Interview with Ultra-Orthodox Environmental Activist: Naomi Elbinger

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Ultra-Orthodox with Environmental Activist: Naomi Elbinger

Naomi is a big part of Leshomra, an innovative Israeli non-profit spearheading a major positive shift in the Ultra-Orthodox (Charedi) community’s relationship with nature and the environment. She is also the CEO of Yes Potential, a company that builds websites. She lives in Israel and has been known to quote Dr. Suess excessively. Tell us a bit about yourself?
When I was a kid I had a pet goat named Mazal Tov. Our Shabbos guests in my family’s home in an upscale suburb of Sydney, Australia, were sometimes alarmed when I asked them if they wanted to come help me to feed her. Actually, Mazal Tov was an imaginary goat on my imaginary suburban farm.

My Mum was supportive and took me to the garden center to indulge my passion, but I was on several occasions reprimanded for digging up the lawn to plant radishes and carrots. I was the only kid I knew who learned the hard way what happens when you let your lettuce go to seed.

I always enjoyed nature trips in Australia, but since I moved to Israel 15 years ago I have realized that my connection to this Land is far beyond anything I experienced in Australia. I’m part of a women’s hiking group in Beit Shemesh, the city where I now live, and my favorite thing is to explore the hills around here.

I’m married with four children B”H who share my enthusiasm for bird-watching and camping. Besides that, I’m also a writer and entrepreneur and something of an activist in the small business community here in Israel. I blog at MyParnasa.com.

What is the goal of Leshomra?
There is a Torah concept of “Nifla’os HaBoreh” which says that we appreciate the Wonders of Creation, we come closer to the Creator. It’s necessary for a high level of physical, emotional and spiritual health. But the sad reality is that most people are cut off from nature in our community (which is known as the “Ultra-Orthodox” or Charedi sector).

Due to economic and social factors, we tend to live in densely-populated urban communities, 20 families per building, with barely any greenery around. Environmental awareness is non-existent. It’s no wonder that our community suffers from environmental problems, such as littering, waste, destruction of public property and neglect of green spaces.

These problems affect us and they also affect our fellow residents and lovers of Eretz Yisrael. Leshomra is all about taking responsibility for this problem and finding solutions, for our own benefit and for benefit of all Jews.

Why is Leshomra aimed specifically at the ultra-Orthodox community? How has this community related to environmental issues until now?
Charedim are completely cut off from educational and media messages promoting environmental awareness and responsibility. This is becoming a major problem as Charedim are the fastest growing demographic in Israel. Over 25% of Jewish Israeli Children today study in Charedi schools, where they have never received any environmental education until now.

This is an environmental disaster waiting to happen. We need to nurture awareness, we need to teach that each of us needs to take responsibility. That’s why Leshomra is investing so much in working with school children

There are other wonderful green organizations active in Israel but none of them has made significant inroads in working with Charedim. It’s a radically different worldview than the average Israeli environmental activist. Everything Leshomra teaches is based in the Torah, and our Ecology Guides are graduates of the same school system where they’re now teaching about composting and biodiversity. That’s what’s made it easier for us to gain the trust and enthusiasm of our community so quickly.

How do your personal goals align with the Leshomra mission?
When I was in Year 6 at Moriah College, Sydney, my teacher showed us a picture of a dead seal that had the misfortune to get tangled in the plastic webbing that holds together soft-drink cans. I think that was the moment when I became acutely aware that small acts, such as carelessly tossing some rubbish, had the power to cause great ugliness in the world. That thought has never left me and I guess I’ve always been a lot greener than most my neighbors.

Sometimes I’ve wished that I didn’t care so much because environmental degradation in Israel is like a runaway train and it’s by no means possible for a busy mother-of-4-little-kids to solve it all by myself. And my own Charedi community, which I love and feel at home in, is certainly a part of the problem. There have been court battles and protests where environmental activists attacked Charedi groups, but they never lead to anything good. There is simply no awareness in our community of these issues. You’re yelling at us in a language that we don’t understand, debasing both yourself and us. This bothered me a for a long time but I felt pretty hopeless about it.

When I heard about Leshomra, I immediately appreciated the idea and offered to build their website pro-bono. (I run a website building company.) Then I met with Leshomra’s CEO Avishai Himelfarb for the first time, and he showed me Leshomra’s Teacher’s Manual. Right there in Lesson No. 1, I saw a picture of a sea turtle that had gotten tangled in a plastic bag and suffocated. On the following pages, I saw photos of Charedi children tossing away litter carelessly or picking it up and putting it in the bin. This is what the teachers show their students on Day 1 of Leshomra’s program!

Seeing those pictures, I knew this program was the answer. I still remember the picture of the dead seal that my teacher showed me 25 years ago. If today’s Charedi kids have similar learning experiences, there is real hope that their own awareness will grow. The next generation will include “green ambassadors” who will advocate for environmental protection from within.

But it all starts with Leshomra’s education program. No one is born knowing that you should go out of your way to throw your Bamba wrapper in the bin and that when you uproot trees before Lag Ba’Omer, you make the whole neighborhood hotter come summer. Education is the only answer.

 

What are the biggest environmental issues in Israel in particular?
In Israel we have massive housing shortage. Home prices have more than doubled in the past 10 years. There is tremendous pressure build up open spaces as quickly as possible, causing the destruction of unique sites of ecological and historical significance. There is a constant struggle to find a balance between preserving the natural beauty of Israel and accommodating the exploding population. This is true throughout Israeli society, but it’s particularly important that Charedim become more educated about environmental considerations, because our population is growing very fast.

Our organization was originally called “Le’Ovdah U’Leshomra,” taken from the Torah verse where Hashem gives Adam the Garden of Eden “to work it and to guard it.” We shortened our name to Leshomra because it’s less of a mouthful, but this verse still inspires our attitude to complex environmental problems, such as the housing crisis. Our society needs to find a balance between developing the land and protecting it.

In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge in educating the ultra-Orthodox community about environmentalism?
Charedi families tend to be large, busy and financially stressed. The same goes for their schools. That creates a certain “survival mentality” where there is no room for “luxuries.” I’ve never met a parent or principal who wouldn’t be happy for their kids to have more time in nature, to plant and harvest their own food, to learn to consume more carefully and waste less.

But I’ve met a lot of parents and principals who feel that they don’t currently have time or resources to invest in this. The good news is that Leshomra’s been successful in creating partnerships with the municipalities and private donors who provide the resources and push to get our program happening in schools.

How has the ultra-Orthodox community reacted to Leshomra’s mission?
A lot of people have told us that it will never go – that Charedim have no interest in growing their own food or learning about native birds. But thankfully we’ve found that the reality is much different. The municipalities of the large Charedi cities we’ve approached have been overwhelmingly positive about bringing in our programs.

The schools and teachers have been more receptive than we could possible have predicated. For example, when we started in Jerusalem in late 2016, we had funding for 20 kindergartens. But over 60 clamored to join. In the end, 34 joined because the teachers decided to dedicate some of their limited discretionary funds to cover the costs. Currently, we are only limited by budget from tripling our reach within the next year.

How has your work with Leshomra affected your cooking and eating habits?
Since I have started working at Leshomra I’ve begun growing potatoes and onions on my porch with my kids, which we hope to eat at Pesach time. I love growing things but we have a small apartment and small porch so I always put it off. But if I’m teaching others how to do it, I figured I should be doing it myself! Now that we’re growing in old buckets we see how easy and satisfying it is. Now my dream is to set up a hydroponic farm in my apartment where I can grow bug-free leafy greens. I’m not quite sure where I’ll put it, but I figure I’ll start small and figure it out as I go.

Now that we’re growing in old buckets we see how easy and satisfying it is. Now my dream is to set up a hydroponic farm in my apartment where I can grow bug-free leafy greens. I’m not quite sure where I’ll put it, but I figure I’ll start small and figure it out as I go.

What small changes can women and men make in their daily lives to improve the world’s environmental health?
Many people feel overwhelmed by the extent of the environmental problems we face in the world today. You may feel that there is nothing you can do to make a difference.

And you may be right!

However, as Rabbi Tarfon says in Mishna Avos (2;15): You may not be able to finish the job, but that doesn’t mean you’re allowed to stop trying.

Just open your eyes to what’s going on around you and take a small step in the right direction.

I believe that this World has a Creator and that He has a plan for it, and that environmental problems are part of that plan. Like the other man-made problems that He has allowed, we have a responsibility to do what we can to fix it.

What is the environmental teaching within the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shvat?
Tu B’Shvat is called the New Year for the Trees because it’s said that’s when sap begins to rise in the dormant trees, in preparation for the coming spring.  The sap carries potential life through the branches of the tree, allowing it to grow leaves, flowers and fruits.

It’s a symbol for the potential that the year can hold for you and me. Traditionally, we eat lots of fruit on Tu B’Shvat and pray that this year will be fruitful. This Tu B’Shvat, I’ll be praying that Leshomra will continue to flourish and that I’ll hear more wonderful stories from teachers and parents about the positive impact our program is having.

Your Turn: What will you remember from this interview with Naomi?

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