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Rabbi Steven Folberg

INTERVIEWEE: Rabbi Steven Folberg (SF)
DATE: November 7, 2018
LOCATION: Austin, Texas
TRANSCRIBER: Robin Johnson
MEDIA: HD video
REEL: 3457

[Numbers mark the time codes for the interview recording.]

DT: My name is David Todd. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. We’re working on something called the Texas Legacy Project and it is November 7, 2018. We’re in Austin, Texas. We’re in the sanctuary at the Congregation Beth Israel and we have the good fortune to be visiting with Rabbi Steven Folberg, who is the Chief Rabbi here. And I wanted to thank you for taking the time to talk about the many things that he’s done with everything from advocacy to hands on to education with regard to environmental protection. So we usually start these interviews with some discussion about your—your childhood, early days and whether there might have been teachers or family members or friends who might have influenced your interest in the outdoors or environment, conservation.

SF: Right, right, right. It’s an interesting question. I mean, I did not grow up in an outdoorsy kind of family at all. And I’ve told a lot of stories at the temple. My parents were—both gone now—but they were both second generation Russian Jewish immigrants. I wouldn’t say that I had a particularly outdoorsy kind of upbringing. You know, I think I probably had some awareness of the environment that came from growing up in the Northeast in a particular part of the country where we got sort of the most severe of every—most severe and unpleasant of every kind of weather you could imagine.
So we had—I have, you know, memories of snow days, school cancellations, you know, with the—waking up with a blanket of snow on the ground to, you know, muggy, hot, horrible, you know, summers, and everything in between. I have memories of driving to the Jersey Shore in the summertime, things like that but it wasn’t as if, you know, I spent a lot of time in forests and parks and things like that. I grew up in a—in a sort of lower middle class to middle, middle class neighborhood of classic Philadelphia row houses where there was lots of concrete, not a lot of green.
And—and, you know, so I don’t really know—it’s hard to exactly place where my interest in—in all of this environmental stewardship comes from, although you mentioned this earlier and I have a pretty clear memory of this. I talked about it in a sermon once. I remember—I have a strong memory of being a really small child and having seen an article in, again, I think it was the Philadelphia Bulletin newspaper, which no longer exists—and I remember that the article was called Dangerous Air.
And it was about sort of what would it be like if the air got so polluted that it was really hard to breathe and I must have been old enough to read it or glance at it or look at the pictures and it—and I was terrified and couldn’t sleep. And I remember my mother talking to me trying to sort of, you know, reassure me and calm me down that, you know, that all the terrible things there weren’t going to happen. So, oddly enough, that one kind of very frightening memory or memory of being very frightened is sort of the only specifically environmental thing that I can remember, you know, as a—as a kid. Yeah.

DT: Did I hear once that—that—that you have a sort of a soft spot for animals?

SF: I do.

DT: Is—is that something that might be a factor?

SF: Yeah, I think so. I think so. You know, upon reflection, whether—I mean, I’m a sucker for animals. We have way more pets at home than we know what to deal with. But yeah, I mean, I—well the—one of our classic family stories is I always wanted a dog—did I tell you this story—I always wanted a dog growing up and my mom—of blessed memory—never wanted me to have a dog and always told me that I was terribly allergic, which it later turns out, as an adult, I found that I’m not because I had te—allergy testing.
But I would say to her, I want a dog. And—and her response is, you know, my mother didn’t really appreciate this, was well, you got a brother, go pet him. You know, that was—that was her—that was her story. But yeah, I mean, I’ve always, like I said, sort of been a sucker for animals, liked animals. Remember having this little miniature turtle when I was a kid. You know, things like that. That was about as much of a pet as I was ever allowed to have. But, you know, you talk about animals.
You know, another kind of—one of these sort of sad but kind of pivotal memories that has stuck was during the war in Iraq, when the Iraqis, you know, were blowing up the oil fields and seeing these photos of these, you know, shore birds covered in—in crude oil and really having the sense that it was just so heartbreaking because they were completely unknowing, innocent victims of this kind of human conflict. Like the bird wasn’t bothering anybody. Why should they have to, you know, get sick and suffer like that.
So yeah, I think—I think a soft spot for—for other kinds of life is probably, you know, part of that too. Yeah.

DT: You know, you’re highly educated person from high school [inaudible] and onto to a rabbinical program. And I—I was curious if there was anybody as you, you know, became a more mature person, who might have, you know, sparked some sort of interest in this line of thinking and care?

SF: Not that I can think of really. No, I mean, I—when I was in college, I was a biology major for a couple years and then figured out that I didn’t want to go to medical school and then switched my [inaudible] psychology and graduated with a psych degree. You know, I remember liking college a lot and I remember, you know, the names and faces of some teachers that really influenced me a lot but nobody that particularly really raised these issues.
It’s—I wouldn’t say it’s a mystery to me where this particular fascination came from I think except a sort of kind of tendency to be sort of grandiose on what I worried about. And so, you know, if you’re going to really worry about something, like worry about like the survival of like the planet and the species, right, you know. I mean, I guess I’ve found it somewhat difficult over the years to kind of narrow my, you know, my focus of what needed to be dealt with to something that was smaller because I guess I had come to the realization a while ago that environmental stewardship was the issue that contains all the other issues.
You know, it’s—it’s—it’s—it’s the—it’s the—it’s literally the environment. It’s literally the stage upon which every other human issue exists. Right. If, you know, everything takes place within the biosphere. Everything takes place, you know, on—on the planet. And, you know, it doesn’t mean that all the other things that we wrestle with, poverty and racism and war and all these other horrible issues that we have to confront aren’t real, but the sort of gigantic issue that contains all of them is a planet and it’s—and it’s survival and—and, you know, and—and that, you know, if the environment degrades to a certain point, all those other problems get a lot worse anyway because of, you know, all the disaster scenarios that we’re familiar with.
So, you know, maybe that—maybe that. But I can’t really think of anybody who said Steve, you know, look at that tree, you know. Nothing really like that.

DT: Well maybe we can talk some about the sort of theological roots then in—in—in as much as the—the psychological ones or your, you know, your education and—and—and maybe you could tell us a little bit about when you became a rabbi and I guess you—you were first with the congregation in New York State and then you came down here to Texas. And is—was—how it might have influenced, you know, your teachings when you were dealing with your congregants.

SF: Right. I can remember giving a sermon even when I was back in the—in the New York suburbs on Long Island years ago—I can remember giving a sermon about the environment, one in particular. It was whatever summer it was and this would have been in the—in the mid to late—in the later 1980s because I came here in 1991—it was a summer when like all this environmental stuff was going down. There were like syringes and garbage was like washing up on a lot of beaches and things like that.
I don’t remember exactly when that was and people—it was during the summertime and people were talking about it as, you know, the summer that the earth kind of fought back and people couldn’t avoid thinking about all these things. And I remember giving a sermon about that. And I remember that one very distinguished, extremely educated, older gentleman in the congregation who was an attorney, came up to me afterwards and talked about it and he said something—something along the lines that, you know, those things were all really important.
The question is are—are we willing to make the kinds of changes that we would have to make to really have an impact and tend to these problems. And that was, you know, long before people were really, you know, you would hear people sometimes talk about the greenhouse effect but nobody was really talking about climate change or global warming and the—at that—at that point, at least not—not in my world. So there was that. You know, I do—once I got to Texas, I think—you know, I think some of what really pushed me to take these concerns and become more vocal about them were just really current events of the time.
I mean, you know, Katrina was—was devastating. It was just devastating. And the, you know, to see the climate scientists, you know, predictions that, as the atmosphere warms, we’re going to get these more and more intense storms and then here’s this monstrous category 5 thing, it slams into New Orleans, you know, was just so—was so disturbing. And I remember—I mean, I think that that was probably one of the things that, although that’s—that’s a bit later on—I think that was really one of the things that—that motivated me to kind of get more vocal.
I gave a couple of sermons—certainly I—I spoke about it at times during the year. I gave a couple of sermons during the fall Jewish Holy Days when people who don’t normally go, you know, the synagogue’s packed and the Rabbi is expected to get up and say like the most brilliant thing that any human being has ever said ever because you’re not going to see those people again for another year. I remember giving a couple of sermons, in fact, I remember one sermon that bega—that after it began, I stuck in this sort of line that said, you know, but Rabbi you talked about this two years ago, why are you talking about it again?
So I brought, you know, I—I don’t remember exactly what the specific point was but I remember talking about, you know, about the environment. And—and so I think that some of what—I think that some of what probably happened is that as environment, air, climate, began to get more—began to get more time in the news, it became harder for me not to talk about it. It just felt too important. And, again, you know, like I said, is, you know, whether this is a tendency to sort of be grandiose and shoot for the biggest thing, it felt like, of all the issues that a person could talk about or be kept up at night about, like this was the biggest one there was.
So, that was kind of what I—kind of what I focused on.

DT: Interesting. So part of it is that it was part of the zeitgeist and sort of topical but that it had these very deep maybe scriptural roots as well or?

SF: Well yeah, right. Right. Well, I mean, I think for everyone, there is—I mean, I’ve now had the opportunity to speak any number of times about Judaism and the environment. And I think, you know, there’s lots of different ways to be a priest or a minister or a rabbi. There’s lots of different ways to do it.
There’s lots of different models. And if someone wants to make activism or preaching kind of a part of their, you know, something that they emphasize in their work, there’s always this quest—there’s always this chicken and egg question of are you inspired by something in your faith tradition or your scriptures that really kind of sets you on fire and like you go out and do it, or is there something you’re on fire about already and you use or get support from your tradition and the community that you work with as a dewa—as a way to channel that, you know.
I mean, there is ample, ample support within Judaism for concern for the earth and concern for the environment and environmental stewardship and responsibility and all those things. But I’m just trying to be honest saying, you know, is it that you see those things, you’re like wow, this is so relevant or is it that you think something is really relevant and then you’re like well, you know, how can I be supported in this work through my learning in this—in this tradition that I have, in this community, you know, that I work with.
You—over the years, I would say that when people ask me the question of well what does this have to do with being Jewish and, you know, there—there are other people in the Jewish community who have been tilling this field way longer than I have. You know, Arthur Waskow, who—from the Shalom Center in Philadelphia, has been doing Judaism and environment for a long, long time. There are other people as well whose names I’m blanking out on right now.
So it’s not like, you know, it’s not as if I, you know, discovered this or invented it but there certainly are things that when I’m studying, when I’m teaching classes, when I’m reading the Torah, preparing things, there are certainly things that strike me as being really relevant to these issues and—and often more relevant than they were when they were first written. You know, some—some ancient things become sort of more poignant or pressing over time. And there are some passages and some texts that I certainly feel that way about.

DT: Well and—and some of the text that you refer to, I mean, is it—is it Genesis? Is it—are there ideas of covenant? I think I’ve—I remember hearing something you talk about, you know, our ancestors and our descendants and there’s this covenant—?

SF: Boy you do paying attention. That’s one person who’s paying attention. No, the—yes, there’s a—there’s a lot. So, you know, certainly, you know, certainly I find this idea of b’rit in Hebrew, covenant in English, to be very powerful because a covenant is a relationship and it’s an agreement. And it implies responsibilities for all the parties. And this idea of covenant, I mean, there’s—the first—the first covenant that is made in the Hebrew Bible is the covenant between God and Noah and all of Noah’s descendants after the flood.
So, I mean, as soon as you say “the flood,” the resonance is with, you know, climate and rising sea levels and all, you know, just kind of stares you in the face. God says I’m never going to bring another flood again. And so okay fine, but we—we can do it. You know, human beings have power that would have been unimaginable to our ancestors and we can create these conditions. But, at the end of the—the end of the flood story, there’s this—this qeshet, there’s this rainbow and it’s supposed to be a symbol of this covenant.
Later on, in a number of passages, there was a covenant that’s specifically made with Abraham and his descendants, which includes both of the—all three you could say—of the so-called Abrahamic traditions—Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, as well. And the covenant is one that binds Abraham and his descendants to a life ideally righteousness and goodness and compassion. And yes, I find the idea of covenant powerful because it extends—it encompasses the community in which I live now. It extends back into the past and it extends forward into the future.
There’s all this language around covenant of looking at the generations that haven’t even been born yet. And it leads to an idea that—I wish I could remember who it was who said this—but the—the line is, you know, we’re not used to thinking I need to live my life with the aspiration of being a good ancestor, you know. But I wish I could say I came up with that. I didn’t. I can’t remember who did. But to live my life in order to be a good ancestor, to live my life so that future generations will look back at my generation and say they took care of us.
You know, they knew what they were doing.

DT: Out of the tree that we would pick the fruit from or—.

SF: Well right. So there’s the—yeah. So there’s the—right. So there’s, you know, there are, I mean, there—there—there is an active and energized particularly Jewish environmental stewardship community and movement. And there are certain texts that that Jewish environmental stewardship movement tends to cite. So covenant is certainly one idea. Shabbat, the Sabbath, the idea that once a week, in traditional Judaism, you don’t manipulate the world. It’s hands off, right. For traditional Jews, you don’t use electricity. You don’t engage in commerce.
Sort of classic example when I’m explaining this to people is you take a walk on Shabbat, smell as many flowers as you want but don’t pick them, you know. It’s creation, right. You appreciate it. You enjoy it. But then there’s this story in the Rabbinic sources later about a—a fellow named Honi—Honi ha-Me’agel—Honi means Honi, the circle drawer. He’s kind of a magician. And he is on his way somewhere and he sees a very, very old man planting a carob tree goes the story. It’s really famous.
And the—he’s—calls out to this guy and he says, you know, it takes carob trees a long, long time to bear like edible fruit. You’re never going to live to see the fruit of that tree. And he says yeah, he says, but you see those trees over there, those trees over there were planted by my great grandparents so I should have trees in my world. So I’m not planting this tree for me. I’m planting it for my great grandkids. Then in the story he kind of has this rip, rip—Rip Van Winkle thing that happens where Honi falls asleep and he wakes up seventy years later and the carob—he sees somebody picking fruit from the carob tree and he says how could it have borne fruit so quickly?
And he says well I didn’t plant this tree. My grandfather planted it for me, you know. He realizes he’s slept for seventy years or whatever, you know, and here’s this tree. So, you know, there’s—there’s plenty like that, you know. There’s Midrash which I—a student of mine here taught me that if I needed to explain to people at Midrash was they gave me this perfect [inaudible]. I said Midrash is rabbinic fan fiction. If you’re a young person, you know what fan fiction is. And this famous piece of Midrash on Adam and Eve in the garden and God says to Adam, look at this beautiful place.

Look at all these trees. Look at all this fruit. Look at all this water and these rivers and lakes and realize that this is the—this is the last world you’re going to get. And if you mess it up, there’s nobody else to fix it. So take care of it and on and on and on, you know. So, yeah, there’s—there’s a lot. There’s a lot there.

DT: I—I’ve been interested in this idea of Tikkun Olam and I—I don’t entirely understand it. Maybe you can talk a little bit about [overlapping conversation].

SF: Right. So, Tikkun Olam, I would say among the American Jews, you didn’t really hear too much about that phrase until maybe sometime in the 1980s I started hearing it. It’s a phrase that literally means to repair the world. And it has been taken up as a social justice marquee within—originally the liberal Jewish, the non-orthodox community but you’ll find it in so—in, you know, in modern orthodox people; you’ll hear them using that terminology as well. It—and it comes to me like social justice work.
Like there’s something broken in the world, you have to fix it. In its origins, it’s not really a sort of social activism foundation. In its origins, it—I mean, the—people have done like—written papers about like where does this phrase actually come from. In its origins, there’s some stuff in the Talmud about Tikkun being legislation to ameliorate some unjust social condition. That’s like a Tikkun. But then later on, the Jewish mystical tradition, the Kabbalistic tradition picks it up and it receives a lot of treatment in a book by a Rabbi named Isaac Luria, who writes a book called Sefer Yetzirah, which means the book of formation, literally.
And it’s kind of a riff. It’s kind of fan fiction, mystical fan fiction, on the Genesis story. And he is speculating about well what does in the beginning mean? Like, you know, what is that? What happened? And so he speculates and it’s become sort of one—one—one thing that happens in Kabbalah with the creation story that part of the creation process is a kind of breaking or a kind of shattering. The story goes that, you know, at the beginning, there’s—there’s nothing but God. God’s all there is and that God decides, for whatever reason, to create a cosmos.
And God has to do this act of tinsun, which means self-limitation or self-contraction to make room for the cosmos, creation. And then God does so. But then you have sort of a cosmos without God’s presence in it. So God, in this—in this—this mystical story, prepares these keilim, they’re called—these vessels—to hold the light of God’s presence. And God breathed some of this light back into creation and these vessels shatter. They can’t hold it. One teacher says imagine like a bunch of plates dropped on the floor, right.
So creation becomes this mixture of [inaudible 00:26:42] these sparks of divine light, divine energy, and these clepote—these—these shells, these shattered pieces of these vessels. So Tikkun Olam, in that framework, is searching for the sparks of divinity amidst the broken pieces of creation. And it’s pretty audacious. Literally like returning them to God, strengthening God by returning this energy.
You know, we were certainly have been generations of Kabbalists, particularly people in the Hassidic tradition who took this literally, which you can, or if you don’t believe in it literally, you can take it metaphorically and say there are constantly things all around us to be repaired, to be fixed. So Tikkun Olam is this process of mending, of, you know, and of really sort of saying pretty audaciously that even in conditions that seem to be nothing but broken pieces, there’s—there’s divinity there. You have to act in such a way as to redeem it.
And that the idea of redemption—it involves—in—in the Kabbalistic tradition, it involves doing mitzvot, doing commandments, but there’s a—also an emphasis on your intention and the sort of meditative aspect. You know, fast forward to the late 20th and early 21st century in America and it becomes more—Tikkun Olam—becomes this kind of social justice like marquee. But that’s a sloppy brief, you know, overview of—of some of where it comes from. Yeah, yeah.

DT: I—I think I had also heard you talk a little bit about the roots of—of Judaism and its connection with the natural world as maybe seen through the framework of the calendar. That—that there was a—it was in sync with these natural cycles. Is that accurate?

SF: Yeah, yeah, right. So this is, you know, again, I’ll go back to my thing before of, you know, the chicken and the egg as you sort of bring that up. This is where I think, you know, maybe there’s the sense of, just for whatever reason, this is something I’ve been sensitive to for a long time and then you begin to look at what you have in your tradition through that lens and just see it sort of popping up everywhere. So yes, the—I, you know, liked philosophy, still do, and like really big, grand, sort of universal ideas and liked studying Jewish philosophy when I was at Rabbinical School.
And, as a younger person and a younger rabbi, I had not so much patience for Judaism sort of specificity and groundedness in times and places and seasons and so on. But, again, I think I’ve come to understand a lot of wisdom and a lot of brilliance in that because it grounds us in this world and in what’s going on. And with respect to the calendar, what you were talking about a second ago, yeah, the major Biblical festivals of the Jewish calendar year were grounded in agriculture. So they have to take part at a certain season.
And you have this annual cycle that, in the Torah, the year sort of starts actually in the springtime with Pesach, with Passover, and then seven weeks later, you have the festival of the Feast of Weeks, Shavuot. And then in the fall, you have the sort of wrap-up Harvest Festival of Sukkot. So originally, Pesach is sort of—Passover is sort of spring cleaning, new harvest, new flocks being born. Seven weeks later is your first crop which, in Israel, would have been barley—begins to ripen and—and then wheat and you bring offerings to the temple.
And then the end of the harvest season and you build these harvest huts, right. That is Sukkot. Those are the agricultural groundings upon which a second layer of meaning is applied so that Passover becomes the exodus leaving Egypt. Shavuot becomes coming to Mount Sinai and getting the Ten Commandments. And Sukkot becomes wandering in the wilderness. You never make it home. You go wander and you repeat that cycle year after year.
This is one of the reasons that the Jewish calendar becomes as crazy complicated as it does because it’s primarily a lunar calendar but it is a lunar calendar that has to be kept in sync with the solar calendar because the holidays—these holidays I’ve mentioned, and others as well, have to fall out at the right time of the year. So it’s this crazy Babylonian based lunar solar calendar that we have, as opposed to Islam, which is an entirely lunar calendar so that the Jewish—so that the Muslim holiday is like the month of Ramadan ca—can fall out in any season of the year because you don’t adjust for the sun, whereas in the Jewish calendar, you have this complicated system with leap years that have an extra month in them.
And it’s all about keeping—it’s all about attending to those seasons, you know. And I do think about, you know, to answer a question you haven’t asked—I do sometimes think about—it’s funny—it’s funny sounding question. [inaudible] you know, how are we going to keep like having our festivals as the climate changes? Like what’s that about, you know? What happens when—when fall is not a harvest time in any sense of, you know, heaven forbid, we get to that point. So—so, you know, it’s a loop back to my original thing, you know.
As much as I was fascinated by big, abstract, philosophical concepts about God and goodness and evil and all these things, you know, I’ve—I find this sort of speciv—specific groundedness in the seasons to be—to be a strength, you know. And—and it’s funny also too, you know, as much as I didn’t have a lot of sort of outdoorsy hiking and climbing and, you know, experiences as a—as a—as a big city kid growing up, as an adult with my own family really getting into the celebration of this fall harvest holiday Sukkot, which you build this little harvest hut and you go outside, has become sort of one of my outdoorsy experiences.
Getting me out of the house and into nature and like I’m having my breakfast and there’s birds flying overhead and, you know, it’s awesome. So sometimes things you don’t understand when you’re younger, you tend to—you know, you kind of like appreciate them as you get older. Yeah.

DT: Well I think this helps us understand a little bit about the sort of theological roots and cultural traditions of—of—and—and you’re—your own personal care about—about environmental things. Maybe you could talk some about how that’s been applied here at Congregation Beth Israel. I know you’ve been really active with—just within the congregation but also in networks outside of the—the CBI. And, you know, some of the work on the air conditioning system or the lighting system or the solar panels, for example.

SF: Right. So, yeah, I want to make clear that those wonderful things that you’ve mentioned aren’t—are—I didn’t do any of those things. And it’s not a matter of humility or anything. I mean, I really didn’t. What I did was I guess to put enough out there that this was something I cared about that people who were kindred spirits said okay, you know, let’s do this. But yeah, I mean, you know, as you were saying earlier, you know, nonprofit organizations have ups and downs and, you know, appear and vanish in sort of a cycle.
So golly, I don’t even know when this was but we—some other people and I started an organization, JEVA, which was Jewish Envir—Jewish Environmental Voice of Austin, I don’t know, this could be fifteen years ago. And it existed and flourished for a little while and we did some programming and we made some posters and printed some bumper stickers and did, you know, did—did some other things. But there just was not enough interest in the Jewish community alone to sustain it at that time.
Again, I’m—I’m thinking this is the early 2000s. There just really wasn’t enough. And some of the people who were in charge, the grad students, you know, or people who were college students went off to grad school and so—so that was sort of the end of that. A number of years after that, some Christian clergy friends of mine who knew about this, I don’t remember exactly how it came about, but came to me and said hey, you know, let’s—let’s do something with this.
And over the course of a few years, this coalition that—that I’ll say was called because it’s not super active right now, but I also want to say is called because it hasn’t really gone away officially either—called the Interfaith Environmental Network of Austin or IEN—we still have a website:—began and we spent the—me and some other clergy—and we spent about a year talking about it and—and deciding what it was going to be and how it was going to function. And then we had this big launch event at the temple. The mayor was there.
We got a bunch of people to come. Lots of different clergy. We had—forty different clergy came. And—and the organization was launched and then nothing happened again for a while. And then the same group of us came together and said come on, come on, come on, we have to do this. How do we make it sustainable? And—and so we finally worked on a model and—and people could join as individuals or they could join as congregations. And at its peak, in some ways, we used to have and it’s still all online, in fact, the record of it—we used to have a monthly symposium.
Every month we would pick an environmental—a to—a topic at the intersection of environmental stewardship and—and religious practice and invite people to come. And they were great. And that went on for several years. I mean, it—I’ll say one of the questions we were always asking ourselves in formation of the project and also when it was, you know, up and running, was what do we have to bring to the table—what are going to do that Sierra Club’s not going to do, you know? What are we—what are we—what do we bring?
And the vision was we bring support for people who see environmental stewardship as being part of their religious life and their religious—so their faith commitment. So it was great and it really flourished for a while. And then some of the, you know, vagaries of nonprofit life and funding and all sort of got in the way and, right now, the organization is, as I said, it’s still around but kind of dormant. But—but I think, you know, it—it’s—I’ve had some feelers from people over the past year saying hey, maybe we can revive this or do it.
And yeah, you know, maybe—maybe we’ll—maybe we’ll get that going. But we did a lot of great—we did some great stuff. One of the things you had mentioned earlier—we had this thing that we did three or four years in a row called the Clergy Climate Preach Off where we would pick a different congregation, different house of worship, and get a—ask a bunch of people and people would volunteer—preachers and Imams, and Rabbis and, you know, we would get together. And each person wou—gave a—a—no joke-a five-minute sermon on their—on something having to do with their tradition and the environment.
And we would have this mock Olympics thing. People would hold up numbers afterwards, you know. You know, but—you know, so it was funny and fun but it was great. They were great events. In fact, one year we managed to wrap the preach-off in with the Paris Climate Conference and we got a—we got some people who were there and got a video feed and, you know, projected it here in the sanctuary. That was pretty cool too.
But, you know, what I’ll say is that I think early on, that experience of like saying well I’m Jewish so I’ll do something in a Jewish community and having it just sputter because there just wasn’t enough energy around it, was not limited certainly to the Jewish community. And I think early on, part of what you saw in that organization were people who, within their own churches, felt like a sort of lonely voice in the wilderness. Like why am I the only person who cares about this, you know?
And in some of the more sort of culturally conservative parts of the religious community, there was even some suspicion around interest in environmental stewardship and religious language because it was like well, but it’s, you know, it’s—the earth sounded a little—little too wiccan, a little too, you know, a little scary. I’m not making fun of it. I’m saying it was just, you know, sort of sart of the—part of the—part of the issue.
But, you know, that—that ship has sailed in the sense that, you know, there’s hardly a—there’s hardly a religious tradition in the—that—that’s represented in the fabric of American culture that—whose, you know, governing bodies haven’t au—authored multiple statements about how important the environment is and stuff. You know, and—and when the—when Pope Francis did his big encyclical about, you know, the environment, you know, that was a biggie too. I think it was the last time I gave a sermon on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, but the environment was probably, you know, partly in response to—to what Pope Francis did. So—

DT: Well see you’ve told us about all these initiatives that have been sort of education oriented.

SF: Right so the action piece.

DT: Yeah, the action piece is sort of hands-on work that you’ve done.

SF: Yeah. So—so, you know, the—the—this sort of big piece—one of the big pieces but probably the biggest piece—was this dream of—of having the congregation’s energy needs met at least in part through renewables, through solar power. I mean, we’ve been a customer of the Austin Energy, you know, green energy, clean wind energy, for years and years and years. And the problem with solar was that the startup costs twelve, thirteen years ago, were so high that most congregations, you know, small nonprofits with limited budgets, didn’t have 80 to 100,000 dollars lying around to—to get something like this going.
And so in fits and starts, you know, we tried and couldn’t and tried and couldn’t. And during some of this time, Interfaith Environment Network had become active and some of the big congregations in Austin that had these major, major solar installations. Is it St. David’s Episcopal downtown that has the thing on top of—they have a parking garage and they have this gigantic, you know, solar array. So we started hearing about some of those and, you know, how do you do this and how do you make it happen?
And—and after about ten years of kind of fiddling around with this, there were finally—I mean, this is why I said before like I’m—I didn’t do any of this—I’m not really responsible for it—you know, I expressed an interest in it and kind of did some cheerleading for it and then we had several members of the congregation, yourself being one of them, who said okay, let’s do this. Let’s make it happen. And once there were some volunteers who were willing to really do the deep research and—and, you know, knew enough to get into the weeds with financing and this and that and all the other things that were involved, lo and behold, you know, we did it.
So we have this installation. And I think it generates fifteen or twenty percent of the power of our education building, somewhere in that neighborhood. And people were super excited about it and donated to it. You know, there are other things that we’ve done in terms of conservation, not just producing energy but, you know, the weather stripping and all these different things and—and we have—we were—we were the—Congregation Beth Israel here in Austin was the first succ—you know, the first brought to fruition, full grantee of this PACE Program that provides very creative financing for congregations that want to get rid of old, inefficient H—HVAC systems and so forth and make them more efficient.
We were the, you know, the trailblazers there. But, you know, for every one of those pieces of concrete progress, there was somebody in the building who just said, you know, that’s my baby. I’m going to make sure that this happens. So, you know, there’s still a lot more that we could and should be doing but it’s amazing that we’ve, you know, it’s amazing that we’ve done what we have. And—and the level of awareness around environmental degradation and environmental preservation and issues keeps rising.
So I think, you know, if we—if—if we were going to spearhead or launch some big initiative now, there would be a lot more people who would be really receptive to it than there were kind of back in the day. I—I will say when Interfaith Environmental Network in Austin was really at its peak of busy-ness and activity, I would bring up at a lot of meetings—I had this sort of vision for world domination, which included sort of okay, there are all of these religious communities in Austin that would love to have solar and none of them can afford the startup costs.
And what kinds of economies of scale could you develop if all of these, you know, churches and mosques and synagogues and all, you know, somehow pooled their buying power and said we all want solar, you know, help us to do it. You know, and maybe one day something like that’ll happen. It—it—it will take people with—with a different skill set and, you know, a different—a different sense of responsibilities than mind to do it but that was sort of a big dream because here you have sort of ready, you know, ready audiences, you know, for this.
I think also—I will say one other thing too, which is, you know, when this organization existed and I was regularly in contact with all these other clergy from different faith traditions, I mean, the traditions may have been different but thy—the dynamics in congregations were similar. So one thing that everybody—all these clergy working in this area were hoping for was that the way the congregation handled things like its waste and energy and all these other components of an environmental—sort of a green congregation—

DT: Gardens maybe.

SF: Yeah, gardening, right. That these things would—that the congregation as a community would serve as an idea incubator and sort of hands-on inspiration for the way people live their lives in their homes. Like oh, if we can do this in my church, then we can do this in—right, then I can do zero waste, you know, or minimize waste at home. I can do this and that, you know.

DT: Well I—I know that—that—that your time is tight. We have—we have maybe five minutes if I’m correct. There are—there are two questions that we usually ask as we close. And one is is there a special place of solace, I guess in the outdoors if—and then secondly, is there a message that you might have for younger people for the, you know, future generations?

SF: Yeah. So one of my favorite places outdoors is right around the corner from the temple here, which is over—there is a bridge over Shoal Creek—we’re on Shoal Creek Boulevard—so there’s a 35th or 38th Street Bridge—I guess it must be 38th Street Bridge—right around the corner from here. And I often walk to a sandwich shop to get lunch during the week and it’s this kind of crummy little urban creek but, for much of the year, it’s full of all kinds of life. At this time of the year, there are turtles out there.
You’ll see them sunning themselves on rocks and on, you know, fallen tree limbs. Sometimes at this time of the year, I’ll look down and there, out of nowhere, is a great blue heron, you know, walking around down there, you know, with—with buses and cars going by. There are fish in there. And I’ll sometimes—because it’s, you know, when it is, right, I’ll sometimes take my phone out and post silly little videos to YouTube and—and Instagram and Snapchat and so on.
And I just find that to be delightful and beautiful and I also find it to be hopeful too because, in this environment that’s probably fairly hostile to—that doesn’t seem to really offer a whole lot for these various forms of—of life, these creatures, you know, there they are, right. They’ve got a foothold in this crummy little urban creek. So that’s, I mean, you know, there are certainly beautiful landscapes and things but that’s—that’s my little slice of, shall I say it—that—that’s my little sl—kind of happy place on the way to get my sandwich.
You know, I always stop and look and see are there turtles in there, you know, or how are the fish doing. You know, in terms of the future, so there’s this—there is this quote from Rabbinic literature from the Mishnah, that I always had as the tagline on my email for a long time. And I make all my tenth graders learn it and we talked about it in Sunday school. And it is a quote from a Rabbi named Tarfon who says—it’s part of a longer quote but the part that people often cite is, “You are not required to complete the work but neither are you free to abstain from it,” which, in the context we’re talking about has a lot of power and a lot of resonance for me.
You know, I can become overwhelmed and paralyzed with what’s going on environmentally and be driven into a kind of paralyzed, despairing sort of space. But I can remember that—that the fact that I can’t—that I don’t have the kind of power to will these problems to be solved on my own, doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t be involved. And I can—I can do—I do what I can do every day and I partner with other people and I try to make my voice heard in the advocacy and political realm. And if enough people do that, we make—we make progress.
So I’m not required to do all of it. Can’t do all of it but I have to take part anyway.

DT: That’s very meaningful. Thank you very much.

SF: You’re welcome.

DT: Appreciate your time.

SF: You’re welcome.

[End of Interview with Steve Folberg – November 7, 2018]