[pullquote align=right] In North Dakota, this Elul means protection. Indigenous peoples have come together from all over the U.S. to stop the Dakota Access oil pipeline.
[/pullquote]Elul: a month of abundance, a name that comes from the Akkadian word for “harvest.” For those in the Jewish environmental world, Elul means that we are in the field, amongst the high crops going to seed, the plants and the farmers putting out our last tat-a-tat firework finale of food and energy as the air changes from summer to fall. Elul is the stunning color of tomatoes, swirls of red and yellow and orange and purple. Elul is talking to G!d, who is with us in the fields this month (according to one popular Hasidic teaching), sharing our years and our hopes and our regrets. Elul is hearing the shofar (ram’s horn) each morning, the deep cry that wakes us to our connection with the whole earth, the simultaneous pain and beauty of that connection.
In North Dakota, this Elul means protection. Indigenous peoples have come together from all over the U.S. to stop the Dakota Access oil pipeline, which would drill through the Missouri River and four states. They are setting up camps to stay as long as they need. They are stopping everything to fight for water, land, and their cultural heritage. And they are doing it through prayer, through their version of land-based tradition that necessarily calls for the protection of the land and water. Tradition that makes it obvious – how could we exist without connection to the land? How could our spirituality exist? As of Labor Day weekend, Dakota Access has already bulldozed ancient burial and prayer grounds, and would plow through many more. At risk, then, is both the substance of life – clean water, habitable earth – and the substance of the soul – connection to ancestors. But of course, what difference is there between the two?
[pullquote align=left] As of Labor Day weekend, Dakota Access has already bulldozed ancient burial and prayer grounds.
[/pullquote]I work at a Jewish summer camp in New York state where practicing our land-based tradition is seamless. The holidays are seasonal and we spend our days working outside in those seasons, so the call and response between the natural world and our tradition is easy, ongoing, satisfying. And yet, the land we so deeply connect to is not our own. The people who lived here pre-colonization belonged to the Nochpeem band of the Wappinger Indian Confederacy. There are estimated numbers – 4,700 people, spread out in community along the Hudson River, down to 300 by 1774. The numbers can’t speak of the loss, or the heartbreaking strength it took for those who survived. The numbers can’t tell us what the land would look like if those communities were still here thriving and cultivating and praying.
What does it mean to be a diasporic, diverse people who have collectively escaped our own genocide, pogroms, the etc. etc. of Jewish trauma, to rediscover our heritage and identity on land that was taken by genocide? How do we acknowledge the bone-deep satisfaction of living those traditions in such natural beauty, when we sit on such heartbreak? With this in mind, can our environmentalism stop at teaching our children how to eat organic, how to farm, how to love each other, and how to practice our traditions?
Standing Rock pipeline protest poster via Instagram user Megalyn
Via Instagram user Megalyn
To truly practice Jewish, land-based spirituality in the U.S., we need to fight for a bigger picture of environmentalism, and a bigger picture of what it means to be connected to this land. This week at my camp, we are harvesting herbs. Standing Rock Camp, where the self-named earth defenders and water protectors are coalescing, put out a call for supplies for their medicine tent. The medics there need enough herbs and supplies to treat the community of over a thousand people living at the camp, all of whom face violence from both private security and the from state. We are harvesting from the abundant fields, where G!d is – tulsi holy basil, mint, lemon balm, mullein leaf, nettle. They are herbs for balancing, soothing, sustaining, energizing. They are from the land, which is not ours. They are harvested in solidarity, and with hope that this fight can be won – that indigenous peoples in the U.S. can have the environmental justice they have always deserved, the spiritual justice, the economic justice, the right to live. The herbs, a small thing in terms of how many resources we could redistribute to the fight, are not an act of obligation, of commandment. Rather, they stem from an understanding that we cannot have land-based spirituality without land, an understanding that protecting the earth – shomrei adamah – is work we will do together. They also reflect that we are not on equal footing in this task.  Climate change and environmental destruction hits some of us – indigenous people, people of color, and working class and poor people – first and hardest, and it is those communities that are on the frontlines.
[pullquote align=left] At my Jewish camp, we cannot change the fact that the indigenous communities in New York state were devastated in the place we now call home.
[/pullquote]At my Jewish camp, we cannot change the fact that the indigenous communities in New York state were devastated in the place we now call home. But we can mourn for it, using our tradition, and we can fight for justice for those still here. We can stop it from happening again. We can deepen our connection with the earth by tracing its wounds – where else are people fighting for access to and protection of water? From Palestine to Flint, how can we align ourselves with these struggles? How do we follow the lead of the people in our community – Jews who also have indigenous heritage, working class and poor Jews, and Jews of Color – who already know how interconnected these issues are, because they do not have the option to disconnect Jewish liberation from racial, economic, environmental, and indigenous liberation?
[pullquote align=right] We must examine and expand our commitments within Jewish environmental communities.
[/pullquote]It is important to put our hearts and resources on the line now to help protect water, land, and spiritual heritage from Dakota Access and its corporate funders. It is also important that this action be only the beginning of an ongoing, dynamic conversation. We must examine and expand our commitments within Jewish environmental communities, and learn how to notice and act on those commitments in our day-to-day practices and education. When we teach about the sacred acts of compost and waste reduction, we can also learn about who is most often affected by landfills and incinerators. When we teach about Yom Kippur, we can talk about the relationship between forgiveness and reparations. We have the ability to empower ourselves and our young people, using the poetry of our Jewish heritage.
I am imagining an Elul with a new kind of abundance – the abundance of knowing that the land, bursting around me, will last into the future. That I am connected to it and my Jewish heritage. That everyone can sustain themselves. That everyone can drink and eat and feast. That we all have the ability to feel the calendars our ancestors made guide us through the seasons, taking us home.