Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

14 Tishrei 5764 - September 29, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








The Frum Community and its Environment

by Gita Gordon

When we recently discussed environmental issues at home, my children told me that they remember, when they were little, that if we went on a picnic they were only allowed to throw away something that is biodegradable. They said that when they used this word to their friends, no one had heard about it. Wherever we went, everything else had to be carefully placed in a packet and taken home to be disposed of in the regular garbage.

I cannot recall this specifically but it seems correct. Certainly I am a believer in doing the small things that are under our control and leaving the worries about larger issues, ones that I feel I can't influence, to others.

Jewish legal tradition deals also, and in some detail, with the "micro" environmental issues, those of each small community, particularly with regard to problems between neighbors, aesthetic appearance and issues of safety.

So you will see why I was particularly interested in the following discussion with some visitors from Australia.

"We visited my cousins. Last time, it was so distressing to see how untidy the neighborhood was. We couldn't believe it when we went there this time. Everything is spic and span."

"What area was that?"

"Oh, something like Shuafat, Reches Shuafat. Oh no, it has changed its name. Now it is called Ramat Shlomo. That's right. I was told that it is named after Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt"l."

The result of this discussion was that inquiries led me to the Ramat Shlomo Community Council where the community worker Rabbi Carmi Wisemon said to me "Since 5762 (2002), we have been working with the children and teenagers in a comprehensive effort to clean up the neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo. Hundreds of children were recruited to clean up the parks, sidewalks, courtyards and playgrounds. They were kitted out with disposable gloves and trash bags. Small toys were handed out as an added incentive. When I walked through the neighborhood, every other child I passed would ask when the next campaign is taking place.

"The mothers of the community, in conjunction with the community center, held several contests. The first was a contest for the name of our cleaning campaign. The winning name was "Hanikayon Bereches Zehu Neches" (Cleanliness in "the Reches" is valuable). Then a school and neighborhood arts contest about the environment was organized. Another contest was organized for children to send stories about gedolim and cleanliness. The resulting stories were published by the mothers in a column in a local newspaper.

"Since this worked so well, we next thought of at-risk children, whose main problem was that they felt alienated from the community. We employed them to paint and renovate public areas. This not only improved the area, but also made them feel an important and valuable part of the community.

"Now we feel that it is necessary to involve the community leaders and scholars in the effort, and the natural way of doing that was through Torah. We were hoping also to see the consequences of godol halimud shemeivi liyedei ma'aseh (great is learning for it brings to action).

"Together with the rabbonim of the neighborhood, a contest was formulated to encourage yeshiva bochurim and avreichim to study and write about various environmental issues."

When I made contact with Rabbi Wisemon again some months later, I heard that the competition had became city-wide and attracted a great deal of interest and some top-quality essays from across the religious spectrum (Sephardic, Litvish, Chassidish and National Religious).

The best essays were published in a 176-page journal in Hebrew, Haseviva Bahalacha Umachshavah (The Environment in Halachah and Thought), by the Ramat Shlomo Community Council, which also includes articles by some of the rabbonim. The topics were varied, ranging from, "The Obligation of Parents Regarding Damages Caused by their Children to Public and Private Property," to, "Pasting Notices in the Public Domain," and, "Opening a Kindergarten in a Residential Building." The Ministry of the Environment was so impressed by the quality of the work -- that it also co-sponsored -- that it has placed the entire journal on its website. A copy of it may be obtained from the Ramat Sholomo Community Council at 02 5710978.

A Conference at City Hall

Some weeks later, an interesting invitation arrived in my postbox. Its dominant colors were green, brown and blue, which I assumed (correctly it turned out) to be representing the trees, earth and sky.

This very special conference, the first of its kind, was held in Jerusalem's City Hall, in an elegantly appointed room on the sixth floor with a spectacular, panoramic view of Yerushalayim. Attended by representatives of the Ministry of the Environment, the city's Sanitation Dept., and its Torah Culture Department, as well as members of the Ramat Shlomo Community Council, the topic was, "The Environment in Halacha and Machshavah." This conference was called in honor of the winners of the essay writing campaign in Ramat Shlomo.

The first prize went to Rabbi Rafael Itach, while the runners- up were Rabbi Asher Miller and Rabbi David Strauss.

The first dvar Torah was given by Rabbi Eliyahu Bar Shalom, a rosh kollel in Ramat Shlomo, who stood at the podium and addressed the crowd. "I am very happy to have been given the opportunity to voice a complaint I have been harboring for thirty-five years. When I was a child, the signs on the public parks used to say, `These gardens are yours, take care of them.' But the signs were not correct. They should have said, `These gardens are not yours, take care of them.' "

More speakers followed. Rabbi Yitzchok Angel, a member of the Ramat Shlomo Community Council, commented, "Who would have believed that all this developed from the cleaning campaigns that started out in Ramat Shlomo with little children!"

Rabbi Gavriel Shtauber, Director of the Torah Culture Department of the Jerusalem Municipality, said, "Environmentalists see their environmentalism as the main goal -- the sole mitzvah if you will. Whereas we see it as one mitzvah among many others, with the intrinsic importance of a mitzvah."

Mr. Shoni Goldberger, Director of the Jerusalem District of the Ministry of the Environment, said that the awakening created by the project excited him and that the Environment Ministry was happy to have played a substantial role in this important endeavor. He did note that many of the articles focused on people's immediate residential vicinity, and he hoped that future works would examine the wider environs of the city and the countryside.

Rabbi Ari Smadja, a rabbi in Ramat Shlomo said, "This is the first time that a social awareness program has encouraged the chareidi public to get involved and to speak up about social issues through their own medium, which is Torah."

Rabbi Gavriel Kossover, the president of the Ramat Shlomo Community Council, said, "The Community Council is always striving to enrich the lives of the residents of the neighborhood".

Mr. Tzion Shitrit, Head of the Sanitation Department and one of the central figures in the Jerusalem Municipality's current campaign to clean up the city, said, "Ramat Shlomo is to be applauded for being the first chareidi neighborhood to really tackle the issue. Now other neighborhoods are following their lead and setting up their own campaigns."

A very mixed group of people came to hear the divrei Torah on environmental issues: non-religious, national religious and chareidim, Litvaks, Sephardim and Chassidim -- all sharing a common concern for the holiness and cleanliness of Yerushalayim.

The idea of a cleaning campaign has caught on. I have been informed of a cleaning campaign last summer in Romema and a one-day event in Ramot Alef. Recently in Beitar they had a huge, months-long campaign of a similar nature

After the event, people lingered to talk. Mrs. Meira Helfer, Educational Director of the Jerusalem District of the Ministry of Environment, said, "I am very happy to see the greater awareness and budding interest of the chareidi public about environmental issues.

"A project such as this, involving the writing of original articles on the subject, will place environmental issues on a higher standing in public awareness. This event, which was held in the Jerusalem City Hall with such a varied group of people attending, will place environmental issues in Jerusalem on a higher plane."

Later I called Rabbi Wisemon, to ask his feelings about the evening. He said: "We see this as a community awareness project, one led by the Rabbonim, together with the Community Council and various government and municipal agencies, to ignite the community to social awareness, concern and action. A measure of our of success can be seen in a phone call I received just two days after the conference, from a man who said that he had been unable to attend, but had just seen a copy of the journal in his shul in Petach Tikva. He was so excited about the contents that he was just calling to ask if we could send him a copy."

Said Rabbi Wisemon, "It's important not to lose momentum. This is only the tip of the iceberg. In order to get more people involved, we have to run more contests. As one of the prize winners said to me, `After I left my copy of the journal behind in shul by mistake, you wouldn't believe how many people have come up to me to discuss the issue I wrote about.' This is definitely the way to increase public awareness."


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