For Orthodox Israeli teens, battling climate change can be a lonely fight


This article was produced as part of JTA’s Teen Journalism Fellowship, a program that works with Jewish teens around the world to report on issues that affect their lives.

(JTA) — Abigail Lerer, a Modern Orthodox vegan teen from Ra’anana, Israel, is working on changing throwaway culture in her family. ‘’It makes me feel frustrated, there is just no need,’’ Lerer says about using single-use dishes at meals. To win over reluctant family members who worried about the inconvenience, she took on responsibility for washing the dishes and taking out the recycling. 

Eventually, after years of slideshows and lectures, Lerer’s family came to understand her point of view. They don’t have single-use utensils in their home anymore and her mother even brings reusable containers to stores when she buys nuts and grains. 

Now, Lerer just wants the rest of the county to catch up. There are few environmentalists in the haredi or “ultra-Orthodox” community, where religious leaders do not put a high priority on protecting the environment and where large families often rely on single-use plastic cutlery for the sake of convenience. 

A study by Kantar Ministry of Environmental Protection found that 73% of the general population use single-use plastic regularly compared to 96% of the haredi population who do so. This year, Israel’s new finance minister rolled back high taxes on disposables after haredi Orthodox leaders complained that they unfairly targeted their lifestyle. Community activists argued that they compensate for the big environmental impact of single-use plastic by flying and driving far less than the general population.  

Even among Modern or Religious Zionist Orthodox communities, who tend to be less insular and have fewer children than the haredim, environmental action still lags. 

Lerer, who subscribes to a vegan, minimal-waste lifestyle, says the solution lies in leadership. If religious figures endorsed eco-conscious living as a Jewish obligation, then this would galvanize the necessary action, she said. 

“You need to make it halachic and then people will care,” she says, meaning legal according to religious law. But, she is skeptical that this will occur due to the highly complex nature of the Jewish legal system. 

Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin, who founded the Biblical Museum of Natural History in Israel, explores how traditional Judaism relates to science. He said the haredi Orthodox community doesn’t have the same level of concern for environmentalism because of insularity. ‘’They lack thinking about any issues that extend beyond their community,” he said. Because they are poorer than many other sectors of the population, economic considerations always come first, Slifkin said.

Bar Kaima was founded in early 2020 and aims to connect young Israelis to environmental causes. (Courtesy of Esther Hamou)

Nevertheless, environmental groups in religious circles do exist. Esther Hamou, 18, who dresses exclusively in second-hand clothes, volunteers in a religious environmental organization, Bar Kayma. The group uses arguments in the Torah such as tikkun olam — fixing the world — and baal tashchit — the prohibition against wanton destruction — to combat skeptics and to persuade religious Jews to be more sustainable. 

This past January, Hamou organized an environmentally themed event for Tu Bishvat, the Jewish new year for trees. As part of her anti-plastic activism, Hamou requested that all attendees bring their own cup for refreshments. Despite her efforts in linking eco-friendly living to Judaism, Hamou finds that ‘’people just don’t want to hear it.’’  

Penina Schorr is attempting to change this. The 14-year-old lives in a Modern Orthodox community in Jerusalem and tries to encourage her peers to avoid using throwaway plastic. They ‘’sometimes’’ listen. Schorr has been raised in a plastic-conscious home; they only use throwaway plastic in exceptional circumstances such as the day before Pesach, when strict rules require only kosher-for-Passover utensils for the holiday. However, her family’s attitude is not widespread, and most people in her community are far less vigilant.  

She said that in Orthodox religious schools like hers there is a sense of ambivalence towards environmental issues. Her geography teacher, she said, justifies inaction, claiming that God would never destroy the world and that the claims of climate activists and scientists can’t be legitimate. 

Practicality is also an obstacle. According to Ariel Shay, a volunteer at Plastic Free Israel, one of the main reasons Israelis with large families use single-use plastic is a fast cleanup after a meal. 

Hadas Shlomi, 17, an activist from the north of Israel, feels alienated in her secular school because of her commitment to the environment: Peers mocked and teachers misunderstood her climate anxiety. Her parents are not on her wavelength either. She attributes the indifference of the older generation to the fact that they won’t be alive when the climate crisis peaks. 

Shlomi appreciates the dedication of teens who are trying to convince their Orthodox friends and families to use fewer single-use plastics. As a leader of  Strike for Future Israel, she knows the teens’ hearts are in the right place but sees the focus on individual actions as ineffective. Instead Shlomi lobbies the government to ban oil and gas drilling and pass a bill that sets a target of reducing emissions by 50% by 2030.  

While these endeavors have not been successful yet, compounded by the transition to a new, more right-wing government in 2022 that is even more accommodating to haredi voters, Shlomi has the attention of some elected officials. In January 2022, the government required 30 hours of climate change education to the school year.

The changes apply to Israel’s secular and Religious Zionist school tracks. The government has sway in far fewer haredi Orthodox schools.