As it enters its second decade, the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership looks to create a critical mass of ‘change agents.’

There’s a gathering buzz if you listen closely enough. People are talking about environmental and social change in a similar way across an array of professions. You can hear it in the Knesset from premier environmental legislator MK Dov Henin and freshman MK Nitzan Horowitz. You can hear it in the world of investment and in the world of Jewish philanthropy and politics. Even in that most hard core of industrial bastions, the Dead Sea Works, talk of environmental practices has begun to percolate.

The concept of “sustainability” has begun to whisper through the corridors of power, money and influence. Its voice is faint but growing.

The environmental movement here is relatively young. Although the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) has been in operation since 1953, the second and third oldest environmental NGOs were formed only in 1990. Since then, the movement has blossomed and there are now 100 organizations who are members of Life and Environment, the umbrella organization of environmental organizations. Apart and sometimes together, they work to improve the quality of life of every citizen and ensure a future for generations to come.

But how do they get started? How do they formulate their message to effect change? How does one go from a well-meaning ideologue to a practical activist?

One organization has been working behind the scenes for the past 10 years to give environmental activists the intellectual framework and the tools to bring about a tipping point. It rarely gets headlines. It doesn’t show up to Knesset hearings or hold protests outside polluting factories or power plants. But if you look closely at the resumés of many of the leaders of environmental organizations, or those in government service who deal with the environment and others active in the field, you will likely find one thing in common – at some point they have been through a program at the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership.

THE CENTER is not single-handedly responsible for educating the local environmental movement in Israel – SPNI has a very strong educational component – but there are a disproportionate number of significant players who are alumni of its flagship program, the Environmental Fellows Program.

Having just opened its 12th class, the Fellows Program brings 16 activists from all walks of life and all sectors of society together once a week for a year to discuss and contemplate sustainability in all its myriad dimensions. Each student or “change agent” embarks on a personal project. Nearly 200 fellows have graduated, eager and willing to make change.

In its current incarnation, the Heschel Center has just entered its second decade. It is the brainchild of two olim from the US: Eilon Schwartz, who serves as executive director, and Jeremy Benstein, a deputy director and director of the Environmental Fellows Program.

Schwartz traces his environmental awareness to growing up in the suburbs.

“I grew up in Levittown, the first mass-produced suburb post-World War II. It was a Jewish home, Zionist oriented. At the age of 12 or 13, I can remember trying to design a mass transit system because I couldn’t get anywhere without my mother driving me,” Schwartz recalled during an interview in his office in Tel Aviv. “Heschel has been trying to reframe the question: What do we mean by environment? The big thing for me is to realize that environmental change and social change are totally interconnected – I grew up in Young Judaea,” the youth movement which he and other American-born activists credit with instilling in them the initial desire to change the world. Benstein is also an alumnus.

Somewhat surprisingly, Schwartz immediately recalled summers at a bungalow in the Catskill Mountains.

“We spent our summers in the Catskills – at the bungalow. It was an idyllic and environmental nirvana. My family was there, I studied for my bar mitzva with my zayde learning Yiddish.

There was a free library, casino, baseball league, bingo and a local culture created every summer. It played a deep role in my sense of things,” he said.

One of the Heschel Center’s main foci is creating community.

Schwartz spent 10 years at Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava after making aliya during what he calls his “romantic” environmental period, in which he experienced nature on a “visceral” level. He moved to Tel Aviv “just in time to get the Scuds of the First Gulf War.”

Always deeply rooted in Jewish education, Schwartz “won a prize to set up Keren Kolot [on Ketura] to do innovative Jewish education work. We would use the outdoors and environmental issues as texts. My environmental education ideas were formulated during that period.”

More than anything else, both Schwartz and Benstein have conceived of the Heschel Center as an educational hub. While there’s an undeniable activism component, both are lifelong educators.

THE HESCHEL CENTER emerged out of Schwartz’s time as a Jerusalem Fellow. When setting up the Heschel Center for Nature Studies in 1994, he wooed Benstein away from Kibbutz Ketura to help him.

It took some time to figure out what the goal of the center was going to be, according to Schwartz. They developed a Jewish-environmental curriculum and began to establish themselves.

“The first four or five years were R&D. We learned who we were,” Schwartz said.

The center was named for thinker and philosopher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. “His thoughts had influences both on me and on Jeremy,” Schwartz said. “It’s a horrible name – most people don’t know who he was, they think it was a donor.”

But there were “principled reasons – his whole philosophy of wonder or radical amazement. When human beings become overly anthropocentric, we lose something very fundamental about who we are as human beings. As social beings.”

In fact, Schwartz traces the philosophical underpinnings of the Heschel Center to Heschel’s philosophy.

“Environmental issues are not technocratic issues of how do we manage the world better but fundamental issues of who we are as human beings. The environmental crisis is not just a crisis of resources. Heschel understood that very very well. Judaism and Jewish life and the Jewish state are not just about Halacha but about being active in the world.”

Using Heschel’s teachings as a catalyst, Schwartz, Benstein and the Heschel Center developed a radical understanding of what environmentalism should entail.

“In 1997, we developed a theoretical model of environmentalism in Israel – the stages the leaders and thinkers of Israel have gone through in formulating environmentalism and what needs to be done now,” he said.

The first was the romantic stage – awed by nature and love for nature. The second stage was the anthropocentric phase – we are killing and poisoning ourselves with pollution.

“The third stage is sustainability. What needs to be done is to make a U-turn. Sustainability is about how we touch the world, how we touch each other and the future. We have to rethink society.”

For Schwartz, making a U-turn isn’t about returning to some pre-technology rural existence. It’s a deeper and subtler understanding of how to live a completely urban existence that resonates with the natural world.

“Thoreau said, ‘In wilderness is the preservation of the world.’ To paraphrase him, in cities is the salvation of the world – we need to build places that are good for the soul, good for the environment, and good places for people to live. We can’t afford for everyone to have a home and a little grass yard anymore.”

ONCE SCHWARTZ AND BENSTEIN had established the philosophy they came to the “next large question: How does change take place? How do you create a society that is both socially just and ecologically healthy?

“I believe education is an enormous vehicle for change, and talented people make change,” Schwartz said. “The idea was to develop people. Therefore, strategically, our first major project, and our flagship project was the Fellows Program. The idea was to create a group of people – with the breadth of the kinds of professions and breadth of society. You need Jews, Arabs, the secular, the religious.

“From there, you had the makings of a network of a shared vision of sustainability.”

There are about 100 very high-quality applicants per year for 16 spots on the Fellowship.

“The interview period in May is the most optimistic period of the year for me as an Israeli,” Schwartz said.

“You absolutely lose your cynicism [meeting the potential fellows]. You can’t afford to be cynical, with all these people from all these different places and different walks of life trying to make change.”

Like Schwartz, Benstein’s background is in Jewish education and anthropology. He began doing anthropological fieldwork on coexistence issues, but the second intifada brought much of that to a halt – except for environmental issues. So he focused on the environmental connections between Arabs and Jews.

“I am grounded in my story and I want to build bridges to others’ stories,” he said. Benstein has brought his background to bear in crafting a year that is a process for the fellows rather than indoctrination.

The core idea behind the fellows program is that it should be interdisciplinary, Benstein said, like the scholars and teachers, who come from varied backgrounds – none of them particularly environmental in nature.

“Admittedly, there’s a strong bias in the program toward intellectual activity and credentials. Some of our critics say we talk too much. We want to impart a well developed vision that takes into account the dilemmas and values. We want to frame that message and be acknowledged as the thinking brain providing the leadership training,” Benstein said.

“The job is to build an ensemble. To maintain gender balance, good Arab representation, a broad professional and geographic diversity.”

The goal is to build bridges between environmentalism and social action, he added.

But there’s a dilemma inherent in the program, Benstein also pointed out. “If you are trying to develop a rich and engaging discourse, to make it into a lively place, then you have to have openness. The fellows don’t come for the ‘catechism.’ They come to explore ideas. The price though is that it is not suitable for people looking to be told what to do. Sometimes open discourse can be paralytic,” he said.

The program is meant to “socialize the fellows into an identity as an environmental agent of change. To make it the way to see the world,” Benstein explained.

THE PROGRAM INTENTIONALLY adopts an approach of a “radical message via a moderate medium. We’re not seen as a radical activist organization by the government or the ministry or the local authorities. Therefore, we can work with a broad range of people. Four major industrialists from the Negev, Ramat Hovav and the Dead Sea Works have been fellows,” for instance, Benstein said.

The goal is neither to paint them as the enemy nor to show them the light, he added. The goal is to train and foster or nurture effective environmentalists, to give them the basic knowledge and the skills and tools.

The year itself is broken into thirds, he explained.

The first part is the building blocks of environmental literacy: sustainability, ecology, economics – a critique of the current system of unchecked growth, and crosscutting issues like transportation and food. The first part is also about group cohesion and interpersonal dynamics.

The second part is about strategic thinking and best practices. The third part is about each fellow’s specific work plan, the project he begins as a fellow and continues with afterward. The goal is to finish the program with an idea of what to do, Benstein said.

EINAT KREMER, a member of the 10th year of fellows, used her fellowship to launch Teva Ivri, an NGO which brings together Judaism and the environment.

“I was already environmentally aware but looking for a direction. It was a great place for advice and feedback. The fellows were constantly available for input.

It was a course of instruction in environmental ethics – economics, environment and society. It was a great experience and what I’ve done afterward came about because of the knowledge I gained there,” she said.

Menashe Zelicha, managing director of ClimaTrade – a company that assists in projects relating to the clean development mechanism and carbon credits – pointed to the diversity of the fellows as a key advantage of the program. He was a fellow five years ago.

“The interdisciplinary nature is very useful later on. If I want to brainstorm an idea, I can get together a group of people from all sorts of different fields,” he said.

At first glance, Dudu Zveida is not your typical fellow. He’s a vice president at the Dead Sea Works, one of the biggest chemical companies in the country and not known for its environmental awareness.

But Zveida had nothing but praise for the program.

“I came as a representative of industry after they approached the senior management of the chemical industry. I came to meet the ‘enemy’ – to listen a bit and learn more. I really enjoyed it. We learned a lot of new things. Until then, I usually only saw the industry’s side of the issues. Here you acquire concepts from a wider world. You start to think about radical ideas and future generations,” he said.

Zveida was the first industry representative to take part in the Fellows Program and he’s attempted to put the new ideas he was exposed to into effect at his company. Other industry representatives have followed in his footsteps. “Public participation, a green economy leads to better results, anything we can do will help our environment and community,” he said.

While not an easy sell at the Dead Sea Works, Zveida was upbeat about gradual change taking place. “It’s a step-by-step process, but it’s begun,” he said.

The list of fellows range from the high profile to the little known, Schwartz said.

“There are two MKs, the head of public health at the Health Ministry, journalists, people on local municipalities, in the civil service and deputy directors-general. Some are high profile, some are off the radar screen doing important things,” he said.

Some have noted that most of the fellows were already committed environmentalists before entering the program. Schwartz has no problem with that.

“Convincing the convinced – those are the people we want to work with. They are the early adopters, those closest to sustainability. For them, we can enrich their understanding, deepen their connections,” he said.

For Schwartz, change takes place because of people, not policies.

It’s about bringing passionate, sophisticated and smart people from all over Israeli society to try and build a leadership, according to him. “Let’s absolutely preach to the choir – teach them how to do what they do better, to sing together,” he argued.

Putting modesty aside for the moment, Schwartz mused about the impact of the Heschel Fellows.

“The Heschel hand is in everything. The Heschel family. It’s really astounding the impact this group of people is making, some of them going back to old jobs, some starting new initiatives. But they all see themselves as part of a community and it empowers them. The connection to others is very important – feeling that connection can make change.

“Strategic thinking is about how change takes place. I think we’ve been pretty good at how change happens and keeping an eye on the ball. This is a field that is open for change to take place, where we could make systemic change. If we were to succeed, there would be a ripple effect.

“There’s a whole list of ideas that were either born or imported at Heschel. The ecological footprint, the precautionary principle and environmental justice,” to name just a few, Schwartz said.

The ecological footprint is a measure of how much of Earth’s resources an individual uses in his or her daily routine. The precautionary principle urges caution before adopting new ideas, and environmental justice focuses on the relation between geographic location and socioeconomic status. For instance, power plants being built next to poor neighborhoods rather than next to affluent suburbs.