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Redwood Rabbis


Abstract

An informal group of Jewish leaders known as the “Redwood Rabbis” have taken a stand against deforestation in the ancient redwood groves of California. Since 1995, the Rabbis have advocated for the protection of California’s old growth forests through letter writing campaigns, public protests, civil disobedience, religious ceremonies, and inter-religious collaboration. Drawing on Jewish tradition to oppose corporate clear-cutting in California’s redwood forests, the Redwood Rabbis emphasize the biblical imperative to be shomrim adamah, guardians of the Earth, and promote the celebration of traditional holidays that call attention to the sacred duty to care for God’s creation such as Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees. The Redwood Rabbis were instrumental in convincing Maxxam Corporation and its subsidiary, Pacific Lumber, to create a 7,470 acre reserve and implement logging restrictions in the largest stand of unprotected old-growth redwoods in the world, the Headwaters Forest of Northern California. The Redwood Rabbis are currently trying to build a broad coalition of activists to oppose commercial clear-cutting throughout the state.

Religion

Judaism

Geographic Location

United States of America
(California)

Duration of Project

1995–Present

History

In 1995, Jewish environmental activists began to appeal to the Jewish tradition in defense of the Headwaters Forest in Humboldt County, California, which had been acquired by Maxxam Corporation in the mid-1980s in a hostile takeover of the once-independent Pacific Lumber Company. After the takeover, the rate of logging in the old-growth forest doubled. Seeking to appeal to the religious faith of Maxxam’s CEO and major stock-holder, Charles Hurwitz, the activists wrote him a letter just before the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, invoking Jewish values and urging him to change his logging policies. A year later, in 1996, three local rabbis joined the effort by issuing an open letter to Hurwitz in the local Jewish weekly newspaper of his home city of Houston, Texas. Again, this letter appealed to Jewish tradition in calling Hurwitz to make a teshuvah shelaymah (“genuine change of direction”) and encouraging him to perform a great mitzvah by protecting the Headwaters Forest. The letter, along with other public statements and actions in defense of the redwoods, including peaceful civil disobedience on Maxxam’s land, earned the rabbis the name, “Redwood Rabbis.” In 1997, they led a contingent of 250 people, including 100 Jewish worshippers, to celebrate Tu B’Shevat, the New Year of the Trees, by planting redwood seedlings along a stream bank in an ancient redwood grove on property owned by Maxxam. Rabbi Lester Scharnberg spoke out on behalf of the redwoods at the Maxxam stockholders meeting in 1998, challenging the Board to consider the moral and religious implications of its logging policies. A letter signed by thirty-eight rabbis was also delivered to Hurwitz at the meeting, along with pro-environment proxies from concerned shareholders. Pressure from within the Jewish community in Houston and elsewhere was mounting: in 1998, the national Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) called for environmental protection in the Headwaters and other ancient redwood forests. The following year, Maxxam’s Pacific Lumber conceded to sell enough forest acreage to create a 7,470-acre redwoods reserve and agreed to adopt restrictions on logging and forest management requirements for other parts of its property. More recently, the Redwood Rabbis have targeted California Governor Gray Davis to advocate for the protection of ancient redwood forests across the state through letter-writing campaigns and other grassroots initiatives.

Mission Statement

"The Redwood Rabbis seek to carry out the Judaic imperative, laid out in the Book of Genesis, to guard the earth. Invoking the Jewish tradition in defense of ancient forests and other threatened ecosystems, the Redwood Rabbis are part of a larger effort to create an environmental constituency within the Jewish community and to build bridges between diverse religious and secular communities to advocate more effectively for ecological land management and environmental protection."

Partner Organizations

Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life

Long-Term Goals

None Listed

Bibliography

Seth Zuckerman, “Redwood Rabbis,” Sierra Magazine (November/December 1998): 62–63, 82–83.

Additional Research Resources

None Listed

Contact Information

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