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A Call to Action: UC Judaic Studies’ Lichter Lecture Series Inspires Founding of Shomrei Olam

The Lichter Lecture Series is one of the UC Department of Judaic Studies' most important outreach efforts, designed to broaden community discussion by connecting citizens with Jewish scholars and thought leaders.

Date: 3/28/2018 11:00:00 AM
By: Jonathan Goolsby
Phone: (513) 509-1114
Photos By: Shomrei Olam

UC ingot  
Throughout her adult life, Joanne Gerson has been connected, in one manner or another, to the University of Cincinnati.

Joanne Gerson has been an art history major and teacher and mother to two intelligent, curious children. She's served as a volunteer educational program developer for the Cincinnati Zoo and founded a citywide academic enrichment program for gifted children.

She's been a family biographer, a toy inventor and a member of the City of Montgomery's Planning Commission.  

And her attendance at several environmentally-themed Lichter Lectures, hosted by UC's Department of Judaic Studies, in part led her to become an increasingly well-known environmental activist, as a founding member and president of Shomrei Olam.

Inspiring stewardship through community outreach

The 36-year-old Lichter Lecture Series is one of the Department of Judaic Studies' most important outreach efforts, designed to broaden community discussion by connecting citizens with Jewish scholars and thought leaders. Its three annual lectures are free and open to the public.

Joanna Gershon at a Shomrei Olam meeting.
Joanna Gershon (right) at a Shomrei Olam meeting

Each year, the series focuses on a new topic, as that topic is seen through various lenses within Judaism and Jewish scholarship.

In 2015, the series' theme was Eco-Judaism: New Jewish Approaches to the Environment.

"Judaic Studies is inherently interdisciplinary," noted assistant professor Matthew Kraus,  who co-coordinated the series that year with Ari Finkelstein. It's also, he said, "trans-chronological," in that, "It is inevitably characterized by the interaction between modernity and antiquity."

"We find concepts of exploiting and protecting the earth already in the book of Genesis, and throughout the book of Deuteronomy we encounter a theology connecting ethics with nature," Kraus observed.

"If the Israelites follow the divine commandments, then the rains will come at the right time and the land will be fertile. If people behave badly, then natural disasters ensue," he said. "This idea is further developed in rabbinical literature, which explores how human action can positively affect the environment."

Indeed, the Lichter organizers found that the extensive bodies of literature, law and scholarship that have developed over Judaism's cultural and political history provided rich ground for cultivating environmental discussions.

"The relationship between Judaism and [modern] ecology began in earnest in the 1960s,” Kraus explained. “We wanted to examine what has happened since then and address more recent issues such as carbon-footprinting, renewable energy sources and climate change."

The first lecture that year, “Jewish Environmentalism: Faith, Scholarship, and Activism,” was given by Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, director of Jewish studies and professor of history at Arizona State University.

Julia Watts Belser, an assistant professor of theology at Georgetown University, spoke about "Fasting, Prayer and Protest: Rabbinic Responses to Drought and Environmental Crisis.”

Rounding out the 2015-16 Lichter Series, Jeremy Benstein, deputy director of the Heschel Center for Sustainability in Tel Aviv, spoke on “Sustaining Israel: Zionism, the Environment and Peace.”

Already heavily involved in her synagogue's environmental committee and in an anti-fracking lobby group, Gerson attended all three discussions.

"It was very inspiring," she recalled. "The speakers were awesome. They talked about how it's a Jewish value to protect the environment."

After each installment, Gerson stood and appealed to the assembled audience.

"I asked for people who were interested in doing something. I didn't call them 'volunteers.' I just said, 'Do you feel inspired?'" she remembered. "As individuals, we can't, but maybe as a group, we can."

And, each time, she took names. 24 of them in all.

"That's how Shomrei Olam started," Gerson beamed.

Inspired to build a movement

The Shomrei Olam logo sums up their purpose: Jewish Environmental Advocates of Cincinnati.
The Shomrei Olam logo emphasizes their purpose.

After she enlisted volunteers at the Lichter lectures, Gerson reached back out to Kraus for advice on what to do next. He helped to arrange a lunch meeting between Benstein and Gerson's group, at which they discussed both what they would try to achieve and how they could organize.

They soon realized that they needed more visibility to encourage engagement.

"The first few meetings were at my house," Gerson explained. "We thought we needed to broaden this and have meetings at temples. We started at Wise Temple. Now, we're at Temple Sholom."

At the moment, Shomrei Olam's purpose is two-fold.

First, it wants to ensure that all the Tristate's Jewish community facilities—including schools, temples, JCC buildings, summer camps, etc.—are housed in energy-efficient buildings and incorporating sustainable practices (waste reduction, water conservation, renewable energy, recycling, composting, etc.) in their daily operations.

Second, Gerson said, Shomrei Olam hopes to "green the curriculum" in Jewish schools and programs. The group wants to promote more discussion about ecology, conservation and environmental issues among youth.

The group recently met with Rabbi Jonathan Cohen, dean of Cincinnati's Hebrew Union College, and broached the subject of setting up a committee to develop an environmental studies program there.

To accomplish those rather large goals, though, Shomrei Olam found it needed to be able to raise money. So, it took the necessary steps to incorporate as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. The extra work paid off. In July of 2017, the IRS granted the group tax-exempt status.

"That took about a year: all the prep work, all the details, figuring out how we wanted to be structured," Gerson said.

For his part, Kraus demurs on the key role the Department of Judaic Studies played in helping Gerson to found Shomrei Olam.

"Our department acted more as a convener," Kraus remembered. "Whenever we put on a Lichter Lecture Series, in additional to our regular following—the UC community and local folk interested in Judaic Studies—we always make targeted contacts depending on the topic."

"I reached out to Joanne because I knew she was part of a group interested in ecology and its relationship to Judaism," he explained.

But there's no doubt that, in so doing, Kraus helped the series accomplish what it has always been intended to do: to connect Jewish thought leaders with people in the community—in this case, Joanne Gerson and Shomrei Olam's dedicated founders—and inspire them to mindfully act.

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