God's Call, Our Silence: The Sustainable Synagogues Initiative

by Rabbi Lawrence Troster and Rev. Fletcher Harper

The Bible is full of stories in which God calls people to lead.

calls Abraham to leave home and go to a new homeland. God calls Moses out of the burning bush to lead Israel to freedom. God calls Samuel, the first in a line of prophets, to reform corrupt establishments – politically, economically, Jewishly.

Despite the human tendency to question or resist this call that is evident in these narratives, God persists and eventually leaders respond.

A growing number of religious leaders today, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, believe that God is calling us to address environmental concerns. Seeing the broad scientific consensus on many environmental threats, and grasping their implications for human well-being, these leaders are speaking out.

Recognizing this, the Conservative movement has launched a movement-wide response.

The Sustainable Synagogues Initiative brings together Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, FJMC, and the Rabbinical Assembly. It is coordinated by Green- Faith, a leading interfaith environmental group. It’s the first denomination-wide effort of its kind and it has important potential as a model for the wider Jewish and religious communities.

Despite the significance of these issues, addressing them isn’t always an easy sell. When people hear the word environment, often they cringe. The word calls to mind intractable political disagreements or forecasts of ecological calamities. Understandably, many people despair, become irritated, or look away.

But as clergy from two different traditions, and as leaders of this initiative, we share a different point of view. Many people have had powerful spiritual experiences outdoors, which connect them to God and to their tradition in revitalizing ways. When these experiences get proper recognition, divine revelation through the earth can become a cornerstone of spiritual identity and a new source of religious commitment, not a source of disagreement or despair.

Respected appropriately, these experiences are part of the foundation of our religious and moral lives. They are a source of life and meaning, not an afterthought. This commitment often has its roots in childhood, even though children may lack the words to describe their experiences until later in life. “When I was nine, my parents sent me to a camp in Ontario’s Algonquin Park,” Rabbi Troster says. “This park and its beauty gave me a sense of wonder, a glimpse of the transcendent. I’ve been a rabbi since 1982, and those early experiences have served as a foundation for my Jewish identity.”

Children of all backgrounds share these experiences of wonder, the “radical amazement” that Abraham Joshua Heschel described as the source of adult spirituality. Cultivating these experiences represents a new priority for synagogues, a new application of the ancient work that the Jewish Spirituality Institute describes as “nurturing the human capacity to develop one’s understanding of God.”

But even though adults regularly have spiritual experiences outdoors, many never speak about them, never affirm their power. As Richard Louv noted in his best-selling book Last Child in the Woods, “some religious institutions resist or distrust the suggestion that nature and spirit are related.”

“I’ve spoken with hundreds of groups at synagogues and churches,” Rev. Harper says. “It’s rare that an adult cannot recall an outdoor spiritual experience, and equally rare that they’ve discussed it in their house of worship.”

Why this conspiracy of silence? In an era when so many of our congregations struggle to attract new members, why avoid the most enlivening spiritual experiences that many people have? Might these experiences represent the modern-day version of God’s call to lead? And might our collective unwillingness to respond represent the resistance that’s such a regular part of biblical stories?

The Sustainable Synagogues Initiative is designed to break this code of silence, to bring the environment into the heart of synagogue life in a uniquely Jewish way.

A series of resources – available to download free at – provides Conservative synagogues and households with a range of tools to understand their own experiences of God and nature, to learn related Jewish teachings, and to change their relationship with the earth, both individually and collectively. Synagogues that take action in a number of areas will earn recognition and publicity as Energy Conservation Leaders.

The first resource – focused on energy conservation – is available now. Representatives of more than 100 North American synagogues already have downloaded it.

Responding to God’s call to respect the earth presents us with the chance to revitalize our spiritual lives and traditions while reducing human and ecological suffering. It’s rare to find such a combination.

We shouldn’t ignore the opportunity.

Reverend Fletcher Harper, an Episcopal priest, is executive director of GreenFaith, a leading interfaith environmental organization. Rabbi Lawrence Troster, a JTS graduate, is GreenFaith’s rabbinic scholar in residence,. He has published many articles on the link between Judaism and ecology. For more information see

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