Cleaning our Garden of Eden

“God showed Adam the Garden of Eden and said, ?Look at My works! How beautiful and praiseworthy they are. Everything that I have created, I created for you. Take care not to damage and destroy My world, for if you damage it, there is no one to repair it after you.?”

– Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:28

Judaism was not born in a sanctuary lined with stained glass windows.

It began in the wilderness when a group of escaped slaves stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and received the Torah, promising God, “We will do and we will listen.”

After making this pledge, Jews didn’t drive to the synagogue to discuss the revelation over bagels and lox, nor did they sit and pray in the pews.

More likely, they looked to the Earth for meaning. Perhaps they found it in a vast desert horizon or a night sky radiant with stars.

That Judaism was born at a time when little separated man from Earth has gotten lost as worship has moved indoors. But an increasing number of Jewish individuals are rebuilding this bridge through their work in the environmental movement.

This week, in preparation of Earth Day April 22, j. features eight young men and women working to safeguard the land, water and air we depend on for sustenance.

Pickle man: “My synagogue is the Earth”

Zelig Golden is known for a lot of things. One of them is pickles. He makes them himself and has developed quite the reputation accordingly.

“Ask him to make you a pickle martini,” one friend urged.

He recently taught a group of students at Jewish Community High School of the Bay how to make pickled cabbage (sauerkraut), frequently referring to fermentation with adulations such as “magic” and “brilliant.” His enthusiasm shook the students out of their morning fatigue.

Golden works as a lawyer for the Center for Food Safety (his dream law job, he says) in the organization’s San Francisco office, where he focuses on keeping genetically engineered crops out of our food supply.

He also initiates lawsuits about cloning and other food technology that he argues are harmful for human consumption.

“We are fighting such a huge battle. The agricultural industrial complex is like a tidal wave. How do you stop a tidal wave? You can’t. You step around it and create alternatives, and that’s what we’re doing,” he said.

Golden, 34, grew up camping in the mountains near his Spokane, Wash., home, cultivating in him a reverence for nature. With a full beard framing his easy grin, he looks like the kind of guy who goes on solo camping trips twice a year in Northern California’s Trinity Alps (which he does).

He has worked for the Northwest Jewish Environmental Project, farmed organic crops in Costa Rica, taught science in a middle school and campaigned for presidential candidate Al Gore. In 2001, he moved to Berkeley to attend U.C. Berkeley School of Law (Boalt Hall).

After graduation and two years at an environmental law firm in San Francisco, he signed up for Adamah, a program for Jewish young adults that blends organic farming, sustainable living, Jewish learning and prayer at a New York retreat center. It was an ideal way to explore his equally fierce love of the Earth and Judaism. (Meanwhile, his fermentation fascination thrived; he started a pickling business at the Adamah farm that still exists today.)

The Oakland resident is an active member of Chochmat HaLev, where he’s trained to be a maggid (lay spiritual teacher). Every Thursday, he leads Shacharit services, often with his guitar.

He’s helping plan the Hazon Jewish Food Conference at the end of December in Monterey, and is coordinating a Jewish Vision Quest in August. Traditionally a Native American ritual, the vision quest will bring 10 Jews into the desert for six days of reflection, prayer and song; three days will be spent alone.

“My synagogue is the Earth,” he said. “When I’m not working to protect it, I’m blessing it and connecting people to it.”

Bringing nutritious food – from the ground up – to Africans

Jen Burney is a self-described “physics dork” who looks at the world through the eyes of a scientist.

But as an observant Jew and a former volunteer for American Jewish World Service, she’s not exactly satisfied with the idea of holing up in a lab measuring vectors and velocity.

So 15 months ago, after six years of working on a doctorate in physics at Stanford, she traveled to Benin, a poor country in West Africa shaped like a stalk of broccoli and about the size of Louisiana. There, she used her science expertise to construct a solar-powered drip irrigation system intended to create a sustainable economy for 1,000 people.

“Jews showed us how drip irrigation can really make the desert bloom,” she said.

Drip irrigation: Not new. Neither is solar power. But pairing the two simple technologies – and using it to provide impoverished people in the Earth’s most fragile climates with a solid living and basic nutrition – is unexplored territory, Burney said.

The project was piloted in two villages by a nonprofit called the Solar Electric Light Fund. Eventually, the organization hopes to install solar-powered drip irrigation in 44 villages in northern Benin (home to an arid climate and 100,000 people).

Ever the gutsy type, Burney, 31, found out about the Solar Electric Light Fund, called them up and asked: Can I work for you?

Shortly thereafter, she found herself in Kalal?, a village in northern Benin located 60 miles from the nearest paved road.

The solar-powered irrigation installed last June has transformed fields of rotten, fallen trees into stunning rows of okra, amaranth, tomatoes, lettuce and carrots. The crops provide a mostly malnourished community with nutritious food. Plus, the women selling the vegetables in the market earn an average of $3.82 a week.

“This is a significant amount of money for a population living on less than a $1 per day,” Burney said.

She returned to Palo Alto from Benin three months ago. The New Mexico native has since fallen back into a routine of observing Shabbat, keeping kosher and praying with a Modern Orthodox minyan of graduate students.

She spends weekdays on campus at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, where she’s focused on calculating the nutritional, socioeconomic and environmental impact of the irrigation project.

“Our climate is going to change, at least for the next 50 years – what are we going to do to adapt?” Burney asked. “We have to get some good science to know what works and get a real solution for the people who need it most.”

A fish tale of tall proportions

Having a crush leads most people to talk at great lengths and with great enthusiasm about the object of their affection.

This is how Jon Rosenfield talks about fish.

“The life history and behavior of fish are fascinating,” he said. “There are more species of fish than birds and mammals put together – They’re so important, and yet, we don’t see them unless we look hard.”

Rosenfield, 39, has worked for three years as an independent biological conservation consultant, helping agencies like the California Department of Water Resources answer questions such as: If an earthquake caused San Francisco Bay levees to collapse, what would happen to the aquatic ecosystem?

He knows a lot about fish, and how to make complex science go down smooth. (Example: His doctorate focused on the rapid hybridization of two fish species. Translation: “I basically watched fish have sex for my Ph.D.”)

The Berkeley man drives a diesel Volkswagen Jetta. The little green car has one bumper sticker – “Biodiesel: fuel for the revolution” – and its backseat is cluttered with papers and camping equipment.

Many of thepapers are fliers for the first SalmonAid, a two-day music and food festival May 31 and June 1 at Jack London Square in Oakland that he’s helping to plan.

“I love salmon; they’re like community builders,” he said. “Wild salmon are this great icon, pulling together all these groups who almost never talk to one another – commercial, recreational and tribal fishermen, chefs, scientists and environmentalists.”

The broad support is a response to the salmon crisis in the ocean and rivers along the Pacific Coast: Five years ago, nearly 900,000 salmon returned to the Sacramento River to spawn. Only 90,000 were counted in 2007.

Rosenfield grew up in a secular Jewish home in New York. During a visit to the Bay Area a few months before moving here, two childhood friends invited him to a Friday night service at Chochmat HaLev. He was feeling lost after a divorce and the death of his mother; Chochmat was an unexpected safety net.

“I had chills up and down my spine,” he recalled. It was the first Shabbat service he ever attended.

So when he moved to Berkeley in 2000, he became a Chochmat regular. He started learning Hebrew and going to services. Recently, he returned from the Mojave Desert seeking a spot to have a community Passover seder April 26.

“My studies loosened me up to accept that there are some questions science is not designed to answer,” he said. “Clearly something else is moving all these particles around.”

For organic farmer, thyme is on her side

Grocery shopping with Emily Freed might mean having to take a pop quiz next to the milk cartons.

“I’ll ask my friends: Conventional, organic or local?” said Freed, an organic herb farmer. “We talk it through. But I mostly keep my mouth shut and let them decide. Nine times out of 10, they make the right choice.”

(Answer: It really depends on the food, she added, but when it comes to dairy, local and organic whenever possible.)

Freed, 32, is the assistant production manager for Jacobs Farm, which grows 44 herbs in six locations on 250 acres in Santa Cruz County. She got the job after living in a tent on campus for six months as part of an apprenticeship program in ecology at U.C. Santa Cruz, which armed her with so much information she couldn’t help but share it with friends and family. She considers it the most recent of her Top Three Transformative Life Experiences (summers at Camp Tawonga and a year in Israel with Otzma round out the list).

She grew up in Santa Rosa, with a hippie mom who made her own yogurt and packed carob bars in her daughter’s lunch instead of Twinkies and Ding Dongs.

“I was 12 when I finally had a candy bar,” she recalled.

Freed wears jeans and layers of fleece to work when it’s cold, rain boots when it’s muddy. She is ebullient despite rain or fog – working on a farm is something she always wanted to do.

On a rainy day in February, Freed might be orchestrating the transport of 400 pounds of thyme – up to 8,000 pounds during peak growing season – from the farm to a packing facility. The herbs are then shipped to markets across the country and eventually end up as the secret ingredient in someone’s homemade soup.

Freed, who is fluent in Spanish, oversees a staff of mostly Hispanic men.

“It’s really interesting being a Jewish white woman working with all Latino men. They can’t understand why I’m not married with five kids,” she said.

Farming is a second career for Freed; her first was a multiyear stint with Joshua Venture, a now-defunct S.F. foundation whose grants helped create JDub Records and Heeb Magazine.She still gushes about the job.

Today, she blends her passion for Judaism with her interest in farming by teaching classes on gardening and local food sources at preschools, synagogues and JCCs.

“As Jews, we are so tied to food, holidays and the seasons, and yet, most people just go to the store without thinking about how far those pomegranates traveled or if they were sprayed with pesticides,” she said. “My grander vision is really making the Jewish community more aware of where their food comes from.”

An oasis for biodiesel blooms in Berkeley

There is a gas station on Fourth Street in Berkeley where the usual fare of candy bars and key chains has been replaced by vegan cookies and organic cotton T-shirts.

A vintage fuel pump fills cars with biodiesel; the woman behind the counter greets most customers by first name. It is the antithesis of every gas station you’ve ever been inside.

Welcome to the BioFuel Oasis. Melissa Hardy is one of six women who co-own the fueling station, which has sold biodiesel fuel made from vegetable oil to more than 2,500 customers since 2003.

“We encourage a human experience at the pump,” she said. “You have to come to the counter. You can’t just swipe your card…I really love empowering people to make the choice.”

Hardy, 32, grew up in a culturally Jewish household in Philadelphia. After graduating with an ecology degree from U.C. Berkeley, she worked as an environmental educator at a ranch in Marin.

“I was commuting from Berkeley to Marin, and as I drove I thought, ‘Gosh, I’m teaching kids about making environmental choices and I’m driving 40 miles every day.’ There has to be a solution to this.”

So when she heard about a grassroots group called the Biodiesel Collective, she started spending Monday evenings at their meetings – held inside a shipping container in the recycling center’s parking lot. “It was the funkiest bunch of people,” she recalled.

They “brewed” their own biodiesel fuel from restaurants’ grease waste. Hardy traded her Honda Civic hatchback for a pickup truck, since its diesel engine could run on biodiesel fuel with no modifications or conversions.

Eventually, the group wanted more people outside their circle to know about the benefits of biodiesel. So Hardy and four friends spent the first half of 2003 living on a veggie-fueled bus they named “Unifried.” They visited college campuses in 38 states, at each stop educating students about alternative fuels and energy independence.

That venture ultimately led to the creation of the BioFuel Oasis, which sells commercially made biodiesel manufactured in Mendocino. It has grown enough that this summer it will move across Berkeley, from a small garage on Fourth Street to a bigger fueling station at the corner of Sacramento and Ashby streets.

Hardy’s work often seeps into all corners of her life. Recently, she was in synagogue for a bar mitzvah when in the prayer book she came across the Hebrew word habonim (builders).

Habonim. She turned the word over in her mind, deconstructing its meaning and its relevance in her own life. It confirmed what she already believes, which is that “We are builders of the world we want to create.”

Boosting the environment on S.F. talk station

Orli Cotel walked into Green 960’s studio in a flurry.

Carole King hadn’t signed a release form enabling Cotel to air a 15-minute interview with the singer, and Arianna Huffington canceled an 11 a.m. phoner (a piece intended to be a backup for the King spot) because of the flu.

“I’m so bummed,” she said, pausing for half a second. “Well, if today’s interview with the ambassador of New Zealand goes well, we can air that this week. And I think I’m also going to finally get an interview with [Kathleeen] Sebelius, the governor of Kansas, so that’s another possibility.”

Cotel is the national publicist for the Sierra Club. For the past five years, she has handled all media inquiries.

Hosting Sierra Club Radio – a weekly syndicated show airing at 3:30 p.m. Saturdays on San Francisco station KKGN-960 AM, “Green 960” is just one part of her job, but a pretty cool one at that. She has interviewed authors, politicians, scientists and activists.

Cotel, 28, respects the deep history of the organization for which she works, but she also is committed to reinventing the tone and approach of the Sierra Club.

“For a long time, we’ve talked about environmental problems and how people have suffered as a result. I’m shifting the narrative away from the victim to the hero by emphasizing what we all can do in our daily lives to help change the direction of this country.”

A native of Manhattan, N.Y., Cotel’s interest in social justice and the environment were cultivated at a young age when she first became active in Habonim Dror, the labor Zionist youth movement.

Because of that, “I sort of have activism in my blood.” A friend recalled Cotel convincing her to become a vegetarian – when they were 6.

Cotel’s father is a trained classical pianist and composer but in his mid-life became a rabbi. Some people buy a sports car; her dad went to rabbinical school, she joked.

She invites upwards of 30 friends to her San Francisco apartment every month for Shabbat dinner, and recently joined the advisory board of the Progressive Jewish Alliance. As a child and teenager, she went to Jewish summer camp, and through eighth grade, attended Jewish day school in New York.

“There was a tremendous emphasis placed on tikkun olam as a living, breathing principle,” she says of the school. “It had a huge effect on me in terms of thinking of tikkun olam not as an activity, but as a way of life.”

A journey with ‘many steps along the way’

This is the kind of success story Big Brothers/Big Sisters might use in a press kit.

Aaron Lamstein was in middle school when his mother decided her son could benefit from a positive male role model. His Jewish Big Brother, Phil Genet, became a close companion, and the pair stayed in touch after Lamstein graduated from Sir Francis Drake High School in San Anselmo and went on to UCLA.

When Lamstein returned to Marin after earning his undergraduate degree, Genet approached his not-so-little Little Brother about starting a business selling healthy, sustainable products.

“He told me, ‘The shoppers of tomorrow are interested in these issues. If we start now, we’ll have a head start,'” Lamstein recalled.

Nearly two decades later, a seed of an idea between “brothers” has blossomed into Worldwise, one of the country’s leading manufacturers of dog and cat products. Everything is made from recycled, reclaimed or certified organic materials (and known by brand names SmartyKat and Pooch Planet).

Most of the creative product development happens in the company’s San Rafael office.

Success was far from instant.

“People told me, ‘Aaron, it’s going to take twice as long as you think to grow your business.’ But I was fresh out of college and thought, ‘I’ll do it in half that time,'” he said. “Retrospectively, they were all completely wrong. It took about three times as long.”

Worldwise began by producing a variety of items: planters made from recycled plastic, fire logs made from fruit tree trimmings, office supplies made from recycled materials. It was slow growing.

Then, in 2002, Lamstein made a decision. Since Worldwise had made major gains in the pet industry, the other branches of the business were sold and the focus shifted exclusively to pet supplies and to the company’s guiding principles: Living well within the limits of nature. Worldwise products are sold in 30,000 stores throughout the United States.

Lamstein, 41, lives in San Anselmo with his wife and two children. They are active members of Congregation Rodef Sholom, where in January he led a workshop entitled, “The Torah Has Always Been Green: Jewish Emphases on Sustainability and Responsibility.”

He tries to live the ethos of his company – riding his bike when possible, driving a hybrid car, recycling but first reusing, and in his home installing hardwood floors made from domestic sources and carpet that doesn’t contain petrochemicals.

“There’s still so much more I need to do, but being green is a journey with many steps along the way,” he said. “Life is made up of thousands of everyday decisions, and our goal should be to be as responsible as we can in each one.”

She’s blue if your workplace isn’t green

The revelation happened in the Hillel house near Rice University in Houston.

“I had this epiphany moment, that I needed to be doing environmental work,” said Ilana Gauss.

At the time, she was spending a year after college as a Jewish Campus Service Corps fellow. It was a logical move for someone who jokes that she “minored in Hillel” at Boston University.

Yet her major, marine biology, reflected her other love – of the physical and fluid Earth, an interest nurtured by eight summers at Camp Swig and eight years at Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Francisco.

“I think I always felt torn, but I ultimately decided to work in the secular community because I could make a bigger impact,” said Gauss, who has spent the past three years working as a green programs specialist at the San Francisco Department of Public Health.

“But being green is so popular now that I don’t have to choose much anymore.”

Case in point: She started EcoJews of the Bay, scripted a Jewish environmental curriculum for Congregation Emanu-El’s religious school and is helping launch the Bay Area’s second Tuv Ha’Aretz (a community-supported agriculture program) at the JCC of San Francisco.

Gauss, 31, is petite, with curly brown hair and a tendency to speak slowly, as though picking her words like apples from a tree.

“Bringing Judaism into environmental issues makes my work twice as meaningful, to know that there is this connection,” she said.

As a green programs specialist, she works for the Green Business Program, an initiative in nine Bay Area counties that helps hotels, restaurants and auto shops (among others) decrease their environmental footprint.

Gauss works specifically with San Francisco businesses to reduce their hazardous waste and pollution. For instance, she might encourage an auto shop to use recycled motor oil and to make sure none of its waste flows into storm drains. She walks businesses through a 10-page checklist of standards that, if met, will earn them certification as a “green business.”

“What we really want to see is consumers recognizing and patronizing these businesses because they’re green,” she said.

She points out that the JCCSF and Emanu-El are the only two Jewish organizations in San Francisco that have signed up to become a certified green business.

“That sends a strong message to the Jewish community that organizations can work on their primary mission while also being green.”

She’s hopeful more Jewish agencies will incorporate green practices into their work, so that “people can get involved in the environment and do it in a Jewish framework.”

How to get more information

To learn more about the causes for which these eight environmentalists are working, visit the following Web sites:

BioFuel Oasis – www.biofueloasis.com

Center for Food Safety – www.centerforfood safety.org

Bay Area Green Business Program – www.greenbiz.ca.gov

Hazon – www.hazon.org

Jacobs Farm – www.jacobsfarm.com

SalmonAid – www.salmonaid.org

Save Our Wild Salmon – www.wildsalmon.org

Sierra Club – www.sierraclub.org

Solar Electric Light Fund – www.self.org

Worldwise – www.worldwise.com

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