For the last several decades, many of the world’s major religions have looked inward to explore what their ancient teachings and ethical systems have to say about people’s relationship with and responsibility to the environment.
Now, an organization called the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development in Israel is bringing these conversations together for a cross-cultural, interfaith look on environmental protection. The reasoning? If two minds are better than one, then many minds (and hearts) are even stronger – especially when it comes to something as important as climate change and a healthy environment.
Today ICSD works to promote “the cooperation and training of religious leaders, teachers, and seminary students for environmental sustainability.” Over email, ICSD’s Social Media and Blog Director, Eitan Press, told Repair the World, about the role the world’s religions can play in the environmental movement, what it means to work together across differences, and how his own love of nature fuels his work.
What is your own background with environmental work? Was it always something that spoke to you?
My background in environmental work is centered around volunteering, formal, and informal education. To share some of my experience, I taught at GIFT Yeshiva in Baltimore MD, and my students there had not received much exposure to nature so I created and taught an ecology curriculum where we went on walks in the woods, studied population growth, sustainability, and watched National Geographic videos (simple stuff but it inspired them and deepened their connection to nature).
I also ran a ‘zero waste’ summer camp with green programming called the Jewish Superhero Experience in Boulder CO, for the Aish Kodesh synagogue. Here in Jerusalem I teach and volunteer to do more grassroots activism like organizing neighborhood park clean-ups, and 5-minute spontaneous trash pick-ups at local festivals, (its amazing how much trash a small group of inspired people can clean in five minutes), anything to deepen in people an awareness of their inherent connection to the natural world. My inspiration to get involved with environmental work really starts with the joy and wonder of ‘environmental play’ in the woods and streams of my backyard when I was a kid, and my desire to preserve and share that experience for future generations.
What was the inspiration behind creating The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development?
I asked this question to Rabbi Yonatan Neril, who founded and directs the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development. He said, “I believe that religions can be forces for positive change in the world, to promote coexistence, sustainability, and peace. Profound teachings related to sustainability exist within the world’s major faiths, and I feel that it is crucial that these teachings be brought to the consciousness of billions of people in faith communities to help promote sustainable solutions.”
How did you first get involved with ICSD?
I met Rabbi Yonatan at a PresenTense event in Jerusalem, he was one of their ‘Fellows’ pitching a Jewish social entrepreneur project, and I offered to volunteer to plug into what he was doing. We started talking and I learned he was an eco-activist before he became a Rabbi, and he began teach me Torah that really showed how being Jewish is connected to caring for the earth. I am also passionate about both religion and the internet as vehicles for social change, so when Rabbi Yonatan started the ICSD and there was a need to do social media work, I stepped in.
What makes ICSD stand apart from other environmental organizations?
One reason the ICSD stands apart is because we are an interfaith organization and part of our mission is to use the collective power of our religious traditions to help live lighter on the earth. We are also different because we believe religion has a central role to play in creating a more sustainable world. Religion and sustainability are connected in part because religions the world over teach about the need to go beyond the selfish ‘ego,’ and unchecked consumerism, i.e. filling the ‘hole’ with more ‘stuff’, is one of the causes of environmental destruction. When people live more soul-centered lives and less ego-centered lives, they feel less of a need to consume, start living more consciously, and this leads to more sustainable behavior. Our ecological problems are connected to spiritual problems, and in order to restore our balance with nature on the outside we also need to change on the inside. That’s within the domain of religions.
Can you tell me a bit about the impact you’ve seen so far?
So far the biggest impact I have seen is the Interfaith Eco Forum we held at the American Colony Hotel here in Jerusalem. We brought together leaders from the Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths – Bishop William Shomali of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Deputy Minister of the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Religious Affairs Haj Salah Zuheika, and American Jewish Committee International Director of Inter-religious Affairs Rabbi David Rosen to speak on a panel about sustainable living and climate change. These panelists also endorsed a Holy Land Declaration on Climate Change calling for adherents of the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish faiths to engage in “undertaking a deep reassessment of our spiritual and physical relationship to this God-given planet and how we consume, use and dispose of its blessed resources.”
I also spoke with nuns, Christian Arabs, and other people with whom I generally would not have met that I had really good interactions with. It was inspiring to witness cooperation between members of different faiths (that many times are associated with conflict) for a good cause, and so that’s a positive impact from Jerusalem. The event received coverage in about 15 media outlets in five languages, meaning that several million people likely heard about it.
How can people get involved?
People can get involved on a lot of levels, first through volunteering, we are looking for more writers who value interfaith projects and sustainability to contribute content to our site. We also are seeking to build our online community (readers can like us on Facebook) and are looking for constructive ideas and feedback so people can contact us. Financial support is also welcome, and also the prayers and good wishes of anyone who feels connected to what we are doing can also help us succeed.