By Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz, Agudas Achim Congregation, Coralville, Iowa
It all makes sense now.
It’s winter, the snow is a foot deep and my husband and I are thankful for our four-wheel drive. The car starts without a hitch and ploughs through the snow accumulated on our driveway. Now that I live in the Midwestern United States, I’m starting to understand the rationale of the American experience. In a land as empty, spacious and fertile as Iowa, there is no reason not to build large homes for the comfort of families. In a climate as severe as the continental climate in the American heartland, it is imperative that one staves off the ice blooms in winter and cools down the smothering heat in summer. I still marvel at the 100 degree difference between winter and summer.
So, I am adjusting to and making peace with my new American life. I’ve been here a mere ten months and have settled in, grown comfortable, started putting down roots. My new life has been broken in; this place is becoming my home. As a Dutchwoman who has lived in Spain, the Netherlands, Sweden, Great Britain and even Israel, my transition to the United States has been an interesting one. My previous life in Great Britain was very different. My husband, myself and our two young children shared a charming but small loft apartment. For years, we schlepped (carried) strollers up two flights of stairs. We didn’t own a car. It was a brisk walk or a bus journey for normal days; a taxi for date night. We did our grocery shopping locally on our main street; the Northern English city we lived in was densely packed and dripping with history. This sense of the old brings an attitude of carefulness with it: I would carefully rinse my vintage fine bone china tea set after an Afternoon Tea. We would recycle every scrap of food into soups, bone broth and casseroles. We would frugally pack our lunches for day trips in Tupperware containers and picnic al fresco in the verdant parks of England, a blanket spread out on the inevitably wet grass. Life felt close, cramped, immediate, controlled, focused. In densely populated Europe, you learn to make measured choices and appreciate the scarcity of silence and space.
Then you come here and there is more land than can meet the eye. No narrow, winding streets and tinny cars. Instead, tall SUV’s roll down eight-lane highways. No dainty tea cups but large Styrofoam coffee cups. Disposable plates and big yards with even bigger lawnmowers. Big cars, big houses, big, well, everything. And I tally up in my mind, what the cost must be in kilojoules and oilfields, in landfills and in production lines stretching all the way to China. And so I live with these tensions, between scarcity and abundance, between the old and the new. I love America and its energy, its generosity, of what could still be. And I love Europe with its common sense love of what was. Europe has a sense of time. America has a sense of space.
As I’ve spent these ten months here, as a European and as a congregational rabbi, I often reflect on the environmental impact of our choices. Truth to be told, both Europe and America have a carbon footprint that is excessively large and unsustainable: to blame each other would be the pot calling the kettle black. My Torah (the five books of Moses) doesn’t talk in terms of blame, but in terms of responsibility. It is not about judgment but about covenant. My faith tradition – Judaism – makes humanity a partner in creation with the Divine and asks of each of us how we can be held accountable to that high ethical and environmental standard. Earthly life is sacred and when God spoke the world into being, to use the allegory from the Book of Genesis, God said ‘ki tov’, it was good.
When I see the rolling fields of Iowa, the friendly faces of this big-hearted Midwestern community, I know that the world is ‘tov’, good, exactly as the Holy One intended it. However, it is up to us to improve it still and keep our end of the covenant. And so, I have brought my china tea set into the synagogue (no Styrofoam cups) and take care to waste a little less and save a little more. I dream of having solar panels on the synagogue roof and of a sustainable community vegetable garden on our premises. Whether those dreams will materialize is up to the democratic processes of my community, but I will seed the ideas where I can and be thankful to the Earth for her bounty.
But most of all, I appreciate, I savor and I teach. A rabbi cannot effect an environmental revolution on her own. But I can raise consciousness and teach an applied theology where God’s love meets our deep human understanding of the interconnectedness of all things. Where we balance the how’s of evidence-based science with the why’s of existential religion. Where we boldly meet the challenges presented to us as a species and hold ourselves accountable for climate change. Where we serve God not out of fear but out of love and wonder for the amazing, breathtaking, knee-buckling universe we live in and dedicate ourselves to protecting and preserving it as best as we can.
A rabbinic legend (from Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah) talks about the environmental tour the first human beings received from God when they were planted in the Garden of Eden:
“When God created the first human beings, God led them around all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said: “Look at My works! See how beautiful they are—how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.”
If we destroy our world, there will be no-one to repair it, to love it, to witness it. It all makes sense now: the comingling of our hope and our apathy, our shortsightedness with our vision. Nothing is alien to the human experience, whether in America, Europe, Africa, Asia or anywhere else. Therein lies the risk and the redemption. A first brave step is to look at ourselves honestly and learn from each other openheartedly. When we combine our wisdom, ingenuity, wonder and compassion as a species, we can honor the past and preserve the future. Let’s turn the world into Eden once again.
It all makes sense now.
Agudas Achim website
Read more of Rabbi Hugenholtz’s writing on her website.