In attempting to change the world, sometimes we have to start by first changing ourselves. Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the mussar (ethics) movement in Lithuania, taught: “First a person should put his house together, then his town, then his world.”
If you feel that global crises are so overwhelming that your efforts will have little effect, then consider the following. Judaism teaches: “You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirkei Avot 2:21). Each of us must make a start and do whatever he or she can to help improve the world. Judaism also teaches that a person is obligated to protest when there is evil and, if necessary, to proceed from protest to action. Each person is to imagine that the world is evenly balanced between good and evil, and that each good deed tips the whole world toward the side of good. Therefore, her or his actions can determine the destiny of the entire world. Even if little is accomplished right away, the act of trying to make improvements will prevent the hardening of one’s heart and will affirm acceptance of an obligation to try to improve conditions. Even the act of consciousness-raising itself is important, because it may lead to future action for change.
In considering how much to become involved, please consider that the world is arguably approaching climate, food, energy, water, and other environmental catastrophes, as well as other threats. Consider how essential it is that major changes soon be made so that future generations will have a decent world in which to live.
Here are some things that each person can do:
1. Become well informed. Learn the facts about current environmental and other societal problems and the applicable Jewish teachings from this and other books.
2. Check rumors you receive by email against the facts before passing them on to others. Snopes.com is an excellent resource for verifying whether or not a particular Internet rumor is a hoax. Remember: Spreading lashon hara (evil gossip) is forbidden, and this includes material you receive by email.
3. Help elect candidates whose positions are most consistent with Jewish progressive values and environmental concerns. Join their campaigns and, of course, vote for them.
4. Inform others. Write timely letters to editors of publications. Set up programs and discussions. Become registered with community, library, or school speakers’ bureaus. Wear a button. Put bumper stickers where many people will see them. Make and display posters.
5. Simplify your life-style. Conserve energy. Recycle materials. Buy and wear used clothing. Bike or walk whenever possible, rather than drive, and learn to combine errands on your trips. Share rides. Use mass transit when appropriate.
6. Become a vegetarian, and preferably a vegan, or at least sharply reduce your consumption of animal products. As discussed in Chapter 12 of Who Stole My Religion, veganism is the diet most consistent with such Jewish values as showing compassion to animals, taking care of one’s health, preserving the environment, sharing with hungry people, conserving natural resources, and pursuing peace. Even if you don’t feel you can give up meat right now, try having a meatless day each week, when you try new recipes at home, or eat out in a vegetarian restaurant.
7. Work with organizations and groups on some of the significant issues. If your time is limited, then choose one issue that interests you and devote yourself to that. For contact information for Jewish groups working on such issues, see Appendices D and E. If there are no local groups or if you differ with such groups on some important issues, set up a group in your synagogue, Jewish Center, or Hillel.
8. Encourage your public and congregational libraries to order, stock, and circulate books on global issues and Jewish teachings related to them. Donate any duplicate copies. Request that libraries regularly acquire such books. Subscribe to relevant magazines, and, if you can afford it, buy some to donate.
9. Speak or organize events with guest speakers and/or audio-visual presentations on how Jewish values address current critical issues. Consider requesting a complimentary DVD of the documentary film, A Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World at aSacredDuty.com Schedule a showing of the film at your synagogue or other organization. Offer it to your local film festival or other arts event.
10. Ask rabbis and other religious leaders to give sermons and/or classes discussing Judaism’s teachings on social justice, sustainability, hunger, peace, conservation, and other Jewish values and how they can be applied to current issues.
11. Contact editors of local newspapers and ask that more space be devoted to current threats and on religious teachings related to them. Write articles and letters using information from this book and other books and magazines.
12. Try to influence public policy on the issues. Organize letter-writing campaigns and group visits to politicians to lobby for a safer, saner, more stable world. Run for office if you feel inclined to do so. Members of city counsels, school boards, and other local institutions can have a big impact. Think globally, act locally.
13. Consult with rabbis and religious educators and leaders on how to apply to today’s critical issues such Jewish mandates as “seek peace and pursue it,” “bal tashchit” (you shall not waste), “justice, justice shall you pursue,” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” Ask principals of yeshivas and day schools to see that their curricula reflect traditional Jewish concerns with environ-mental, peace, and justice issues. Volunteer to speak to classes and to help plan curricula.
14. As an outgrowth of Jewish teachings on helping feed hungry people and conserving resources, work to end the tremendous amount of waste associated with many Jewish organizational functions and celebrations:
- Encourage friends and institutions to simplify, reduce wastefulness, and serve less lavish celebratory feasts. Put this into practice at your own celebrations.
- Request that meat not be served, since the production of meat wastes grain, land, and other resources and contributes substantially to pollution, deforestation, desertification, loss of biodiversity, and climate change. Refraining from eating meat also expresses identification with the millions of people who lack an adequate diet, as well as the billions of farmed animals slaughtered each year.
- Reclaim left over edible food from simchas to donate to shelters and food kitchens. Recommend to people hosting a celebration that they donate a portion of the cost of the event to Mazon (an organization discussed in Appendix D) or another group working to reduce hunger.
16. Help set up a committee to analyze and reduce energy consumption in your synagogue. Apply steps taken to reduce synagogue energy use as a model for similar action on other buildings and homes in the community.
17. Set up a social action committee at your synagogue, temple, Jewish Center, day or afternoon school, or campus, to help people get more involved in educational and action-centered activities. Build coalitions with other social justice groups in your community.
18. Raise the consciousness of your synagogue and other local Jewish organizations and individuals about how Jewish teachings can be applied to respond to current societal problems. Ask respectful but challenging questions such as those discussed in Chapter 15 of Who Stole My Religion.
(Excerpted and adapted from Who Stole My Religion?: Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet by Richard H. Schwartz with Yonassan Gershom.)