The movement toward Jewish sustainability

Sustainability is a current buzzword — from new additions to the school curriculum to news coverage about bees, you can’t go far without talking about the environment. 

Genvironment is definitely up on the buzz, with youth-focused programs that connect Judaism and the environment. Since 2018, Emily Litvack, co-founder and current co-director of education, who is also Jewish Federation of Ottawa’s new Community Engagement Specialist, has worked to create culturally responsible and inclusive environmental education opportunities. 

“I have a background in environmental education and my best friend has a background in inclusive education … we were both on maternity leave at the same time and realized there wasn’t a lot out there, especially in this region of Canada,” said Litvack. “We set out to create some programs that could really engage all types of kids from all different backgrounds and abilities. It started as a little passion project, and then more people came on and brought their own interests, so it’s grown since then.”

Genvironment’s mission is to create accessible and empowering learning spaces where Canadian youth are encouraged to use their unique qualities and interests to make positive changes in their communities. They create programs that are inclusive, accessible, student-centred, and social-justice oriented. There are youth programs for all ages, ranging from their ‘Explorer’ program for ages 4-8 to their ‘Changemakers’ program for ages 13 and up. 

All three co-founders of Genvironment are Jewish women and were very passionate about connecting to the sustainability facets of Judaism. 

“There’s a lot of interest from the different synagogues,” said Litvack. “It’s something we can all connect on, no matter what denomination and how we celebrate. In terms of our Jewish identity, we have such a strong history and connection to the environment and nature.”

Litvack credits the sustainability movement in the younger generations for bringing attention to issues like climate change. 

“Because of this sustainability effort in general among the younger generations with the urgency of climate change, there’s more desire to connect with Judaism through the environment, through nature,” she said. “There's a pluralistic element to it too, going out in nature on a hike, planting a garden … we can all come together as a community.”

Genvironment has a full slate of programming that follows the holiday cycle, starting with Rosh Hashanah. 

“We talk about pollinators and the importance of bees and honey — we use honey all year round! We start the year off with that,” said Litvack. “Then we talk about Yom Kippur and the world that we want, connected to the United Nation%u2019s Sustainable Development Goals. We do a workshop on the parshah of Noah and the importance of all living creatures. It’s really interdisciplinary, incorporating science and mindfulness, and Judaism. It’s really not meant to be for one particular denomination of Judaism, just about connecting your Jewish identity to your passion for the environment/nature/animals.”

Genvironment also has a living garden program (Gan Ruach) that encourages and helps Jewish organizations to plant a garden, incorporating crops that are related to the holidays, such as parsley, leafy greens, or apple trees. 

“I really believe that by engaging young kids and their families we can strengthen Jewish identity,” said Litvack. “With antisemitism the way it is, sometimes being Jewish is about feeling like you have to defend yourself … We should celebrate who we are. So this also is for our collective mental health, the healing property of being in nature, of celebrating that we have this awesome connection that’s so relevant to making the world better today.”

Litvack never imagined the program would become what it has in just four short years. 

“It was really just meant to be a side project, but the need is obviously there,” she said. “Our community, so many communities, are looking to connect with the land and nature.”

To get involved — either by partnering on programs or volunteering — email