One of the neat things about Judaism is that, while we have special holidays reminding us to pay more attention to certain traditions, beliefs and mitzvot, those same ideas serve as an undercurrent to our lives all year long.
Tu B’Shevat may remind us of our obligation to help better the world one tree at a time, but that same sense of caring for nature and our fellow man is a never-ending story.
Case in point: Lisa Arkin, chair of Temple Beth Israel’s K’vod Hateva Committee (Honoring the Earth), is also executive director of an environmental health nonprofit called Beyond Toxics.
When I asked Arkin what Beyond Toxics represents, she answered, “It’s a statewide grassroots group that’s professional and collaborative, yet unafraid to be tenacious and edgy. We’re dedicated to making sure environmental protections and social justice ethics are merged in every project we take up.”
OK, but why the recent name change from Oregon Toxics Alliance?
“Many reasons, but one was that a few people imagined our previous name was a PRO-Toxics Alliance,” Arkin replied. “So in November, we announced the name change in coordination with a new website, an expanded staff, new board members and a broadening of our outreach and programs. The name ‘Beyond Toxics’ fits our vision of a world where every child can develop to their full potential, uncontaminated by chemicals that can rob them of a healthy future. And we promise to deliver on that vision!”
When I asked if Arkin’s Jewish beliefs influenced any of this, she responded, “Well sure. Even the name Beyond Toxics is similar to the aspirations expressed in the phrase tikkun olam. Our organization seeks to repair the world to the point where we no longer worry about being surrounded by toxic chemicals. There should come a day – and soon – when a pregnant woman working as a cashier doesn’t have to wear gloves to protect her developing baby from hormone disruptors in cash register receipts she handles daily!”
Seriously? Who knew?
“That’s exactly the point,” Arkin continued. “People in ‘green’ Oregon just assume the environment is safe, but when we look deeper, it’s a very different story. As a result, we’re fighting now so that children rolling on the grass in public parks aren’t exposed to toxic pesticides or lawn care products associated with neurotoxicity. We’re struggling to convince truck drivers to turn off their motors when idling so nearby neighbors aren’t breathing sooty diesel exhaust. And that’s just scratching the surface.”
A big order, but Beyond Toxics just got a boost from the federal government’s Environmental Protection Agency in the form of a $25,000 Environmental Justice Grant, one of only four Pacific Northwest groups to be so recognized.
Native Bostonian Joseph A. Lieberman is a globe-trotting photojournalist and author of eight books, including his most recent, School Shootings: What Every Parent and Educator Needs to Know to Protect Our Children (Citadel Press 2008). Now a resident of Eugene, he is coauthoring a book with Rabbi David Zaslow on the Jewish roots of Christianity.