“Can you see why this place is my salvation?” I overheard this from a visitor while putting up signs for the New York Botanical Garden’s Kiku poetry walk, and it affected my beliefs about the role of environmental social justice.
Growing up, I knew that the earth – a precious resource that had become a dumping ground by society – needed to be saved in order to ensure our survival and that of the rest of the ecosphere. Like many environmentalists, I focused on global warming and recycling, crucial work that highlights the urgency to take action around our current environmental crisis. But being taught to love the environment is something that’s often lacking in the environmental movement. This is something that strikes me over and over again when I witness awestruck visitors at the NYBG. How we engage with nature is so connected to our dedication to the earth, and to our own personal well-being.
I never really thought of environmentalism as an example of social justice. I’ve always associated the term “social justice” with addressing social issues such as homelessness, poverty, and hunger. But social justice is more than just helping people – it’s also about solving problems caused by society. How those problems are addressed is up to interpretation.
Environmentalism in the Bible is also up to interpretation. From my understanding, in Genesis God commands Adam to be a steward of the land, and not have dominion over it like some critics point out. However, Adam didn’t have to deal with pollution, so when he took care of the land, he just took care of his own land. If Adam lived when people were polluting the land and rivers to their own detriment, how would he have acted? Does stewardship also mean protecting the land from people? I think so. And that, among other reasons, is why environmental action is a Jewish social justice.
I feel that my placement at the NYBG is interesting in the context of the Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship. My position as an exhibitions intern is not about addressing environmental injustices – instead I am teaching about the environment and nature through various special exhibits. Some of the events I have worked on are the Giant Pumpkin Weekend and the Holiday Train Show (an exhibit that opens this week and is going to be great – you should check it out!).
Earlier in my life, education did not seem like a real way to execute social justice, but as I have matured, I realize that if people don’t know about something, they aren’t going to care or act on it. But just providing facts isn’t the way to inspire change, which is why the NYBG and botanical gardens everywhere are such an asset to society. People come to the garden for all sorts of reasons: as a field trip, for bird watching, even to run the trails. I never realized how much of a place of salvation the garden can act for some people. The New York Botanical Garden is a place of environmental wonder, teaching its visitors to love nature. As Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement…get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”
One of my Columbia professors says that if everyone loved nature, the environment, and the planet, environmental legislation would pass more quickly. Not only would it be a completely obvious focus of voters, but it would be a primary focus of politicians too because of their own love for the environment. Participating in the Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship has helped me connect this sense of amazement to my environmental work, as well as to the Jewish commitment to tikkun olam. It has been inspiring learning from socially and environmentally progressive organizations such as Greyston Bakery and Rocking the Boat about their organizational models and how they foster social good in their individual communities. One day I hope to start an organization of my own, and having learned the importance of radical amazement in achieving social change from the NYBG, I will be sure to incorporate this into my work every day.