Heschel Fellows Program 18th Cohort Ends with Plans for Social Change

For almost the entire length of its eighteen year existence, the Heschel Sustainability Fellows program has met on Wednesdays. The last Wednesday of the Heschel Fellows year is always a bittersweet event. Sweet to look back on a year of learning, of accomplishments, of friendships formed; bitter, or at least melancholy, over that year being over, and it being time to move on, to a new chapter. The end of this year was marked by an “internal” celebration, while the formal, public graduation will take place in the Fall, with full presentations of projects and work plans.

It’s interesting to note that while the core curriculum and main ideas stay largely constant over the years, each cohort finds inspiration in, and connects to, different themes or emphases. One year, it was the idea of the commons as an optimal paradigm for sustainability, which resulted in the Fellows creating a study guide around the issue, and holding a large public conference in Tel Aviv University with leading experts from abroad, that has opened a fascinating discussion. Other years, it has been the idea of “the ecological footprint” as a key tool to look at impact on the natural world together with socio-economic differences, in addition to demonstrating questions of  environmental-justice.

This year what really made an impression was the work and thought of Donella Meadows, MIT-based systems expert (1941-2001), teacher, and author. Meadows was co-author of the pioneering study Limits to Growth (1972), which was one of the first works to use the relatively new science of computer modeling to look at environmental trends, shaping the public discourse about the future of the world. It was a short essay of hers that fired the group’s imagination: “12 Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System” (1999) which they studied in depth and decided to translate into Hebrew to make available to an Israeli public. Meadows’ work in general, and this essay in particular, lights a path towards thinking about the biggest issues: how to look at the complex interrelated systems of our society, and how to go about changing them for the better.

Systems thinking and social change are evident in the Fellows’ project directions. Here are four “coming attractions” that we can share, before the formal unveiling at their final presentations:

  • Shosh Einav’s involvement in sustainable landscaping and gardening was catalyzed by the mid-year Heschel Hackathon. The Upscaling Hackathon which she joined with other activists and alumni, gave rise to a working group in this area. One of the successes, is the exposure in the form of a conference surrounding Sustainable Gardening (see this link)

  • Chemical engineer Sharon Barak was inspired by her year to work on a large-scale solution to one of the planet’s biggest environmental challenges, by finding an alternative to the world’s plastic epidemic.

  • Michael Volanski is an activist at “Meatless Mondays” (worldwide initiative to reduce meat consumption) connected to another alumnus in the Ministry of Internal Security (the police) – and the entire Ministry is adopting Meatless Mondays in their food system, and she is working from there to get to other branches of the government.

  • Hagar Lidor is an organizational consultant that transformed her work as a result of perspectives she learned in the Fellowship. Whereas previously she worked with large businesses trying to convince them to adopt sustainable practices (often with frustratingly little success), she is now focusing on small sustainable businesses – and helping them scale up using sustainability approaches.

This year we also underwent an extensive external evaluation of the Fellows program, and the staff is in the process of translating those insights into structural improvements in the program. Stay tuned: we will be reporting on the exciting new directions the program will be taking in the months ahead, the composition of the 19th cohort which will be decided upon soon, and more on the projects and initiatives of these recent alumni.