A Season of RENEWAL

April 11, 2011
rj_greening_final logo.jpgMarty Ostrow has been a television producer, writer and director for over 25 years. His award-winning films include the documentary America and the Holocaust: Deceit and Indifference, for the PBS series The American Experience and RENEWAL: Stories from America's Religious Environmental Movement. Growing up in a Reform Jewish family, Marty credits his earliest experiences with the natural world as having affected his spirituality over the course of a lifetime.

Seven years ago, during this springtime season of rebirth, fellow filmmaker Terry Kay Rockefeller and I set out on a voyage of discovery that would result in RENEWAL, the first feature-length documentary about America's religious-environmental movement. This was a period of relative national disinterest in the environment (pre-Katrina, pre-An Inconvenient Truth), but through the resources of The Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale, we became aware of clusters of people, from a wide variety of faith traditions, who were taking action for the earth. It was an exciting and inspiring story that the popular media had persistently missed or ignored; the birth of a movement that was only starting to become known to itself.

The men, women and children we met were using teachings of faith as directives to eco-action and they were courageously confronting the central questions of what it means to be human: What is our relationship and responsibility to all life on this planet, and to God? How do we establish justice for all beings as well as the earth? How do we become better stewards of the environment to build a sustainable future? 

The most striking thing we discovered was the lack of communication among groups who profoundly understood the deep connection between human beings and the earth -- and who were already doing religious-environmental work. Most people assumed they were alone in taking action and that they wouldn't be able to accomplish much -- but they were acting anyway, out of a sense of spiritual calling to create a more mutually enhancing way of living with the planet. When we told them about others like themselves whom we'd met, they were usually surprised and delighted; the news provided a sense of strength and solidarity. We hoped the film would do that on a larger scale: offering a mirror to religious-environmentalists across the country, showing them an image of their own good work and that they were not alone.

Today, the religious-environmental movement is emerging on the map of American consciousness, thanks to the continuing growth of initiatives including The Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (national group affiliated with the Jewish Council for Public Affairs), The Teva Learning Center (Jewish environmental education for several thousand kids a year), Hazon (multi-generational environmental connections for all Jews), the Adamah Environmental Fellowship for Young Adults (leadership training program exploring Judaism through organic farming), Eden Village Camp (sustainability via  a Jewish summer camp experience) Kayam Farm (social and ecological responsibility via Jewish agricultural education), Wildnerness Torah (emerging program for nature-based Jewish education) -- and many others. Along with these organizations, RENEWAL has become a positive and powerful influence in this movement's growth.

Through intra-faith and inter-faith efforts this emerging movement demonstrates that spiritual connection with the earth has the capacity to bring about deep and lasting changes in ways that the secular environmental movement has not yet been able to do. It makes a huge difference once you look at the environment in more than political, economic or science terms - once you understand it's essentially a personal moral, ethical and spiritual issue. As a recent article explained, RENEWAL aims to help people "recognize they're part of a moral and spiritual movement to save the earth and discover a new relationship with the planet."

Today, as our nation shirks its responsibilities to stand up to the most daunting ecological challenges of human history, it is increasingly evident that religious communities have a critical leadership role to play in creating a sustainable future by raising their voices to speak out for peace, justice and better stewardship of the earth. And the Reform Movement continues to lead these efforts through Greening Reform Judaism, the Green Table, Just Table project and other initiatives for sustainable, Jewish living.

Seminal Jewish environmental writer/activists Ellen Bernstein and Rabbi Arthur Waskow speak eloquently about Judaism's responsibilities today arising from its ancient roots in the natural world. They remind us that Passover, the celebration of liberation, is a time to free ourselves from the bondage of fossil fuel dependence and the plague of global warming.

Whether it's Jewish kids learning the impacts of consumption, Christians bearing witness to mountaintop removal coal mining, Muslims engaged in sustainable agriculture, Buddhists saving trees...the inspiring stories in RENEWAL are typical of many stories that are now multiplying in religious communities across the nation. These are not only stories about renewal of the earth, they are stories about renewal of the soul and the experience of reinforced faith for those who become engaged in what cultural historian Thomas Berry called "The Great Work" of our time.

Spotlight on Greening Reform Judaism: During the month of April, the URJ is highlighting resources that help our congregations in their greening and tikkun olam efforts. Passover is a perfect time to spread the word and celebrate that the religious-environmental movement is truly here. Find resources for a social justice Passover and learn more about Greening Reform Judaism today.

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