Bringing the environment to Israel’s ultra-Orthodox

While environmental activism has largely bypassed Israel’s ultra-Orthodox sector, one rabbi is seeking to turn the tide. Rabbi Yehuda Gannot (center) meets his legal team to discuss environmental issues. While awareness of the importance of protecting and nurturing the environment …

While environmental activism has largely bypassed Israel’s ultra-Orthodox sector, one rabbi is seeking to turn the tide.

Rabbi Yehuda Gannot with team
Rabbi Yehuda Gannot (center) meets his legal team to discuss environmental issues.

While awareness of the importance of protecting and nurturing the environment is on the rise in Israel, recognition of the significance of this issue has largely bypassed the insular ultra-Orthodox (or haredi) communities, says Rabbi Yehuda Gannot, whose organization, Haredim L’Sviva (Haredim for the Environment), aims to educate and raise consciousness about environmental issues in this sector of the population.

The situation is ironic, because this sector may stand to benefit the most from cleaner, quieter conditions. With most haredi Jews living in cramped urban centers, increased awareness – leading to demands for change – could lead to significant improvements in their quality of life, Gannot believes.

The key to improving the environment is to get ‘the people’ involved, and in Israel, there are a number of environmental organizations operating on the local and national level that have made impressive progress, inspiring others. At any given time, groups like Adam, Teva v’Din, or the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (IUED), may have dozens of active court cases and lawsuits against corporations, municipalities or government offices.

They tackle issues such as demanding that sewage systems be installed in remote villages, or that manufacturers of heavy metals stop operating close to schools (to name two recent court cases brought by the IUED). Thanks to the activities of groups like these, awareness has been steadily increasing about the need to preserve the environment.

Active for the past five years, Haredim L’Sviva boasts weekly programs in about 40 schools in the Tel Aviv area, through which it educates students about the importance of recycling, environmental safety, and the dangers of air and noise pollution. The group also runs programs for adults in haredi communities around the country, discussing local problems and general strategies for keeping their communities as environmentally safe and clean as possible.

Tailored to the ultra-Orthodox mindset

“The fact that we started just five years ago as a local, neighborhood group and have now become a national organization, with programs in schools and communities around the country, shows just how much of a need there is in the haredi community for help in dealing with environmental issues,” Gannot tells ISRAEL21c, adding that “All our programs, in schools and communities, are designed to fit in with the needs of the haredi community.”

Rabbi Yehuda Gannot
Rabbi Yehuda Gannot set up the organization after an accident left him temporarily housebound. With orders from his doctor to rest, he found himself unable to because of all the buses routed along his road.

“Separate programs are held for men and women, and… we send only male presenters into boys’ schools. In general, we consult with the rabbinical leaders of each school or community to ensure that we are raising the issues relevant to residents there, and that the activity we ask those attending the programs to get involved in are not a waste of time that could be better spent learning Torah, but are necessary to ensure the health of residents.”

Haredim L’Sviva also functions as an advocacy group, helping communities to deal with the environmental issues that affect them, such as preventing noise and air pollution from heavily congested roads, or forcing stores or offices who dump trash in crowded haredi neighborhoods to clean up their acts. Here, too, a special, community-appropriate approach is needed, because of the resistance of many of the ultra-Orthodox to pursuing legal issues in secular courts.

“In other communities, residents would take offenders to court, but because of their adherence to Jewish law, haredi Jews usually avoid secular courts, preferring to bring their disputes to a Jewish court of law – which is unlikely to be able to enforce its decisions in cases where we are trying to force a company or municipality to change their ways,” Gannot explains.

“We consult with rabbinical leaders here as well, in order to forge an acceptable plan to deal with the problem,” he adds. Plans could include appeals to local or national government, and, in cases where there is no other choice, bringing a lawsuit.

Coping with wedding gridlock

Then there are the environmental problems unique to the haredi community – like the many electric generators installed in apartment buildings in communities all over the country, to supply homes with power on the Sabbath. “Many haredim prefer not to use power generated by the Israel Electric Company [IEC] on Shabbat, because they do not wish to benefit from electricity that was generated in violation of the Sabbath,” Gannot relates. So, they set up generators to supply that power, going ‘off the grid’ once a week and using the power produced in the building’s basement.

However, many of these generators are extremely unsafe, jerry-rigged by non-professionals. There have been cases in which individuals, including children, have suffered electrocution from proximity to a bad installation. According to Gannot, “The IEC, for its own reasons, doesn’t bother to enforce the law when it comes to these generators, so as community advocates for the environment, we pressure municipalities to crack down and enforce the law and ensure that generators are up to code, and installed properly.”

Other community-specific issues the group deals with are congested roads, especially on Friday afternoons, holiday eves, and during special events. “When the child of a rebbe, the rabbinical head of a Chassidic group, gets married, for example, buses converge on Bnei Brak, just east of Tel Aviv, where most of the centers of the Chassidic community are located. The attendant traffic chokes off the whole city, creating gridlock, pollution, and excess noise. In response, we have lobbied the city to close some of the main streets to traffic on heavy congestion days, banning private cars from entering Bnei Brak on those days,” says Gannot.

So far, he hasn’t been successful with that particular campaign – and in fact, the Bnei Brak municipality is widening roadways and narrowing sidewalks in order to accommodate more traffic, which Gannot is convinced is “a horrible mistake.”

Gannot’s awareness of environmental issues was sparked when he was laid up at home following an accident, in 2005. “… I needed my rest. But rest on my street in Petah Tikva became impossible – because the city decided to reroute buses, making our street the terminus of 16 bus lines.” He counted as many as 600 buses a day that were shattering any semblance of peace and quiet and spewing forth all manner of noxious fumes.

A focus on recycling

After appealing in vain to local authorities and the bus companies, Gannot contacted an Israeli activist group called Avir Laneshima (Air to Breathe) that focuses on air pollution issues. The group found due cause for the municipality to come up with a different routing plan. “It was then that I realized how necessary this kind of advocacy was needed in the haredi community,” recounts Gannot, and Haredim L’Sviva was born.

Today, Haredim L’Sviva has dozens of volunteers, and is recognized as a tax-exempt community organization. Its budget comes from two main sources – government aid, and corporate sponsorship: “We get money from the Education Ministry, the Environment Ministry, and local governments, which have programs that provide money to groups like ours.” In addition, he says, several corporate sponsors have stepped forward, providing money or services the group can use in its educational efforts.

Although Gannot is proud of the work Haredim L’sviva has been doing, he says it has only scratched the surface of what can be done. “Public transportation, recycling, separation of trash – Israel is woefully behind many other countries in the world in these areas. Even third world countries like India are far ahead of us in recycling,” he laments.

Haredim L’sviva has been focusing on recycling, because it’s relatively easy to implement and accomplish, and has a huge environmental payoff. Plus, he says, it’s a concept perfectly suited to the community.

“Most haredim in Israel are not wealthy, and already pass on their used clothing, furniture, and other items to relatives or to the needy. Implementing recycling and trash separation would be a natural step,” he concludes.