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Jewish Farmers July 24, 2014

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Ecozoic, Eden Village Camp, environmentalism, Jewish spirituality, meditation, Rabbi Jeff Roth, Vegetarianism/veganism.
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A recent article in the New York Times “New Gleanings from a Jewish Farm” spotlights some of my favoriate organizations in the Jewish social justice, environmentalism and spirituality movement. Pluralistic and conscious of differences of all sorts, it gives hope to me as a Jew during this difficult time. In particular I am proud to say that I’ve volunteered for three years at Eden Village Camp (mentioned in the article) DSC02384

(Teaching Science at Eden Village, July 2011, photo by Meg Stewart)

and taken my Vassar students to Kibbutz Ketura on our March 2014 study trip. Note that althought Kibbutz Ketura is up to some interesting work, we also visited Kibbutz Lotan where there is some very interesting work going on in earth building and permaculture. DSC08498

(Making bricks at Kibbutz Lotan)

I’ve also visited the Israel School of Herbal Medicine and spoken to rabbinical students on retreat at the Isabella Freedman retreat center. But i’d also like to add that the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, though not connected explicitly with Jewish agriculature and sustainability has been a thought leader in encouraging pluralism and spirituality among Jews. It’s an organization not to be missed. And I’ll also add the fact that I hope that in the future, students will come to Vassar as students to learn about Jewish environmentalism through our Jewish Studies and Earth Science programs with field work opportunities on the Vassar farm it’s CSA, the Poughkeepsie Farm Project, as well as nearby Eden Village Camp! Finally, a salute to Rabbi Jeff Roth who has been ahead of the curve on all of this. Check out his Awakened Heart Project!

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Connected Across a Billion Years August 4, 2011

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Eden Village Camp, environmentalism, geology, Hudson Valley, Jewish spirituality, metamorphism, science.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.

For the past month my family and I lived at Eden Village Camp in Putnam Valley, New York. Rooted in the Jewish vision of creating a more environmentally sustainable, socially just, and spiritually connected world, the campers at Eden Village were empowered to promote a vibrant future for themselves, their communities and the planet. While my partner and I worked as science “specialists”—focusing especially on earth science—and our children participated as campers, we lived a collaborative effort to create an earth-based, safe, and kind community.

As a result, I came to think of Eden Village as a Jewish version of the Buddhist sangha.

My job at the camp was to connect campers scientifically with the ground we walked. In fact, this was a remarkable opportunity not only scientifically, but spiritually because the bedrock of Eden Village camp is ancient, perhaps as much as one billion years old (Proterozoic age). Named by previous geologists the Reservoir gneiss, most of the rock unit consists of interlocked grains of globular quartz and feldspar separated into bands by phyllodough-like layers of thin grains of mica (dark colored mica is named biotite, light colored is muscovite).

 

I find in this geological fact a metaphor for the way in which individuals, whether they are inorganic mineral grains or organic living beings, coexist.

The reservoir gneiss is a polymetamorphic rock; that means it has been changed from one solid form into another more than once in its history. These rocks have “lived” a long time and tell multiple tales most especially about chemical and physical responses to dramatic changes in their immediate environment. But they can be read metaphorically as well.

Plates of mica have formed layers in the gneiss by aligning themselves so as to present their maximum surface area to the directional forces encountered during mountain building events. (In the image below—a photograph taken of a thin slice of gneiss—the white, black and gray grains are feldspar and quartz whereas the blue, strand-like grains are micas viewed edge-on, as if looking at the sheets of paper in a closed book).

At Eden Village, during the early formation of the Appalachian Mountains, the micas shared the intense pressure of deformation by rotating as a cohesive group so that the plates of mica were stacked and strong.

What’s more, by looking closely at these rocks we can read other lessons. Rocks, like people, can break or bend in response to intense pressure. Metamorphic petrologists, geologists who study metamorphic rocks, talk of brittle and ductile deformation of rocks; abrupt change, as in shifts of the earth’s crust, causes rocks to rupture, whereas time for adjustment to substantial change results in flexible bending seen as folds—as in the image below—in seemingly hard material.

At Eden Village camp we strove to bring innovative earth-based teaching to a community that would be Jewishly connected and inspired to endure the massive environmental changes occurring on Earth. Neither Buddha nor Torah, the Earth also teaches lessons that can guide us as we aspire to a sustainable path in community with others.

Oxygen in My Bones May 22, 2011

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Buddhist practice, earth system science, hydrosphere, Jewish spirituality, meditation, mindfulness practice, science, Sylvia Boorstein.
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This piece is cross-posted on Shambhala SunSpace.

In his book A Path With Heart Jack Kornfield asserted that great spiritual traditions “are used as means to ripen us, to bring us face to face with our life, and to help us to see in a new way by developing a stillness of mind and a strength of heart.” Having just returned from a seven-day mindfulness retreat with the two dozen or so other contemplatives in my Institute for Jewish Spirituality-sponsored Jewish Mindfulness Teacher Training cohort, Kornfield’s statement resonates for me. Seeing in a new way requires that I continue to cultivate what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement,”—a heart-strengthening feeling of awe and connection.

Amidst the daily activities familiar to all mindfulness practitioners—walk-sit-walk-sit-walk-sit-eat-walk-sit-walk-sit…— retreatants led three prayer services: sharacharit, mincha, maariv and an afternoon teaching. The services were atypical in that they involved only a brief introduction to each prayer, group chanting, and then silence. In the course of the week, each individual offered a teaching on an assigned subject. My assignment, scheduled for Shabbat afternoon, was instructions for breathing.

Now I have to admit, having received the assignment, initially I hoped it would simply go away! I wondered what I, a geoscientist, could offer this experienced group of spiritual practitioners by way of breath instructions. We had already been sitting for days together concentrating on the breath. Donald Rothberg’s humorous quip at a previous retreat kept coming up: breathing through the mouth is like trying to eat spaghetti through the nose! Fortunately, I found a possible answer in a teaching by Rabbi Jeff Roth during an evening dharma talk.

Jeff instructed each of us to “teach our own Torah”—in other words, our own truth—so I resolved to teach mine: the Torah of the Earth System.

At first I was intimidated because for “the people of the book” the Torah itself is the quintessential text, the most worthy object of scrutiny. But since my Torah is the Earth, I feared being perceived as a bit dim. “Dull as a rock” resounded in my head. Fortunately I was able to acknowledge the hindrance of doubt and pressed onward. Using Sylvia Boorstein’s metta phrases in order to soothe myself —may I feel safe, may I feel content, may I feel strong, may I live with ease—I offered to the group my teaching, breath instructions for cultivating radical amazement, breath instructions that emphasize our connections to the Earth as a living system.

We geoscientists think of the Earth as a system of four interacting spheres, approximately from the inside outward: geosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, and atmosphere. Humans and other mammals are obviously connected to the atmosphere through our inhalation of oxygen and exhalation of carbon dioxide. Our respiration also connects us to trees because they essentially inhale carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen. And human bodies as a whole contain up to 60 % water. So as embodied beings we are intimately interconnected with atmosphere, biosphere, and hydropshere. What may be less obvious is that we are linked closely with the geosphere. Our teeth and bones, parts of living beings that readily fossilize, are composed of hydroxyapatite, a carbonate mineral made of the elements calcium, phosphorus, oxygen, and hydrogen. The very air we breathe and the water we drink has been incorporated into our skeletal framework and gets preserved in the fossil record!

I find it remarkable that isotope geochemists can analyze the ratio of heavy and light oxygen isotopes (O-18 and O-16) in the bones and teeth of fossilized organisms and identify the environments in which they lived. Since teeth and bone form in a relatively narrow window of time, the oxygen isotope composition inherited from drinking water taken into the body of a living being gets locked into the hydroxyapatite. Using the distinctive oxygen isotopic signatures of water in different environments, some investigators have been able to determine the habitats and migration patterns of extinct organisms. What is the oxygen isotopic signature of my bones? What is the past history of the oxygen that in part forms the skeleton that makes up the body that I inhabit?

So with my cohort we sat: breathing in may I feel connected to the atmosphere; breathing out may I feel connected to the hydrosphere; breathing in may I feel connected to the geosphere; breathing out may I feel connected to all beings of the biosphere. Stilling our minds with this breathing practice, together we undertook the project of cultivating radical amazement.