Yonatan Neril
Founder and director of the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development

How Can We Keep the Holy City of Jerusalem Clean?

I am writing to encourage an expanded religious sensitivity concerning our waste—how much garbage we produce, and where our garbage and sewage go. Why, because in this week’s Torah portion, Shemot, it is written, “They gathered them into many heaps, and the land stank” (Exodus 8:10) While the Bible is referring to the frogs that died in the second plague, this verse also describes the present situation in Jerusalem, where in some neighborhoods garbage has not been removed in eight days. The upside of the garbage strike in Jerusalem is that we get a rare glimpse into how much waste our consumer society produces, and hopefully gain some resolve to reduce the amount of waste we produce. If this is what five days worth of garbage looks like, then what is our footprint after 500 or 5,000 days? When we throw it out, it doesn’t just go away but goes somewhere, in this case to sit in the holy city.

By contrast, San Francisco recycles or composts about 78% of its waste stream, and aims to achieve zero waste in the next four years—taking it to a place “Where No City Has Gone Before.” Jerusalem is on the other end of the spectrum—doing a good job recycling large plastic bottles, but rating poorly in most other parts of the waste stream. Three and a half million tourists come to the holy city each year, and many wonder why there is so much a litter lying on the ground.

Garbage in Nachlaot

The capital of Israel and the capital of Lebanon have something very much in common this year: trash piling up for days garbage collection. In Lebanon, ‘trash theatre‘ raises awareness about garbage. And as Green Prophet reported in the past, “Raw sewage seeping off Beirut coastline, and dump trucks heading straight for the sea, is the “catch of the day” in Lebanon.” 

The situation on the ground should give us pause as it provides an opportunity for us to contemplate the situation that we are in. It is easy to read the news and say that this is the fault of the mayor, the finance minister, or the sanitation workers union.  It is striking that a city that invests heavily on a ‘Season of Culture’ and Formula One racing had to temporarily fire its sanitation workers for lack of funds.

But it would be more honest to look at our own consumption and think about how much we contribute to the problem. Stores that sell only disposable products have proliferated in Jerusalem, and hundreds of thousands of people use disposable dishes at some point during the week. At a deeper level, the problem of our waste is a spiritual issue that relates to how we relate to resources in general, as I wrote about in these Jewish Eco Seminars materials on Holy Use.

Old City in Snow

Enough About Garbage, Let’s Discuss Jerusalem’s Sewage

What do worshippers at the Western Wall, the Al Aksa mosque, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher all have in common? When they flush the toilet near their holy site, the sewage flows untreated on a 33 kilometer journey through the Kidron Valley.  Their holy sewage is joined by that of another 300,000 people—about one-third of Jerusalem, including from the King David and Waldorf Astoria hotels—and fouls the air for residents of Jabel el Mukaber, Obadiya, and the Mar Saba monastery until it reaches the Dead Sea. Yet the Talmud teaches that the pleasant smell of the incense burned in Jerusalem used to make its way even to Jericho, and that pleasant smell is one of three things that revives a person’s soul!

The Bible warns in Leviticus 18:28, “And let the land not vomit you out for having defiled it…” The Holy Land has a sensitive stomach, and the inhabitants of the land need to be very careful about how they live in the land, lest the land vomit them out. What is the land’s tolerance for garbage, raw sewage, and toxic waste? What does it means that this is a holy land, in terms of the way that we treat the land? As spiritual beings living a physical existence, how we deal with our waste serves as a real test of our spirituality.

This sewage of people who pray pollutes the pathways of the Promised Land. Many of the holy people living in parts of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and elsewhere are unaware or unconcerned about what happens when they flush the toilet, take a shower, or wash their hands. Through the Kidron Valley Master Plan, efforts have been made to build a sewage treatment plant in the Kidron Valley. But for complicated reasons, including political ones, those efforts have not born fruit. As Elena Lloyd-Sidle wrote, “a community’s values are reflected in its water. What are our polluted rivers and streams saying about us?” (‘Water: Its Spiritual Significance’)

What can you do?

  1. Since the city does not provide convenient access to composting, cardboard recycling, paper recycling, or glass or aluminum bottle recycling for many of its residents, the residents should demand this from the Municipality, and take it upon themselves to make an extra effort to recycle those things, and reduce their personal waste stream.
  2. Consider how much garbage you produce each week, and try to reduce it. To reduce the amount of packaging you consume, buy in bulk and bring your own resuable bag when you shop.
  3. Call the Municipality at 106 to demand it provides sewage treatment for 1/3 of the city.
  4. Learn how to properly reuse or dispose of waste in Jerusalem on the ‘Sustainable Living’ tab of Green Map Jerusalem.

Rabbi Abraham Kook teaches about how holiness depends on all aspects of a process being pure. In a city where so many residents identify as religious, may our actions to protect the land be part and parcel of our religious devotion.


I express thanks to Chelsea Revell and Andrew Deutsch for their assistance with this blog post.

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Neril founded and directs The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development and its Jewish Eco Seminars branch. Raised in California, Yonatan completed an M.A. and B.A. from Stanford University with a global environmental focus , and received rabbinical ordination in Israel. He speaks internationally on religion and the environment, and co-organized twelve interfaith environmental conferences in Israel and the U.S. He is the lead author and general editor of three books on Jewish environmental ethics, including Eco Bible, a bestseller in several Amazon Kindle categories. He lives with his wife, Shana and their two children in Jerusalem.
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