The Making of an Interfaith Environmental Activist

“The making of an interfaith environmental activist”
Rabbi Rain Zohav
Earth Day, 2018 for IFFP

I have been asked to share more personal stories in my reflections as a way for you all to get to know me better. So here is a part of my story. It began when I was a baby. My parents always said, “Just put Aviva (that was my given name) in a patch of sunlight and she is happy”. That is still true today. And, there are pictures of me in my bathtub where I look as content as a little Buddha.

When I was 7 we moved to Northern California. We went to visit Fisherman’s wharf and as soon as I got out of the car I declared with total joy, “I smell OCEAN!”, even though it had been three years since we had spent time at Cape Cod.

Also, in Northern Calif. I loved walking home through the eucalyptus trees, smelling their pungent aroma with delight. (I was a dreamy kid). We lived in a tiny house but could see the sunset over the ocean – a sight I still love. Next, we moved to the last housing development before hills in San Pablo, Calif. There I loved wandering the hills, looking for rocks. I drove my mother crazy by leaving them in the sink to soak. They just looked so much prettier when they were clean and scrubbed with an old toothbrush. I still save old toothbrushes to this day, even though I no longer collect rocks. Maybe I should give them to Julia.

When I was ten, we moved to Southern California, a mile away from the beach. I loved waling along the shore. In fact that was my Yom Kippur observance one year. During these years one teacher at my Reform Jewish Sunday school taught us about both Spinoza and the Ba’al Shem Tov, who believed that God was most readily to be found it nature. This resonated so much with me.

But when the wind changed direction and the smog blew in our direction I had much difficulty breathing. I vividly remember gasping for breath on the way home from school and opening the freezer door hoping to breath in some clean air. For a child with a history of asthma this could be terrifying. At that time, Calif. had to sue the Federal government to impose stricter car emissions standards to deal with the smog. This was eventually successful. But now those emission standards might be lowered and the state of Calif. might have to sue the Federal government again.

In high school, I attended the first Earth Day. I learned about recycling, which was a radical new notion in 1970. I became an advocate for recycling centers. We had not yet thought of curbside recycling.
After graduation, I spent the next decade primarily in Israel on a kibbutz- a collective farm. I learned landscape gardening and all the names of the trees and buses we grew. I love learning the names of plants- it is like making a new friend, “Hello there, Maple tree”. But I also learned that herbicides containing arsenic made me break out in welts. And now restrictions on arsenic are also being removed.

In the 80’s I returned to the U.S. I learned East coast trees and flowers, learned how to find edible wild greens and how to grow vegetables organically. I worked on the farm crew at Twin Oaks community, driving a tractor and reading about soil conservation and nitrogen fixing crops.

By the 90’s my main environmental involvement was doing childcare of my youngest child so my then husband could be an intense environmental activist.

Rabbinic school in the new century took almost all my time, but I did organize a Freedom Seder for the Earth for Rabbi Arthur Waskow and manage to study Torah outside - the rabbis of the Talmud’s definition of heaven.

I became a rabbi just in time to answer the call for clergy to come to Standing Rock. This was a transformative experience for me in how to hold sacred space while also advocating for change. So, it should come as no surprise that your sun, water, rock, tree loving rabbi spent part of Friday praying for change at the EPA. If you are interested in seeing the video let me know.