‘Keeper of the earth’ rabbi dies at 70


Rabbi Ellen Bernstein of the Germantown Jewish Centre in West Mt. Airy, who founded the nation’s first national Jewish environmental organization, Shomrei Adamah (Hebrew for “Keepers of the Earth”), died Feb. 27 of colon cancer.

Bernstein, a Mt. Airy resident and river guide-turned-rabbi, blazed a spiritual trail and earned a national reputation in the environmental movement. She undergirded her advocacy with a religion-based veneration of nature, explaining that she linked her passion for the natural environment to the precepts of the Hebrew Bible, starting with the Garden of Eden.

“I have long thought that the climate crisis was a spiritual crisis,” she wrote, “a crisis in how we think and what we value. It is a reflection of a fundamental breakdown in the way we treat each other and the earth. We are moved most powerfully by our emotions. Science alone will not move us to care about the earth.”

Bernstein believed that religion could inspire people to see godliness in everything and that the Hebrew Bible could be a map to discovering the “beauty and aliveness” of the earth. “The poetry of religious language can speak across political divides and call us to care and to act,” she wrote on her website.

 In an interview with this reporter two years ago, Bernstein said she had been reflecting on the Hebrew Bible’s understanding of the earth for many years. She said she was involved with a variety of religious environmental organizations including Third Act Faith and Green Sabbath Project, and she served as an advisor to the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, of The Shalom Center in Mt. Airy, said, “My first memory of Rabbi Bernstein is in a boathouse on the edge of the Schuylkill River, where in the early 70s, she led that seder for Tu B’Shvat (an ecological awareness day in January) in a beautiful, lively and transformative way ... We will all miss her, and by 'all' I mean the earth as well.”

In October 2022, during the holiday of Sukkot, which focuses on caring for nature, Bernstein told us she was particularly proud of how many people from the Jewish community in Northwest Philadelphia are leaders in the field of environmental protection and preservation.

“I think what’s special about this story is how awesome the Northwest Philadelphia Jewish community is,” Bernstein said. “There are many national leaders of new Jewish organizations living here, and they are all contributing to make this (the Sukkot celebration) a really special event for the community.” 

Shira Dicker, of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, was a good friend of Rabbi Bernstein, whom Dicker called “the birth mother of contemporary Jewish environmentalism.” Dicker said she was shocked to learn of Bernstein's death because “the previous day I visited her in the peaceful, homey Philadelphia hospital room where she was receiving hospice care, surrounded by friends, her husband and loyal dog, Ro’i.”

Rabbi Bernstein often said that as a young person, she spent long hours in the woods near her home in Massachusetts. “I despaired that the adult world was flattening landscapes for housing developments, polluting the atmosphere in an effort to develop more and more commodities for our consumption and ruining our waterways,” she wrote.

“Yearning to preserve the natural world, I was fortunate to ... attend one of the first environmental studies programs in the country at U.C. Berkeley. Upon graduation, I led wilderness river trips in the summer and taught high school biology during the year,” Bernstein said.

For many years, Bernstein looked for a Jewish environmental organization to work with but did not find one, so she started Shomrei Adamah in 1988. Over the years, she received a teaching credential in life sciences from San Francisco State University, an MA in biology from Southern Oregon University and an MA in Jewish education from Hebrew College. She was ordained by the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York.

Bernstein's husband, Steven Tenenbaum, a retired clinical social worker and psychotherapist, told us last week, “Ellen was passionate about her mission and beliefs. She was a little more optimistic than most about the possibility of bringing people together to address environmental issues. We met in 2004 online. 

“We had many shared interests culturally and both loved the outdoors. We read and were influenced by many of the same people. We moved [to Mt. Airy] because it is a very walkable part of the city. And Ellen loved the Wissahickon. She gifted me that. She said we have to have access to the Wissahickon.”

In addition to Tenenbaum, Rabbi Bernstein is survived by her brother, Larry Bernstein, and her stepchildren, Tatyana and Ezra Tenenbaum. Her sister, Marilyn Dorson, died last year.

Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com