Hebrew name: Esther
Job: Ph.D. candidate in socioecology; owner of a small sourdough baking business
Currently living in: Bargara, Queensland, Australia
Alma maters: Cohen Hillel Academy ‘05, Peabody Veterans Memorial High School ‘09, Dartmouth College ‘13, Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine ‘16, University of Technology Sydney ‘21
Favorite food: Anything dessert, sourdough challah
Favorite movies: Nature documentaries
Favorite TV shows: “War on Waste”
Favorite books: Anything by Wally Lamb
Favorite travel destination: Malaysia
Somewhere you’d like to go next: New Zealand
Favorite Jewish person not in your family: Rosalind Franklin
Favorite Jewish holiday: Purim (I love baking hamantaschen)
Favorite North Shore spot: Bearskin Neck, Rockport
What is your Jewish background?
My family was pretty active in the Jewish community, mainly in Peabody. My dad was born and raised in Peabody and lived there for his entire life, and at different points in time he was the director of the Peabody JCC and then he was on the board for Temple Ner Tamid, and he had a short tenure as president of the Jewish Federation of the North Shore. We went to Temple Ner Tamid, my brother and I both went to Cohen Hillel Academy, and I personally was very active in Young Judaea, which is a Zionist youth leadership organization. And my family had Shabbat dinner every Friday night, normally with my grandparents as well; occasionally with an aunt or uncle. That was really special to me growing up and makes up some of my fondest memories. Now, I live in Australia, and there are few Jews here, so my partner Saul and I are pretty well on our own for most of that. We do try to celebrate the bigger Jewish holidays – I have one friend in the entire region that I live that’s Jewish, so she’ll come over and we’ll have Pesach, or Rosh Hashanah or things like that.
Did Judaism influence your interest in wildlife?
After I graduated from college, I moved to Israel for a year and worked in Israel’s National Wildlife Hospital just outside of Tel Aviv. They take in all wildlife injuries and treat over 3,000 wildlife patients every year, and I was a veterinary assistant there for a year. But I constantly saw the same injuries coming into the clinic caused by humans, so every porcupine would have the same injuries because each one was always trapped in a box trap so that they wouldn’t eat vegetables that a farmer might be growing, or certain bird species would land on the same uncovered powerlines, and have electrocution damage, so that really got me frustrated with human-induced injuries. It might be a bit coincidental, but of my current small research group, a large number of us are Jewish, which is very interesting, because there’s not many Jews in Australia. So, there’s obviously something about compassionate conservation, which really focuses on advancing conservation practice that extends compassion and empathy to all of the other beings on the planet. There must be some kind of link between that and the Jewish tradition or values of tikkun olam.
Can you talk more about your Ph.D research in socioecology?
My research investigates how humans relate to nature, how we view ourselves as part of nature, and how our relationship with nature drives the way we make decisions in conservation, and the way we treat others. From a more philosophical approach, my research looks at how the language we use can influence the way we make decisions, so if we label something a pest, for example, we are removing its moral status, and therefore we can use that to justify doing harm. When we renegotiate our position in nature and view ourselves as part of nature rather than as above it, how does that change the way we conserve biodiversity? My more applied research is looking at methods to encourage cohabitation with wildlife, or sharing space with wildlife, specifically on food production landscapes. I just happen to work on sheep farms a lot, where we take this framing of viewing ourselves as part of nature and viewing nature as morally significant, and figure out what tools we can use so humans can do what they need to do while understanding that the space that we have also provides for other beings, not just us. In general, what I really learned from my own research and what I try to encourage to others is to really interrogate the norms that we rely on, so when we say that animal is a ‘pest,’ what does that mean, and what are we saying when we use that type of dismissive, denigrating language? And we see it not only with the animals, we see it with humans. When you look at what they call the “immigration crisis” by saying, ‘there’s a crisis,’ it means there’s something wrong. By calling people ‘illegal,’ we use those terms so we don’t need to treat them as human, so we don’t need to treat them as persons.