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Climate change, Jerusalem and Shmita

CM 14/09/2021

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Rabbis throughout the ages make clear that God tasks humanity with caring for Creation. 
“When God created Adam, He took him and showed him all the trees in the Garden of Eden and said to him… be careful not to spoil or destroy My world – for if you do so, there will be nobody after you to repair it.” (Midrash Kohelet Rabba, 7/13)
As we enter the Shmita (Sabbatical) year, especially with climate changes and the cascade of natural disasters occurring around the planet, we may take a closer look at issues related to the environment in Jerusalem. The massive construction projects overshadow preservation of the city’s environment and impact our city’s health and sustainability. While no one ignores the need to build housing in the city, some projects seem to pose a threat to the city’s green lung and its residents’ health. Numerous trees are sacrificed to construction and infrastructure. Despite some environmentalist successes, like the cancellation of the construction project on the Mei Naftoah and Rehavia slopes, or the development of the Park Messila and the Gazelle Valley, there is still much to do. 

The sabbatical year starting now is an opportunity to reconsider some of these construction projects and develop awareness of the need to protect our environment. Who should lead these plans? Should it be an initiative of the official establishment or should it come from the residents – or perhaps both, in harmonious joint efforts? Moreover, what does Jewish tradition say about these issues? Could Jewish, Christian and Moslem traditions fit into this vision that it is our duty to protect our environment?
“The Shmita year, when planting is supposed to cease, debts should be canceled and the land rests, has deep environmental and social significance. However, in Jerusalem, with massive plans for construction and transport infrastructure on the table, it will bring a death sentence for tens of thousands of trees that stand in the way of ‘development,’ whereas not a single tree will be planted,” says Naomi Tsur, founder and chair of the Jerusalem Green Fund. Tsur, who was a deputy in charge of environmental affairs under former mayor Nir Barkat and director of the Jerusalem branch of the Society for Protection of Nature, notes that with the challenge of the climate crisis, trees and green areas play an increasingly important role in sustainable urban planning. 
“Could this be a year to rethink our policy for ancient trees in Jerusalem, each of which tells its own story while contributing to shade and greater comfort throughout the public domain? They deserve our protection and care, and do us a lot of good in return,” she says.
ONE SUCH interesting initiative is that of the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, which explores the connection between religion and ecology, and mobilizes faith communities to act. Jerusalem-based ICSD operates globally, with current engagements in Africa, the Middle East, North America and Europe.
ICSD’s work in 2020 focused on the Seminary Faith and Ecology Project, exploring connections 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, together with Leo Dee, director of programs at the ICSD, proposes answers to the fundamental question related to the Shmita year: “What can the Bible say about ecology, as people face huge ecological challenges – including growing hurricanes, floods, fires and plastic pollution? Eco Bible dives into this question, showing how the Bible cares for God’s Creation as a fundamental and living message.” 
Considering the strong presence of faith and the importance of the Biblical messages in this region, ICSD chair David Marom believes that this approach is a good way to attract residents to environmental activism.
A number of nonprofit Jerusalem associations strive to protect nature in this city and improve living conditions, presenting environmental needs as no less important than housing projects. At a recent meeting hosted by the Movement for Public Journalism with the Press Club of Jerusalem, about 10 such local groups presented their activities for nature and environment across the city, including in the haredi and Arab sectors. 
MPJ founder and director Yair Tarchitsky says that Jerusalem has an impressive list of such organizations because many residents from different sectors care enough about environment to become activists. The movement strives to raise public awareness of these initiatives and encourage more residents to join. Saving the Jerusalem Forest; Protecting the Darga River in Har Choma; Mitz Petel activists in Talpiot Mizrah; Residents for the Har Nof Forest; and Residents of Pisgat Ze’ev for the Protection of the Gazelles around the Neighborhood are some of the groups that participated in that meeting. Lianna Kianni, an activist from east Jerusalem, works with families and children in the Arab sector to raise awareness of the need to recycle. Activists of all ages and backgrounds from across the city are dedicated to planting and protecting trees.
IN A related matter, the controversial project to build luxurious houses in the abandoned village of Lifta will not be implemented after all. In a surprising move, the Jerusalem municipality informed the city district court last week that it prefers canceling the construction plan there. The announcement follows a petition by a group of Jerusalem residents against the plan promoted by the Israel Land Authority. The municipality maintains that the project would destroy green and historical areas. 
“The plan is inconsistent with the public interests from an urban perspective,” stated the representative of Safra Square at the district court, adding that they told the ILA years ago that this project didn’t meet the real needs of the city, but the ILA promoted it nonetheless, ignoring the position of the municipality, the genuine representative of Jerusalemites.
Will Jerusalem adopt key insights of the Shmita year? Will we see new trees in our streets? Will old trees be better treated and eventually saved instead of hastily cut down? Will the municipality’s decision to stand firm against a prestigious project promoted by such a high authority as ILA in order to preserve a historical and natural site become a precedent or remain an isolated case? 
It may be too early to say, but action of residents who, in the spirit of Shmita are aware of the dangers resulting from disregarding nature is certainly one of the most important keys to safeguarding nature. 

Source: Jerusalem Post

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