Recently, Rabbi Shmuel Simenowitz, director of Project Ya’aleh V’Yavo, (PYVY) was invited by Robert Gough, Esq., secretary of the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy (COUP) and a director of NativeWind.org, a city/tribal partnership towards climate protection and energy independence to participate in the Tribal Lands Climate Conference jointly hosted by the Cocopah Nation and the National Wildlife Federation. The conference was held on the Cocopah reservation on the outskirts of Yuma, AZ. Rabbi Simenowitzs’ participation was made possible through a generous grant provided by the Simon Grinspoon Memorial Fund of the Jewish Endowment Foundation of Western Massachusetts.
“I heard him speak at the Vermont Law School as part of an interfaith panel on faith-based solutions to environmental issues.” said Gough “He just knocked me out with his energy and creativity. But what really amazed me was his ability to seamlessly weave disparate elements of his life – music, law, his tradition, farming, working with kids – into this brilliant tapestry. Also, as a fellow attorney, I respect his ability to transcend the “zero sum gain – I win-you lose” headspace and his relentless pursuit of “win-win” solutions to the thorniest problems.
In his opening remarks, Simenowitz pointed out that in his culture there were no coincidences. He noted that it was no coincidence that the conference was being held near Yuma which he explained meant “Judgment day” in his sacred tongue. Similarly, he noted that it was likewise no coincidence that a conference discussing global warming was held on December 5, the one day a year when the lunar calendar is overlooked in favor of the solar calendar and Jews in the diaspora begin saying the prayer for seasonal rains. He explained that his culture told the story of the man drilling a hole under his seat in a crowded boat. The other passengers asked him what he was doing. He replied “don’t worry – it’s just under my seat”. The crowd was quick to appreciate the implications.
Simenowitz said he was amazed at the similarity between the teachings of the Native American tribal elders and much of the Torah wisdom. “They appreciate the sacredness that permeates the natural world and the importance of our stewardship at this critical juncture.” He noted the two cultures shared a veneration of the wisdom of their respective elders and that both had been persecuted and had suffered immensely.
Most of the speakers began their presentations with greetings in their native languages. Rabbi Simenowitz greeted the crowd with a hearty “shalom” which was met with a rousing “shalom” from the 135 attendees.
At one of the breakaway sessions which Simenowitz led with Dr. Steven Smiley, a noted weather scientist and Vernon Masayesva, a Hopi tribal elder, it was suggested that the Native Americans employ a “new paradigm” in addressing climate change issues confronting them. Simenowitz shared the story about a rabbi in Krakow who had a recurring dream that there was a treasure buried underneath a bridge in Prague. Unable to rest, he traveled to Prague only to find the bridge guarded closely by a watchman. After spotting him several times, the watchman finally confronted him and demanded to know what he was up to. The rabbi told him of his dreams. The watchman laughed and told him that he too had had a recurring dream that there was a treasure buried beneath the stove in the house of a rabbi in Krakow. The rabbi returned home only to find the treasure in his own kitchen. Simenowitz went on to explain that we often seek “new paradigms” when in fact the answers are frequently right under our nose buried in our own rich cultures and traditions.
“Unfortunately, native Americans are getting hammered from both sides” said Simenowitz. “They are inextricably linked to the land. Once the salmon die off, so do the salmon people. Once the bear are gone, so are the bear people”. Moreover, they are fighting to survive internal challenges – from crippling poverty, from disease, from rampant alcoholism and a loss of tribal traditions which are not being transmitted to the next generation.” He found the parallels to Judaism’s fight for survival sobering, to say the least.
One of the more moving moments of the trip came when one of the tribal elders presented Simenowitz with a vial of what he called “living waters” from the pristine Navajo aquifer which his tribe safeguards. The aquifer is reputed to be one of the purest water sources in the world. The gift was especially meaningful to Simenowitz who has long been a vocal advocate of what he calls “halachic water conservation”. In 2005 he received a grant from the Simon Grinspoon Memorial Fund of the Jewish Endowment Foundation of Western Massachusetts to present a paper entitled “Water Conservation and Halacha – An Unorthodox Approach” at the COEJL Conference in Washington, D.C. Simenowitz explained that the sacred waters – which he noted were similarly designated in his culture as “mayim chayim – the living waters” safeguarded by the Native Americans, course through the veins of the earth and ascend through the maple trees as sap. Simenowitz duly presented him with a bottle of maple syrup that he had made.
Similarly, at the end of a slide presentation showing the work done by native American youngsters with groups such as Alaskan Youth for Environmental Action (AYEA), several who attended and spoke at the conference, one of the speakers said he’d like to leave the slide up for a while because he got such a kick seeing his young people engaged in preserving the environment and preserving native American culture. Simenowitz noted with a smile that no one had a monopoly on “nachas”.
There were some light moments at the conference as well. When asked on the registration form for his tribal affiliation, Simenowitz penciled in “10 lost tribes – not sure which one”. Similarly, following his presentation, Simenowitz was asked to pose for a photo with Colin Soto, Cocopah tribal elder. Goodnaturedly, Soto recalled when he used to ask for fifty cents to have his photo taken. Simenowitz replied that in these parts a rabbi should get at least a dollar!
Simenowitz noted that the trip broadened his horizons as to the pervasive nature of the climate change threat and how the maples he stewards in Vermont can serve as an antidote, each drinking up nearly 450 pounds per year of carbon dioxide! He is broadening the scope of his educational materials to reflect the maple’s critical role in carbon sequestration.
Gough and Simenowitz are already planning a series of straw bale building workshops involving native American youth and Jewish teens. “The Talmud teaches us an important lesson about tzedaka” said Simenowitz recently. “Aniyei ircha kodmim” – the people of your own village get priority. This is about helping those in our vast, yet intimately interconnected, global village.