Ten Minutes With the Father of Jewish Environmentalism
Rabbi Everett Gendler
Christina Rahr Lane
Rabbi Everett Gendler is brimming with passion. His perspective and humility beg slowing down and listening carefully. He counts Martin Luther King Jr. and the Dalai Lama among his friends, and he has been at the helm of temples stretching from Castro’s Cuba to Lowell, Mass. Four decades ago, Gendler and his wife called a real estate agent from a campground pay-phone; the next 19 summers were spent on their 170 acres with long views of Monument Valley, sleeping in a tent trailer and bathing in a stream. “Life doesn’t get easier, but it gets richer,” muses Gendler, who turns 90 on August 8th.
Considering the depth of your world travels, what drew you to the Berkshires?
It was very simple. One summer, both of our daughters were enrolled at Camp Eisner. For parents weekend, we got a tent site at October Mountain State Forest, put up our canvas tent and from there went to visit the girls. At the end of the weekend, it was beastly hot and humid and our little house in Andover didn’t have air conditioning, so Mary said, “Why don’t we spend some time here for a few additional days?” So we did. And that’s when the land found us and took possession of us.
What are your favorite things to do? Mostly, we spend our time right here. I have a fairly sizable vegetable garden, though it’s shrinking as I shrink. In the summer, I am hopelessly addicted to Tanglewood. I love most of the offerings at Ozawa Hall and many, many at the Shed. And then some of the events at Jacob’s Pillow, and the theater. So that’s really full-time plus. And then I have a writing project right now that I’m working on, fitfully with difficulty, but may it soon come to conclusion.
Which individuals have most influenced your life’s journey?
Individuals make a big difference. And several appealed to me when I was an impressionable adolescent. The two that really shaped my outlook and my life were the prophet, Amos, and Henry David Thoreau. Amos is very interesting; he is a superb rhetorician. I like his style, I like the way he gets people’s attention. He does it by denouncing all the misdeeds of surrounding peoples. He’s an arborist—an expert tree trimmer—and he makes very clear that he doesn’t say these things for a living so he can’t be bought. I have always loved him. Thoreau represented the appreciation of the natural world, but if read carefully as an adolescent he essentially affirms dreams. He says, “Sure, there are ideals that you can realize, but don’t abandon your dreams, simply put foundations under them.” Those have been two of my companions. In real life, we were lucky enough to meet a couple that—in their own distinctive way—embodied many of the same ideals. Back in the 1950s Helen and Scott Nearing [Living the Good Life] were very much the exemplars of the back-to-the-land movement. They figured very much on our life.
Where do you get the strength to tackle today’s challenges?
Physically, I’m grateful to the Creator. I’ve also been blessed by a really intuitive genius, my personal trainer, who has special vision and can respond to what he almost preternaturally perceives as what I need. This work has affected my physicality and my inner awareness of my body and my functioning and some of the marvels of the human body that the Psalms speak about. Plus, we were guided to involvement with the Tibetan exile community in India and its dedication to the feeling that it’s really important that the potential of strategic nonviolent struggle be more widely recognized—and who better articulates it than that charmer the Dalai Lama; his is high-flown, high-altitude inspiration. A commitment to helping food grow has also contributed, and I suspect the vegetarian diet—for now more than 55 years—has also contributed. As they say in some Christian traditions, ultimately, why am I here? Grace, not merit. It’s simply a gift.
What is your stance on the progress of civil rights in America?
There is so much still to accomplish. If you consider Lyndon Johnson’s unbelievable shepherding, bludgeoning the Civil Rights Act through Congress—that is profound testimony to the genuine nonviolence that Martin Luther King Jr. summoned and released in all parts of the society, eloquent testimony to what it can accomplish. The real question is, “What resources were we shown for making progress during that period of King and company, and how do we reconnect with those resources and apply them?” In any of these projects we are Sisyphus. And the boulder is heavy. And it doesn’t get lighter as you climb the slope.
Given your dedication to the environment, what would you tell future generations?
One of my special interests has been the interrelation between religious outlook and religious practice and the realm of nature—both as environmental challenge but also as a source of religious illumination. I am immensely encouraged to see how increasingly I see this at worship. As people connect their inner personal lives with the preservation of these supportive and uplifting surroundings, they will be more inclined to take action to preserve them. Love is still the great motivating force, and to the extent that we become more appreciative of, more intimate with, our natural surroundings, we are readier to struggle for its preservation.