A Fellowship That Starts Within: Religion and Climate Education


A Fellowship That Starts Within: Religion and Climate Education

Guest blog post written by Naama Sadan, Ariel Evan Mayse, and Tania Schweig.

In July 2020, an intellectually talented and spiritually gifted twenty-one-year-old named Yonim Schweig drowned in a lake during a camping trip. Yonim touched many hearts across the span of his life. He was a religious seeker who spent many years studying Jewish texts and traditions and recently commenced a major in environmental studies at UC Davis.

In the wake of his tragic death, his mother Tania shared a call for Jewish environmental educators and thinkers, inviting them to engage in a project in his memory.

After several months of strategic visioning and thoughtful inquiry, the group arrived at a fellowship model that integrates inner work, religious tradition, systems thinking, community building, and environmental activism.

Why Spiritual Education for the Climate Crisis?

Several key insights emerged from the group preliminary discussions. First, young people feel anxious when they encounter problems related to climate crises, due in part to fear, uncertainty, and perception of a lack of agency. Second, many of the programs that try to cope with the anxiety and consequences of the climate crisis do so by giving young people information and action ideas, but they neither leave space for grief nor provide a sense of belonging to a tradition or a system of meaning that transcends the urgency of the crisis and provides an opportunity for responses grounded in kinship, connection, and mutual responsibility rather than individualism.

The fellowship was designed to invest in our young leaders by creating a dynamic and close-knit community in which to gain knowledge, understanding, and skills needed in their roles as community leaders. We simultaneously emphasize cultivating inner resilience, belonging to something bigger than ourselves, and connection to our roots. To build inner resilience we adopted leadership-building tools from the compassionate systems thinking framework, teaching how to explore our inner landscape and find space for all emotions. To cultivate belonging and rootedness, we explored religious tradition and its possible resources for addressing the climate crisis, studying texts that give meaning to our responsibilities, and which allow us to connect to places of clarity in which resilience can be built.

Why Religion?

Why religion? How can engagement with religious traditions help us go about developing a response to the environmental crisis? The field of religion and ecology (and its many different isotopes) emerged from Lynn White, Jr.’s 1967 indictment of religion as a cause of climate emergency. His accusations, cited thousands of times in the decades to follow, set religious thinkers and practitioners back on their heels. Some doubled down by attempting to undercut the science that explains climate change. Others attempted to “green” ancient traditions through heavy-handed reinterpretation, arguing that values like “sustainability” were present if long been ignored, features of religious traditions. Still, others have mined religious literatures for notions analogous to contemporary environmental keywords (asking how do you say “stewardship” in “Jewish”?). These approaches do little more than repeat established paradigms without offering alternative worldviews or ethical frameworks. To address dire environmental problems, we must now perform the deeper work of exploring traditional sources with an eye to alternative modes of theorization and valuation that can unseat assumptions about humanity and our relationship to the non-human world.

Religions are large, transnational organizations that can prompt huge numbers (billions) of people to work together. This possibility for collective action across continents and institutions of governance is a key contribution. Religions help us conceive of obligations toward future generations, a thorny issue in western philosophy, and they can also help us think beyond our very high capacity for epistemic opacity: the ability to pretend that we don’t see a wall until we quite literally run right into it. They can help us conceive of catastrophe and paradigm-shifting moments in which everything from the geo-political order to the climate itself is becoming utterly unstable. More importantly, religious literatures and rituals represent alternative modes of ethical reasoning and value assignment that offer an alternative to current economic systems.

In fact, it is precisely the pre-modern roots of Jewish law and theology which permit its powerful challenge to paradigmatic hegemony. Our fellowship draws upon the full range of Jewish theological, legal, and philosophical literatures to construct an alternative environmental ethic rebuking the values of carbon capitalism, the insular epistemologies of scientism, technological determinism, and the extractive approach to the non-human world that dominates our economic and social systems. Jewish legal traditions and their co-constructive theological discourses are part of a religious vocabulary, we argue, which predates the carbon economy and therefore falls prey neither to its assumptions nor its limitations. Rabbinic tort law gives us a robust accounting of socially-embedded responsibility and obligation (rather than individual rights) that can help us conceive of thorny problems like collective action, cumulative pollution, distributive justice, and what Robert Nixon called “slow violence”. Jewish creation narratives offer a vision of an integrated world, connected by sacred time and space beyond human instrumentalization; its mystical tradition enables the cultivation of resilience and hope through contemplative interiority. These are but a few examples of the potential yields of such thinking, and modes of inquiry that formed an armature of our fellowship.

Concluding Thoughts

On January 29th, 2023, the first cohort of Eiynaich Yonim Fellows [completed] the eighteen months of deep spiritual and personal work which included learning together, moments of feeling and affect, and bringing these ideas into action. We dove into our Jewish tradition to find the routes toward the future, yet we firmly believe that similar assets for resilience, connection, and disruptive innovation can be found in other religious traditions as well. When faced with radical and unprecedented changes in technological, social, economic, and environmental structures, we maintain that engaging with traditional texts, rituals, and religious modes of being in the world can enrich and critique a contemporary mindset that has neither the values nor the vocabulary to deal with the climate crisis. “The ecological crisis,” writes Mary Evelyn Tucker, “is also a crisis of culture and of the human spirit. It is a moment of reconceptualizing the role of the human in nature.” The aim of our fellowship is to foster such renewal through constructive engagement with our religious and spiritual traditions.

Naama Sadan is a Ph.D. student at the Hebrew University, learning local environmental policy networks,  a practitioner, translator and teacher of the "Yemima method" a Jewish feminine spiritual approach to well-being and a permaculture designer. Since 2021, she is the lead teacher at the Eiynaich Yonim fellowship for spiritual climate leadership. She lives with her husband in Berkeley, CA.

Ariel Evan Mayse is an assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Stanford University. He holds a Ph.D. in Jewish Studies from Harvard University and rabbinic ordination from Beit Midrash Har’el in Israel. His work has explored conceptions of language in Jewish mysticism and the interface of spirituality and ritual in Jewish religious life, and his current research engages with the resources of Jewish law, thought and theology for constructing contemporary environmental ethics.

Tania Schweig, M.Ed. is the Head of School at Oakland Hebrew Day School with over twenty years experience in Jewish educational leadership, curriculum and program development. She is the mother of Yonim z’l, in whose memory this project has been created. Tania is the founding director of the Einayich Yonim Fellowship.