Working to preserve Central America’s rain forests

Tom Newmark

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

When Tom Newmark chose to support the Children’s Eternal Rainforest, a protected plot of land in Costa Rica, he wasn’t just assisting a distant charitable endeavor.

He was helping a neighbor.

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“I actually look at it from my property every single day,” said Newmark, a St. Louisan who spends about half his year on the organic farm he owns in Central America.

While the rainforest may seem a long way from the Gateway City, for Newmark, a connection to the environment was always close at hand. 

“I was a boy naturalist,” said the 61-year-old Washington University alumnus. “I spent a lot of time hiking the rivers and exploring the ponds of our area, a lot of time in the Ozarks, a lot of time in the less developed areas of the county.”

He was also inspired by his late father Melvin’s attachment to gardening and flowers.

“He was a very dedicated horticulturist,” recalled Tom Newmark. “Every weekend, I’d accompany him out in the garden and we’d sit and talk. He helped develop my love and appreciation for nature.”

These days, Newmark, now a father and grandfather himself, finds his journeys extend far beyond the garden gate or the wilds of St. Louis County. In addition to his organic spice farm, he recently became advisor to the Monteverde Conservation League which manages the Children’s Eternal Rainforest, a 55,000-acre chunk of pristine biodiversity in the volcanic mountains of Costa Rica. He was also a part of the board of the organization for many years.

In addition, Newmark is the founder of Sacred Seeds, a St. Louis-based seed bank with more than a dozen gardens in the United States and membership that spans the globe. Newmark is a member of various boards in the area and nationally including Greenpeace USA, the American Botanical Council and the William L. Brown Center at the Missouri Botanical Garden.

“The Children’s Eternal Rainforest is, I think, the most beautiful expression of environmental hope, opportunity and the joy that is effervescent within children,” said Newmark, a father of five with his wife Terry. “It was created by children, for the planet. It is a gift from children around the world to all generations of human life. The money for it was raised by children’s organizations in schools, in temples, churches, organizations, communities all over the world.”

He said the idea began in the late 1980s in Scandinavia but quickly spread internationally.

“It was to be forever,” he said. “It was an eternal gift from the hearts, spirits, innocence and optimism of children to the planet.”

Newmark said the tract of land encompasses as many as a dozen different “life zones,” different areas of flora and fauna which sit at the crossroads of North and South America, the Caribbean and the Pacific. He said that the only other spot in the world that could be said to rest astride such a linchpin of life is one very familiar to Jews – the Sinai.

“The only difference is that it is a desert so it is in a way, a barrier to the flow of life whereas the Children’s Rainforest is a very complex, concentrated welter of green life zones that are not barriers but the switchyard for the flow of life,” he noted.

Newmark joked that his family may indeed have been Jewish since Mount Sinai.

“I think if there were a central casting call for Moses, my dad (Mel, a former president of the Light) would be exactly the person you’d want in the play both in physical appearance and demeanor,” he said. “I am proud to be part of that uninterrupted continuum of Jewish experience.”

Yet at the same time, a query about how his Judaism impacts his environmentalism prompts a string of deep thoughts. He clearly takes pride in being a Jew.

“But my temple is the rainforest right now,” he said. “My spirituality is not defined by my Judaism. My Jewish identity is enriched by my environmental ethic and my planetary spirituality so it’s hard for me to answer your question.

“Maybe I have answered it by my struggle to answer it,” he added.

Kate Danna, director of development for Friends of the Children’s Eternal Rainforest in St. Louis, lauded Newmark’s work from his stint as an attorney in the area to his time as president, CEO and chairman of New Chapter, an organic dietary supplement company, a role she said helped greatly in facilitating a relationship that allowed Whole Foods Market to run a promotion raising money for the rainforest.

“Tom has been an invaluable member of the board for many, many years…” she said. “It’s almost incalculable what he has brought to the table.”

She said Newmark has an ability to communicate the importance of what the organization does.

“He can make a more powerful and persuasive case for the preservation of these incredibly endangered habitats than anyone I’ve ever met,” she said. “He just lives and breathes conservation.”

Dr. Peter Raven, president emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden and a longtime friend of Newmark, said the latter was dedicated and determined to spread the message and skilled at making networking connections with people that promoted the non-profit’s goals.

“He knows them, nurtures them, understands them, has the patience to talk with them,” he said. “He gets people who are likeminded and helps to build them into groups that accomplish objectives together.”

As for Newmark himself, he said he doesn’t put religious labels on environmentalism. He sees it as a challenge for everyone in the Jewish community and beyond.

“Wherever anyone develops their personal ethic and their moral compass, I believe that we are all obligated to immediately examine our purchasing practices, our energy consumption, our indifference to animal suffering, every aspect of our lives and elevate our practices to a level where we can begin to restore, replenish and heal the damaged planet.”