Remembering Ellen Bernstein, 70, the 'birthmother' of Jewish environmentalism


(JTA) — On Tuesday, Feb. 27, I was jolted awake at 3:30 a.m., wrestling with unwelcome consciousness until I eventually exhausted or bored myself back to sleep.

Three hours later, I awoke to the news that my friend Ellen Bernstein — author, rabbi and the “birthmother of contemporary Jewish environmentalism” — had died in the middle of the night. I would claim that word of her passing, at the too-young age of 70, was shocking but for the fact that the previous day I visited her in the peaceful, homey Philadelphia hospital room where she was receiving hospice care, surrounded by friends, her husband Steven J. Tenenbaum and loyal dog, Ro’i.

For Ellen, who liked to luxuriate in time, the end came quickly: two weeks after a dire diagnosis, one week after the publication of what is sure to be her masterwork — “Toward a Holy Ecology: Reading the Song of Songs in the Age of Climate Crisis.” The biblical love song, she writes, “could be understood as a mediation on our relationship with nature, animated by love.”

When the Song of Songs is read in synagogues around the world this Passover, Ellen’s earth-focused translation will breathe new life into the ancient, deeply sensual text.

I met Ellen Bernstein 35 years ago at a hippie-dippie Jewish summer retreat in rural Pennsylvania. She was sitting cross-legged on the dry, straw-like grass and I plunked myself down next to her. Her hair was the exact color of the grass she sat on. Ellen had just founded Shomrei Adamah (Keepers of the Earth), the first Jewish national environmental organization. Listening to her detail her environmental ethic and theology, she made me realize — with all the power of received revelation — that I had always understood my role as a guardian of the planet.

She had grown up in Massachusetts, taking an environmental studies class in high school and attending one of the first environmental studies programs in the country at the University of California, Berkeley. Over the years, she received a teaching credential in life sciences from San Francisco State University, a master’s degree in biology from Southern Oregon State University and a master’s in Jewish education from Hebrew College.

Along the way she worked as a river guide in Northern California and taught high school biology.

The author of several books — all groundbreaking — Ellen received rabbinic ordination at the Academy for Jewish Religion in 2012.

She was super-smart, something often difficult to discern in shy people. I’ve been with her at large settings where she was tormented by the torrents of talk and the high volume of voices. I’ve also seen her sidestep her way through crowds to the podium and deliver eloquent, poetic, visionary words. I last heard her speak at the United Nations General Assembly this past fall and she was magnificent — speaking about the role women can play in responding to the climate crisis.

Ellen was entirely authentic; she lived the mission of the organization she founded. Yes, there was her make-up-free, untrendy natural appearance, but it was her organic, unadorned soul which was most luminous.

Because of Ellen, I started composting (for a while with worms), adapted Dr. Seuss’s environmental story, “The Lorax,” for the stage one summer at Camp Yavneh in New Hampshire (incorporating passages from Genesis and Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and adding a dance where the Truffula Trees swayed to the newly composed melody of “Etz Chaim Hi” — She is a Tree of Life) and took note of my carbon footprint for the very first time.

Ellen influenced my view of pregnancy and childbirth. I chose midwives instead of an obstetrician, craving a more body-centered, holistic approach. I took a course in herbal medicine, embraced acupuncture and read the holy texts of my tradition through the lens of our relationship with the land. For a long while I was a vegan, compelled by my compassion for animals more than health, awakened to the environmental toll taken by the meat industry.

So profound was Ellen’s teaching — decades before she was ordained as a rabbi — that my Yiddishkeit became focused on the centrality of the mitzvah of earth guardianship, as detailed in the first chapter of Genesis. When I chose to observe the feminine ritual of mikveh (which was very intermittently), I opted for immersion in a lake or, once, the Atlantic Ocean.

Post-Ellen, I walked with the awareness that “The heavens belong to God but the land was given to humankind” (Psalm 115).

Eventually I was honored to count Ellen not just as a friend and mentor, but as a collaborator. In the nineties, I wrote a chapter for one of her books: “Ecology and the Jewish Spirit: Where Nature and the Sacred Meet.” We worked together four years ago on her Haggadah, “The Promise of the Land,” which launched just as the first season of the pandemic caused a global lockdown. Ellen had ambitious Earth Seders set up in several communities and when I warned that everything was about to be shut down and we needed a contingency plan, she laughed that I was negative and pessimistic.

Ellen was fond of stating how absolutely, crashingly boring many environmental organizations are and how insufferable activists could be and that making environmentally clueless people feel stupid will hardly awaken them to earth awareness and their jobs as guardian of the planet.

She believed in a different, a more gentle, loving and collaborative way. “On a soul level, we know that a good life means living in harmony with the natural world — our life support system,” she recently told an interviewer.

Ellen changed my life, and that of so many others, by rooting us in our authentic skins and teaching us to feel the earth move under our feet. She peeled away the artifice of contemporary society and popular culture and gave us permission to see and inhabit the true essence of life — the seasons, flowers, birds, animals, mountains, rivers, the sun rising and setting, rainbows, the smell of rain, fields, deserts, the scent and sweep of great winds, the majesty of the ocean, deep lush forests, fragrances and sounds, the great swirling hullabaloo, orchestrated by God, given to humankind to protect.

Her far-flung circle of friends found one another over the past two weeks, with her rabbinic colleagues weaving a canopy of prayer around her and her husband, fulfilling the mitzvah of chesed shel emet, the truest form of lovingkindness that can be given — to the dead, who cannot repay us.

Thursday was Ellen’s funeral, with a green burial, according to her wishes. I recall something important that occurred to me when I visited her this past Sunday in hospice care. Facing the window, straw-colored hair swept back off her face, Ellen intermittently opened her sky-blue eyes when I spoke to her.

Then I knew. Her work on earth was done; her life complete. Ellen Bernstein fulfilled her preordained task and now God was beckoning sweetly, in the words of the lover from the Song of Songs: “Come, my beloved.”

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JTA or its parent company, 70 Faces Media.


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