Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Vision Driven Institutions: The Heschel Center

I'd like to believe this will be a regular feature for New Jewish Education, but let's be honest: Once I start working full-time again in July, the frequency with which ANYTHING will be updated on this blog is an open question. So let me start this entry but putting out, once again, an open call to readers to join me on the writing staff.

In any case, let me tell you a little about one of my favorite Israeli organizations. The Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership promotes a vision of a sustainable society in Israel through leadership training, educational initiatives, and dissemination of information and resources.

The institution was founded in the 1990s and has undergone several key transformations during its lifespan. Impacted by developments in the environmental movement internationally, the growth of other environmental organizations in Israel, changes in its funding sources, and increasing clarity about its vision, the Heschel Center has shifted its focus from the development of curricular materials primarily for use with tourists to training and supporting “effective environmentalists” working in education, government, and industry in Israel.

The vision of the Heschel Center is based largely upon a critique of two mainstream paradigms of environmentalism in Israel. In the first, the Zionist ideology of a “return to the land” led to a model of appreciation of nature. However, this model largely benefits the upper and middle classes who can demand the preservation of natural spaces for primarily recreational purposes. A second paradigm examines the impact of human activity upon the environment, focusing largely on issues of public health (such as pollution) and prosperity (such as conservation of resources). The utilitarian approach of this model tends to benefit those with the political clout to demand governmental regulations protecting their interests.

The Heschel Center attempts to chart a “third model” for Israeli environmentalism, in which the question of how humans interact with the natural world reflects a values-driven vision of what it means to be human. This approach of “spiritual sustainability” demands that issues of economic development, social justice, and quality of life be an intrinsic part of the environmental agenda. Interestingly, in expounding this vision the staff of the Heschel Center discovered that the use of “Jewish” language and metaphors, which had infused their earlier work, was not well received by their Israeli audience. Secular Israelis ("chilonim") didn’t want to hear a “Jewish” message, and religiously observant didn’t want to hear it from them.

An Israeli awareness of the need for a values-driven environmental approach integrating economic development with spirituality can arise from the experience of parenting. Parents can become disenfranchised with the mainstream consumer culture as they come to the realization that it can conflict with their attempts to raise conscientious, healthy children (for example, in massive amount of advertising promoting junk food). Israelis may also develop an environmental consciousness while visiting other countries in which recycling, bicycling, and sustainable use are more commonplace than in Israel.

The approach of the Heschel Center attempts to pay particular attention to those who are normally disenfranchised by the rhetoric of environmental activism – which tends to mean Israeli and Palestinian Arabs and the urban poor. Inequality in access to and distribution of resources and the negative effects of environmental degradation tend to hit these groups the hardest. Further, the location of national parks and the desire for the preservation of natural spaces can come in conflict with the need for increased living space. The “third model” of the Heschel Center insists that issues of economic development be based upon both a social and an environmental accountability.

For more information: Eilon Schwartz, “Changing Paradigms in Israeli Environmental Education,” which used to be available on the Heschel Center website but seems to currently be unavailable as they update the site.

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