is eager to be known as Maryland’s first green Bishop. In his welcoming remarks, he laid out a compelling challenge to us all. He told of a visit to Africa he made a few years ago. Witnessing the devastation of land through what was due in part to climate change as well as the importation of international agri-business practices, the Bishop was asked by a destitute villager: What changes will Americans make in their lifestyles so that we can live?
It is a searing question. How mindful are we that it is not our extraordinary behaviors but our casual, habitual, daily ones that contribute to the troubles the world is in? What changes are we prepared to make to help heal the world? What changes in our manufacturing, distribution, housing and consumption patterns will we fight for so that all people everywhere can live?
The villager’s question sounds harsh and condemnatory cast in this way. It sounds as if we are being asked to give up our excessive habits, and sacrifice our wanton and chosen greediness on behalf of the needy. But what if we ask this question another way? What if we asked: if we knew the outcome of our behaviors, would we continue to do them? If we saw the impact that our daily habits have on the environment and the health of others, could we continue as we are? If we got immediate feedback about the harm we were causing by buying this dress instead of that, by driving to that store instead of there, wouldn’t we make different choices?
I do not believe we Americans are particularly greedy, nor are we notably mean. I think rather that we are sadly ignorant, illiterate about the way our learned behavior of the late 20th century affects the world and the inhabitants throughout it. We never knew and were never taught. Given the knowledge and the chance, I believe we would work to align our behaviors with our values, which would include protecting the well-being of the earth and all humankind.
Someone suggested that if all our tailpipes vented directly into our cars, we would demand cleaner cars today. I agree. If we did not hide, whisk away or delay seeing the degradation we cause, if we truly knew the impact of our actions, and if we had appropriate alternatives, I believe we would choose to behave differently.
That seems to be our task, then: to learn about the invisible or distant but nonetheless devastating and cumulative impact of behavior; and to demand that industry, the marketplace and government provide alternatives. Sustainability will be achieved not only or even mostly through our personal behavioral changes but by demanding systemic changes throughout our society: how we make things, how we move things, how we design things, how we think of systems (eg, asking not what we do with our waste but how we design production so there is no waste), etc.
What was momentous about this gathering was not just the airing and exploration of this powerful message, but the fact that so many religious folk (almost all non-clergy) determined to convene again, to explore how our various religious communities can come together to make a public pledge to work to health this wounded world. Through this high-profile effort, should it come to be, we hope to elevate sustainability to a high religious priority for all of us. In time, perhaps, it will be as unacceptable for a congregation to pursue unsustainable practices as it is for a congregation to turn away from the needy and destitute.
Kudos to those who organized this gathering - and here’s hoping that it changes the religious landscape of our community.
Every year, once a year, the High Holidays come and strip life down to its very essence. Thank God!
The veneers, facades and distractions we dutifully and skillfully craft to shield ourselves from the parts of life we don’t like, and the parts of ourselves we prefer not to see, fall away. If we give ourselves over to the season’s power, despite how raw and exhausting it can be, we may be able to find comfort in the truths we have feared.
I learned something new this year about need, satisfaction and desire.
I had the privilege of studying the field of Strategic Sustainable Development this past year. SSD is a methodology that assists businesses, industry and governments in understanding and embracing sustainable practices and behavior as the only way toward enduring success. (It is also known as the Natural Step Framework.)
Part of that methodology teaches us about the economist Max-Neef’s understanding of fundamental human needs. Differing radically from Maslow’s classic hierarchy of needs, Max-Neef offers a new construct based on the belief that people have simultaneous, not hierarchical needs, and that we often confuse needs with their satisfiers. A need, he explains, is “an internal state. It cannot be an outside object…” Satisfiers respond to and fulfill those needs. “Fundamental human needs are finite, very few, and classifiable.” And they are invariable. “They are the same everywhere, for every person, for every culture, in every historical period, the needs have
always been, and are still, the same. What changes is what you do in order to satisfy those needs that are common to everybody.”
He reduces fundamental human needs to nine: Subsistence, Protection, Affection (or love), Understanding, Participation, Idleness, Creation, Identity and Freedom. Food, shelter, work, for example, are not needs but satisfiers for subsistence. Responsibilities, duties, work, rights, privileges are not needs but satisfiers for participation.
Our task is to pursue appropriate satisfiers for each of our needs, and to help others find satisfiers for theirs. Two lessons powerfully emerge from this construct:
1) We need to choose our satisfiers well. Eating, drinking, working, exercising are healthy in appropriate amounts and attached to appropriate needs. They are unhealthy when used otherwise. When a satisfier is need-specific (some are precise while others are multivalenced), it cannot spill over and serve as a satisfier to another aching, empty need. We cannot fill our affection need through subsistence satisfiers.
2) We must rely on each other to satisfy our needs. Depending on the specifics, what I do in an effort to satisfy my need may essentially and reciprocally satisfy yours. For example, my need for affection can be satisfied through friendship which simultaneously fulfills your need for affection satisfied through friendship. Each of us can benefit only if both of us benefit. Or regarding the need for identity: these satisfiers are cultural elements such as language, religion, historical memory. My need for identity can only be satisfied when I join you in our shared sense of tradition.
One more lesson puts this chart of needs and satisfiers in the economist’s domain: objects are not the stuff of satisfiers. As Max-Neef puts it: “In this matrix there is nothing material, there are no objects.” (save food and shelter)
Despite what advertisers tell us, enduring happiness, ie, the feeling we seek from satisfiers, is not found in purchases, consumption and the use of stuff. While there is no doubt that we need stuff; but how we need stuff, and how we use it, needs to be radically re-imagined. Max-Neef’s matrix offers us a way to create a new vision of a vibrant economy not based on unnecessary consumption; a way to define a healthier, sustainable use of our natural resources without waste; and a way to join these two - wise consumption and wise use - in a more successful and enduring pursuit of fulfilling human satisfaction.
Shana tova to you all.
San Francisco will begin mandatory composting this fall, including every residence (single homes and apartment buildings) and businesses. The idea is to limit the amount of waste wasting away in expensive landfills. One third of the city’s garbage is compostable, and another third recyclable. That seems typical of most municipalities. With just a bit of due diligence, then, we can reduce our garbage, and our taxes, easing local government’s burden of tending and monitoring our waste, while selling off the good stuff that can be reused.
I recently read a wrenching retelling of the Dust Bowl years, by Timothy Egan. Particularly striking was his description of the times tons of dust from the mid-section of the country rolled across the skies to blot out the sun of the mid-Atlantic and southern New England cities. The soil of the plains, where it had been created and lain, nourishing the vast grasslands for hundreds of thousands of years, had come to the Atlantic. The loss to the plains was incalculable.
It seems to me that we are in the midst of another version of the Dust Bowl. The nutrients, benefits and even small dirt particles of the plain’s soil comes east in droves, in the body and on the surface of our produce. We buy it, eat it and then toss it away, to waste, largely inert and unusable, in our eastern landfills. To replace these nutrients, farmers rely on artificial fertilizer, which, under current practices, is neither good for the land nor for the water it runs off into. Hence, not good for us.
By composting at our homes, however, as many of us do today, we break this non-cycle. We return the blessings of foreign soil to our local soil here. The law of local return might not be in play here, but at least the fruits of the land get returned to land somewhere.
But I am thinking that with wholesale composting, it may just be possible for the east to capture the plain’s lost nutrients, cook them for a while under our eastern care, and truck them back home (fueled by the very compost the trucks are carting?), to nourish and produce next year’s bounty.
I would imagine that with more people than farmed land along the eastern coast, we will consume more compostables than we can readily use. What a great symbiosis - the plains feed us and we in turn feed the plains. It is far better than tossing into dead-end landfills irreplaceable, renewable fertilizer that can fuel our harvests for generations to come.
A 2004 entry from the New York Times Science Q & A addresses the question of life expectancy for vegetarians. Having been a vegetarian for almost 30 years now, this is an area of great interest to me. After all, the logical answer seems internally contradictory: the longer I am a vegetarian, the greater the health benefits I derive from it. And yet, the longer I am a vegetarian… Well, the article, in its dry, scientific manner, completes the bleak prognosis in its last sentence:
“A study published last year (2003) in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reviewed data from six studies that included people who ate meat less than once a week. The study also looked at new findings on the life expectancy of longtime vegetarians in the Adventist Health Study.
The authors of the Journal study found that a very low meat intake was associated with a significant decrease in death risks in four studies, and a nonsignificant decrease in the fifth study; they found virtually no association in the sixth.
Two studies also indicated that being on a vegetarian diet for a longer time contributed to a significantly greater decrease in mortality risk.
In all the studies, the protective effect seemed to weaken after the ninth decade.”
[NBC: Bummer. Like so many things, the news starts off great, and then, wham. Although, there is that hedge: the authors say the benefits of vegetarianism only “seemed” to weaken after the 9th decade of life. So when you turn 90, if you are a gambler, keep eating veggies.
If you are an ethical hedonist, grab a steak knife and pitchfork and plow up to a side of beef.
Of course, that doesn’t address the land issues.
I love science.]