Climate change, Jerusalem and Shmita

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Rabbis at all times make it clear that God entrusts humanity to take care of creation.

“When God created Adam, he took him and showed him all the trees in the Garden of Eden and said to him… take care not to spoil or destroy my world – because if you do, there will be no one after you to fix it can “.” (Midrash Kohelet Rabba, July 13th)

When we enter Schmita (Sabbatical) year, especially given climate change and the cascade of natural disasters around the planet, we can take a closer look at the environmental problems in Jerusalem. The massive construction projects overshadow the preservation of the urban environment and have an impact on the health and sustainability of our city. While no one is ignoring the need for housing in the city, some projects appear to be a threat to the city’s green lungs and the health of its residents. Numerous trees are sacrificed for construction and infrastructure. Despite some environmental successes, such as the cancellation of the construction project on the slopes of Mei Naftoah and Rehavia or the development of the Messila Park and Gazelle Valley, there is still much to be done.

The sabbatical year that is now beginning offers the opportunity to rethink some of these construction projects and to develop an awareness of protecting our environment. Who should direct these plans? Should it be an initiative of the official institution or should it come from the residents – or maybe both in harmonious cooperation? And what does the Jewish tradition say on these issues? Do Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions fit into this vision that it is our duty to protect our environment?
“The Shmita year, when planting ceases, debt is canceled and the land rests, has profound ecological and social significance. In Jerusalem, however, where massive construction and transportation infrastructure plans are on the table, it will bring a death sentence to tens of thousands of trees standing in the way of ‘development’ while not a single tree is planted, ”said Naomi Tsur, founder and chairwoman of the Jerusalem Green Fund. Tsur, who was deputy environmental officer and director of the Jerusalem branch of the Society for Nature Conservation under former Mayor Nir Barkat, notes that trees and green spaces are playing an increasingly important role in sustainable urban planning in the face of the challenge of the climate crisis.

“Could this be a year to rethink our policy on old trees in Jerusalem, each with its own story to tell while adding shade and comfort to the public area? They deserve our protection and care and in return do us a lot of good, ”she says.

SUCH an interesting initiative is that of the Interreligious Center for Sustainable Development, which explores the connection between religion and ecology and mobilizes faith communities to act. The Jerusalem-based ICSD operates worldwide with current commitments in Africa, the Middle East, North America and Europe.

The ICSD’s work in 2020 focused on the Seminary Faith and Ecology Project, which explores links between different traditions and contemporary environmental issues. ICSD published the Eco bible (Volume I), an ecological commentary on Genesis and Exodus. ICSD Founder and Director Rabbi Yonatan Neril, along with Leo Dee, Program Director of the ICSD, suggest answers to the fundamental question related to the Shmita year: “What can the Bible say about ecology as people face great ecological challenges – including growth? Cyclones, floods, fires and plastic pollution? Eco bible delves into this question and shows how the Bible cares for God’s creation as a fundamental and living message. ”

Given the strong presence of faith and the importance of the biblical messages in this region, ICSD Chairman David Marom believes this approach is a good way to get people involved in environmental activism.

A number of non-profit Jerusalem associations strive to protect nature in this city and improve living conditions, with environmental needs being presented as no less important than housing projects. At a recent meeting held by the Public Journalism Movement with the Press Club of Jerusalem, around 10 of these local groups presented their nature and environmental activities across the city, including the Haredi and Arab sectors.

MPJ founder and director Yair Tarchitsky says Jerusalem has an impressive list of such organizations because many residents from different sectors care enough about the environment to become activists. The movement seeks to raise public awareness of these initiatives and encourage more residents to join. Saving the Jerusalem forest; Protection of the Darga River in Har Choma; Mitz Petel activists in Talpiot Mizrah; Resident of the Har Nof forest; and residents of Pisgat Ze’ev for the protection of the neighborhood gazelles are some of the groups that attended this meeting. Lianna Kianni, an activist from East Jerusalem, works with families and children in the Arab sector to raise awareness of the need for recycling. Activists of all ages and backgrounds from across the city are committed to planting and protecting trees.

In connection with this, the controversial project to build luxurious houses in the abandoned village of Lifta will not be implemented. Surprisingly, the Jerusalem city administration announced last week to the city’s district court that it would rather cancel the building plan there. The announcement follows a petition by a group of Jerusalem residents against the Israel Land Authority-sponsored plan. The municipality claims that the project would destroy green and historic areas.

“The plan contradicts the public interest from an urban development point of view,” said the representative of Safra Square at the district court, adding that the ILA was told years ago that this project did not meet the real needs of the city, but that the ILA was promoting they nevertheless and ignored the position of the church, the real representative of the Jerusalemites.

Will Jerusalem adopt the most important lessons learned from the Shmita year? Will we see new trees in our streets? Are old trees treated better and finally saved instead of hastily felled? Will the municipality’s decision to stand firm against a prestigious project by such a high authority as the ILA for the preservation of a historical and natural site set a precedent or remain an isolated one?

It may be too early, but the action of residents who, in the spirit of Shmita, are aware of the dangers that result from disregarding nature is certainly one of the most important keys to protecting nature.


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