Remembering the birthmother of contemporary Jewish environmentalism

Honoring Rabbi Ellen Bernstein

The Jewish-environmental movement has lost one of its earliest founders — Ellen Bernstein, the visionary author, rabbi, cultural worker and organizer, transitioned from this world earlier this week, on 18 Adar I, at age 70. She was surrounded by friends, her husband Steven J. Tenenbaum, and her beloved dog Ro’i.

Ellen inspired and provided rich frameworks for approaching the environmental crisis as a spiritual crisis. At Adamah we believe in the deep connection between people and planet, adam & adamah – to Ellen, adam & adamah were never separate to begin with. Ellen devoted herself to changing how we live on and with the earth, asking us to reclaim our place in the web of life.

“In the end,” she wrote, “we will save only what we love.”

And so, she helped us see and love the beauty of the world in myriad ways.

Ellen’s interest in this work was kindled in an environmental studies class in high school in Massachusetts, and later she studied in one of the first environmental studies programs in the country at the University of California, Berkeley. She also earned a teaching credential in life sciences and master’s degrees in biology and Jewish education. She worked as a river guide and taught high school biology as well.

In 1988, Ellen founded the first national Jewish Environmental organization, Shomrei Adamah (Keepers of the Earth), writing curriculum, organizing large public-performance events, teaching, publishing scholarly books and articles, and presenting at conferences around the world. The author of several books — all groundbreaking — Ellen received rabbinic ordination at the Academy for Jewish Religion in 2012. She was a movement leader in the interfaith environmental world as well as the Jewish community.

She was magnificent when she addressed the United Nations General Assembly this past fall, speaking about the role women can play in responding to the climate crisis.

Her work with Shomrei Adamah and her books — most prominently Splendor of Creation, Let the Earth Teach You Torah and her recent Passover haggadah, The Promise of the Land — inspired a new Jewish paradigm, to understand that environmentalism is not merely a fringe aspect of Judaism, but rather a core anchor of contemporary Jewish values.

Just a week before Ellen’s passing, shortly after a dire diagnosis, Ellen published her latest masterpiece— “Toward a Holy Ecology: Reading the Song of Songs in the Age of Climate Crisis.” The biblical love song, she writes, “could be understood as a mediation on our relationship with nature, animated by love.” When the Song of Songs is read in synagogues around the world this Passover, Ellen’s earth-focused translation will breathe new life into the ancient, sensual text.

“On a soul level, we know that a good life means living in harmony with the natural world — our life support system,” she recently told an interviewer.

Please join us on Earth Day to remember, honor and celebrate Ellen on a zoom organized by Wilderness Torah and Adamah. 1pm EST on April 22:


Jakir Manela, Chief Executive Officer, Adamah, and the Adamah Family