By Brett Richman, MHWOW Program Manager

Every year for the past 50+ years, people around the world come together to celebrate Earth Day. This years’ theme is Restore Our Earth, and one of the five focus areas is ‘Food and Environment’ through a campaign called Foodprints for the Future that explores the impact of making more environmentally conscious food choices. I wanted to explore the connection between Earth Day and the Jewish principle of Tikkun Olam (repair the world) in relation to food sustainability. I sat down for a chat with Jessica Herrmann, Moishe House’s Director of Jewish Service Learning, to hear how MHWOW hosts can reimagine their Jewish identity with service learning and honor Earth Day throughout the month of April with MHWOW programs! 

What is the relationship between service learning and Judaism?  

Service learning is a way to bring Judaism to life. And when I say service learning, I like to think primarily about a service learning cycle. Service learning is a bit of education, an act of direct service or volunteering, and then a moment of reflection.  One of my favorite quotes of all time is from Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, who says a theology is not a plan for social action, it is just a way of preaching and praying, it’s a menu without the meal. I like the last part of that quote the best because I love food. And so if I’m imagining going to my favorite restaurant and I look at the menu, I know what I’m going to order, I picture what it’s going to taste like and I feel excited. But if I learned I was just  looking at the menu and they’re not going to give me the meal, I’d be let down. This is how I look at Judaism, if you study it and you do the rituals, you’re reading the menu. The service learning component puts our Jewish values in practice and feels like eating the meal!

How does direct service impact a community? 

Maslow says you have a hierarchy of needs and that you need to have your basic needs met before you can do anything.  The direct service component is meeting the needs of the people in the community. Providing them with food, water, shelter, and education, before doing other things. I would add that service is a two-way street. Through direct service, you not only impact the community that you’re serving alongside, but the people who are doing the service, too. Direct service is impacting the community by building true partnerships and relationships between community members who normally wouldn’t be having a conversation, wouldn’t be learning each other’s stories, and wouldn’t be sharing a meal together.

Why should we care about food sustainability? 

Thinking about it in a Jewish context, I’m thinking of L’dor V’dor (from generation to generation).  The generation before us wanted to preserve the planet so that we could have everything, and looking to the next generation we need to make sure we are leaving some sort of planet and environment behind for them. I would say in general about food sustainability, that we have so much food waste, particularly in North America, and that we also don’t have equitable access to food. Thinking about how we could reduce our food waste so we don’t deplete our resources before the next generation is here is critical, but so is increasing equitable access to food for folks who don’t have that right now and likely won’t for years to come if we don’t help. 

How can MHWOW hosts incorporate food sustainability into their programming through the lens of Tikkun Olam? 

I talked about the service learning cycle before. There are different elements to it, right? Some of it might be that direct service. If you are going out and volunteering with your community garden, or just learning the stories of who’s at that community, who it serves. Or if you’re focusing more on the educational piece of gathering together and learning about what issues facing your community around food.  Or combining them both. Something like a compost workshop, or learning how to cook with your food scraps. If you want to do it in the simplest way possible, I would say, how do you use your purchasing power? What food are you buying for this program and can you get them through restaurants or markets that practice sustainability?

Earth Day is a great opportunity to do direct service in your community through a local food pantry, urban garden, or another avenue.  Are you hosting a Tikkun Olam Earth Day program this month? Let us know about it and be sure to tag us on Facebook and Instagram @moishehouse.