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Community Blog Remembering Rabbi Ellen Bernstein z”l

By Marilyn Stern
Ellen Bernstein event title card

It was an honor to take part in the holy task of bringing the teachings of Rabbi Ellen Bernstein z”l, a matriarch of the Jewish environmental movement, to more than 75 of her beloved friends, family members, colleagues, students, and teachers, during a Zoom gathering on April 28 (coinciding with Passover).

The Miller Center, along with B’nai Or of Boston–my home spiritual community–had planned to co-host a conversation with Ellen at Hebrew College in early April to discuss her recently published book Toward a Holy Ecology: Reading the Song of Songs in the Age of Climate Crisis (Monkfish Book Publishing 2024). But this was not to be; on February 27, one week after the publication of Toward a Holy Ecology, we lost Ellen.

The organizers pivoted and redesigned the event as a tribute to Ellen’s legacy – bringing together people from different chapters of her spiritual and ecological journey, including Hebrew College (where she received her Master’s degree in Jewish Education); ALEPH (Jewish Renewal); the Academy for Jewish Religion (AJR); and the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology.

We were honored to have Rabbi Natan Margalit of ALEPH and Dr. Mary Evelyn Tucker of Yale join Rabbi Or Rose of the Miller Center in a discussion of Ellen’s work and legacy, and the role of the Song in contemporary religious and ecological life. Ariel Hendelman, spiritual leader of B’nai Or Boston, Rabbi Kaya Stern-Kaufman, a classmate of Ellen’s at AJR, and Rabbi Shefa Gold, a senior figure in Jewish Renewal, offered beautiful words of tribute and musical kavannot (intentions).

In her brief remembrance, Rabbi Stern-Kaufman (spiritual leader of Temple Israel of Portsmouth, NH) said the following about her beloved friend and colleague: “Ellen was a great lover of beauty . . . [who] understood that an appreciation of beauty is a necessary element in bringing balance to Jewish life and beyond.”

Over the past two decades, Ellen pursued this goal steadfastly through her writing, teaching, and community organizing, illuminating the significance of land and ecology in Jewish sacred texts and praxis. Among her favorite sources was the Song of Songs, with its exuberant, nature-inspired, love poetry.

In describing her attraction to this ancient biblical source, Ellen spoke at length about the poet’s lush descriptions of the earth and the evocative descriptions of the lovers as part of this vital pastoral landscape.

“The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree ripens its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance.” Chapter 2: 12-13

“Oh, how beautiful! Your eyes behind your veil are doves. Your hair is like a flock of goats descending from Mount Gilead.Your teeth are like a flock of sheep just shorn, coming up from the washing.” Chapter 4:1-2

Across centuries of interpretation about the lovers in the Song of Songs–frequently interpreted by classical Jewish sages as the Jewish people and the Divine–Ellen offered us another possibility: we can read the Song as a dramatic statement about the love between humankind and the earth. As she wrote in Toward a Holy Ecology, “The first step toward ecological repair is to love and identify with the natural world.”

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