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Kosher Questions : Religious groups are beginning to think about their environmental responsibilities.


This week, filled with religious observances, is also a time to think about our environment, according to some recent publications that have come my way. In one, discussing Passover, which was celebrated earlier this week, Shomerei Adamah ("Keepers of the Earth"), an energetic new national organization for environmentalists of the Jewish faith, looks at a particular food eaten on the occasion.

"The time has come to de-mythologize gefilte fish," asserts a lively study guide edited for the group by authors Ellen Bernstein and Dan Fink. Entitled "Let The Earth Teach You Torah," the guide is available by calling (215) 887-3106.

Heresy? Environmental extremism?

I called a local member of the group, David Goldstein, an environmentalist who works at the Ventura County Solid Waste Management Department. He had a quick reaction to the guide's suggestion that gefilte fish, traditionally made from Great Lakes fresh water carp and whitefish, might contain some pollution from those notorious inland seas. "The dose makes the difference, so don't eat it every third or fourth meal all year long," he said.

I wondered: Who would, or could, do that anyway? Could a Scot eat weekly his national dish, haggis, a dish consisting of sheep lungs and liver boiled in its stomach? Or what about Christmas fruitcake? "Just eat the gefilte fish at Passover, and compensate by having a balanced diet to strengthen your immune system. Buy organic vegetables," Goldstein concluded.

But I, as an intrepid eco-journalist, felt it my responsibility to check around a little more. Dr. Jerry Pollock is a staff toxicologist at Cal-EPA's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. He told me gefilte fish, eaten infrequently, is not much of a health concern. But he also referred me to his counterpart health officials near the Great Lakes, source of the ingredients.

I called Michigan, Manitoba and even Manischewitz--which is not a producer but a processor of lake fish. They reported that the inspection process is so strict that polluted fish don't make it to our tables--fresh or canned.

The part of the annual catch that gives environmentalists at Shomerei Adamah the willies are the larger fish. Some have escaped the fishermen long enough to grow immensely, accumulating chemicals in their bodies along the way. But as a safeguard against their toxicity, the law now stipulates that lake fish heavier than four pounds may not be shipped for processing.

A UCSB zoology professor, Armand Kupis, told me: "All states have a strong concern to regulate this. The fisherman's politics never win. Citizens are more numerous." This is a reference to fishermen's attempts to roll back various environmentally based rulings about selling their catch.

The young people in Shomerei Adamah weren't afraid to raise an environmental issue, which some of their faith might find sensitive. And they are not the only bold ones among the new generation flocking to churches and synagogues these days.

The link between environmentalism and religion is being forged in areas even more sensitive than just the consumption of gefilte fish. In religious gatherings, much, much more is being called into question--every kind of consumption as it relates to the environment.

This is sharply visible in a trio of new books I've just read. One, by Lawrence Bush and Jeffrey Dekro, says of this new breed, "They act out of the belief that our local economies and global interactions are as ripe for ethical considerations and judgments as our personal behavior." A second, by Gary D. Moore, states: "People now young are the first ever to be born into an age when they could make the earth incapable of sustaining human life. The tender sense of unity with a responsibility for the creation is both biblical and necessary." And a third is from an organization that discusses earth "stewardship" and defines it as "the management of resources for the maintenance and development of life and protection of the natural environment without which life cannot be sustained."

It's remarkable enough that these observations originate, respectively, from publications of Jewish, Protestant and Catholic persuasions. But one is probably not accustomed to such titles as these: "Jews, Money and Social Responsibility--Developing a Torah of Money for Contemporary Life" (published by the Shefa Fund, 800-92-SHEFA), "The Thoughtful Christian's Guide to Investing" (Zondervan Books 800-727-1309) and "The Social Good: A Guide to Responsible Investing, Purchasing and Banking" (Catholic Health Assn. 800-327-0541). A recurring theme in all of them is: Boycott polluters.

All I can say to these writers is--carry on. But I did still have that pesky gefilte fish problem on my mind. So I made one last attempt to resolve this issue for myself.

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