by Len Lear
Rabbi Ellen Bernstein, 66, says she “lived in beautiful Mt. Airy for 22 years (1982 to 2004) and visited the Wissahickon many times a week for all those years. It is still among my top five places in the world!” Bernstein, who left Mt. Airy to get married (her husband lived in western Massachusetts), will be returning to Mt. Airy to speak at the Germantown Jewish Centre on Saturday, Feb. 15, during services and then again at Big Blue Marble Bookstore, 551 Carpenter Lane, on Sunday, Feb. 16, 10:30 a.m.
Rabbi Bernstein’s two appearances will help to launch her newest book, a Passover “Haggadah” called “The Promise of the Land.” (The Haggadah is a Jewish text that sets forth the order of the Passover Seder.)
A renowned environmentalist, Bernstein founded Shomrei Adamah (“Keepers of the Earth”), the first national Jewish environmental organization, in 1988. (Shomrei Adamah does not exist anymore.)
“I had moved to Mt. Airy because I had heard it was a wonderful, friendly, leafy neighborhood near the Wissahickon, and there was a lively Jewish community there. I had decided to attend a degree program in Philadelphia, so I chose to live in Mt. Airy. I loved the Wissahickon and my neighbors and our plant swaps.
“We were always growing various plants, digging them up and trading them. I loved living in a walkable community and shopping at the co-op and encountering friends everywhere in the neighborhood whenever I ventured outdoors. I come back to the neighborhood a few times a year. I always love to return. It’s so incredibly green and exuberant. Mt. Airy is paradise to me.”
Bernstein has degrees from the University of California at Berkeley, South Oregon State University, Hebrew College (Newton, Massachusetts) and the Academy of Jewish Religion (near New York City), but she admits she once gave up on Judaism. “From a young age I was hungry for something more meaningful than the consumerist values that permeated the culture. The Judaism I was taught as a young person was hollow. In college I began looking for a spiritual tradition, a place to call home.
“I experimented with several different paths and began wondering if Judaism might have what I was looking for. But because I had never been exposed to its depths, I really knew nothing about it. I started studying the biblical portion of the week with a study partner and found it so enlivening. This kind of two-some study … offered a clear, deeply satisfying, walkable path. It seemed to me better to claim what I was born into than to run to another tradition.”
Not all rabbis and Jewish scholars have found the sacredness of nature in the Old Testament that Bernstein has found. Why is this? “In modern times, people have elevated the human story over nature and have been blind to the ecological dimensions of life. Religious people have not been immune to this orientation … But I believe that this is changing, and more and more people are interested in the ecological dimensions of the tradition. I find young people especially hungry for this approach, whether I am teaching in a Jewish or Christian institution.”
In view of the wildfires in California, Australia, the Amazon rain forest, disappearing glaciers, a record number of tornados and temperature highs, etc., is it already too late to save the earth? “We have lost a tremendous amount, but we need to save what we still have. We need a worldwide mobilization effort to face the climate emergency. Giving up is not an option; how can we live that way? That would be too grim. I believe we are here on this earth for a purpose, and that purpose is to attend to all of life and our life support system/the earth. As one of my colleagues recently said to me, ‘What else should we be doing with our lives now if not this?’”
How does Bernstein feel about the fact that our own president denies climate change and has dramatically weakened environmental and wildlife protections when they are needed more than ever? “We have always had our share of corrupt leaders, and the Bible is full of them. We can live righteous and meaningful lives regardless of what our so-called leaders are doing. This is what it means to be a religious or spiritual person. We have to find our own way and continue to create good in the world, no matter what other people are doing. This is all the more important when our leaders are corrupt.
“I think that in our situation, it’s important to relish and be grateful for each moment we have. I am so thrilled to wake up to a day in which the weather is behaving appropriate to its season — when we have summery weather in summer and wintery weather in winter. We can’t take that for granted anymore.”
The central story of Passover is the story of liberation, and Bernstein wants people to recognize that our liberation is directly connected to the health and well-being of the earth. We can’t ultimately be free, she insists, if our habitats and creatures — our life support systems — are threatened.
This April is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, and Bernstein is hoping “that many Jewish groups will see this as an opportunity to raise the consciousness of their congregations and mobilize folks in service to the earth and its creatures. Already many Jewish groups are adopting the Haggadah and the Earth Seder idea in communities in the U.S. and beyond.”
For more information, visit Bernstein’s website, www.thepromiseoftheland.com or her Facebook page, Earth Seder. Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org