Rabbi Ellen Bernstein

Writer, Speaker, Teacher, Consultant

Founder, Shomrei Adamah, Keepers of the Earth - First National Jewish Environmental Organization


About Ellen

I found my way back to Judaism in my early 20's when I was on a spiritual quest. As a student in the environmental studies program at U.C. Berkeley, I was disturbed about the rampant environmental destruction I saw everywhere around me, and began seeking a spiritual and ethical understanding of the roots of the environmental crisis. After exploring other religious paths, I recognized I had been avoiding my own (having had uninspired Jewish experiences in my youth.) Judaism, I thought, like all enduring spiritual traditions, must have the wisdom I was looking for; I just had never encountered it. Fortunately for me, living in Berkeley--a rich and lively Jewish community--I met many like-minded seekers and began studying with Reuven Goldfarb of the Aquarian Minyan, who helped me make ecological sense of the Bible.

This was the beginning of a long journey that led me to found Shomrei Adamah, Keepers of the Earth, the first national Jewish environmental organization in 1988.

Shomrei Adamah

Shomrei Adamah's mission was to explore and illuminate the ecological roots of Jewish tradition and make them accessible to wide audiences. Shomrei Adamah viewed the ecological and agricultural dimensions of Jewish life as a long forgotten aspect of Jewish culture. Shomrei Adamah developed a range of educational materials including several books: Let the Earth Teach You Torah, Ecology & the Jewish Spirit and The Splendor of Creation (as well as other materials available on this site in the Shomrei Adamah Archives).

Shomrei Adamah spawned 10 local chapters and was supported by 3000 members; it produced a quarterly news journal, provided speakers for events, ran educational wilderness trips, captured the imagination of many Jewish scholars, rabbis, leaders, and teens and their families, partnered with all the denominational movements, received major grants from foundations including Nathan Cummings, Covenant and Meyerhoff (in addition to major environmental foundations including Rockefeller and Beldon), represented the Jewish community at numerous conferences on religion and environment, and attracted the attention of The New York Times, Newsweek, National Public Radio, Utne Reader, Sierra Club Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and numerous Jewish publications.

Particularly memorable were its large, joyful public Tu B'Sh'vat--Jewish New Year of the Trees--seder extravaganzas engaging some of the great local artists and musicians in Philadelphia, N.Y. and Boston (aired on National Public Radio) and its All Species Parade that kicked off Philadelphia's Earth Day 1990 festivities, attracting 30,000 people.

Shomrei Adamah's work permeated the Jewish community and touched the hearts and minds of thousands of Jews. With extremely limited resources, Shomrei Adamah was able to move mountains.

Shomrei Adamah closed in 1996, but its message continues to reverberate through its books and educational materials.

After Shomrei Adamah

After leaving Shomrei Adamah in 1996, I rounded out my career by working at the Jewish Federation of Philadelphia as Director of Community Building. This work gave me a deeper sense of the inner workings of the Jewish community and greater insight into the issues of Jewish identity. I developed several flagship Jewish identity and spirituality programs including Friday Night Alive and a Jewish Arts Salon. My work touched both unaffiliated Jews as well as those more engaged with the tradition.

In the last few years, faced with an environmental crisis that could pose the most awesome challenge that humanity has ever known, I have returned to the Jewish ecological work I inaugurated 30 years ago, refreshed and revitalized, and with a greater understanding of Jewish identity, Jewish continuity and Jewish theology, and a firmer grasp on the ecological dimensions of Judaism.

I believe deeply in the power of religion (and Judaism in particular) to help us lead richer, more meaningful lives, and the power of religious communities to help make the world a better place. Today I am working to deliver the Bible's deep ecological message through writing, teaching, speaking and consulting. I am grateful for the opportunity to pursue such compelling work at this unique moment in history.