Today we cast a spotlight on Joe Morris who traces his purpose in life all the way back to elementary school. “During rest periods my third-grade teacher read aloud many of the typical children’s books of that era, like The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew,” Joe recounts. “Four of the Tom Swift and three Space Cat novels she read were life changing for me.”
From that point on, Joe knew he wanted to be an astronaut and an engineer like Tom Swift. He started a rocket club in his freshman year at Brooklyn Technical High School and stenciled “Per Ardua ad Astra” (By Effort to the Stars) on his slide rule’s carrying case. As an adult, Joe spent forty years as an aerospace engineer working on rockets, but not on space projects until the tail end of his career. He earned two corporate technical achievement awards and six patents while working on R&D projects in smart propulsion systems for missile defense and ejection seats.
Joe’s relationship with religion and Judaism was not particularly strong during his youth: “I was deep into science and had problems accepting the existence of an all-powerful God.” Still, he and his first wife became active in a temple in Sacramento where they lived. Even though Joe felt a connection to Judaism at that time, he admits: “I still couldn’t reconcile the existence of God with my scientific self.”
In 2010 Joe relocated to Buffalo for a new job at American Pacific, the successor to Bell Aerospace, and worked there until 2013. Tragically, Joe’s first wife passed away a week after they arrived, but support from Temple Beth Am (now Congregation Shir Shalom) drew him back into congregational life. In 2016, Joe volunteered to give a presentation on global warming at a Sunday morning Men’s Club breakfast. During Joe’s research on his talk, he discovered a quote by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks,: “Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.” That rang a bell for Joe and he began to view science and religion differently: “Science tells us how the universe works while religion tells us how to live in it,” was Joe’s interpretation of Sacks’ words. “To me, that meant that science and religion don’t have to be at odds,” he shared. But rather “they serve different purposes.”
Today, Joe has been a driving force in putting ecological concerns on the top of our communal agenda, shared Rabbi Alex Lazarus-Klein of Congregation Shir Shalom (CSS). “I know it’s personal for him as he fights for the world his grandchildren will inhabit. To see him on the forefront of the fight – writing newsletter articles, creating Earth Day celebrations, and taking a leadership role inside and outside of WNY – has been inspirational. I feel very blessed to have him in our community.”
Joe’s leadership at Shir Shalom led to the formation of a “Green Team.” Joe explains: “We funded a synagogue energy audit by a professional engineering organization and began implementing some of its recommendations, like replacing old fluorescent bulbs with LEDs and implementing a recycling program.”
“I have met a lot of people promoting conservation and green philosophy,” notes Deborah Cohen, a co-member of the Tikkun Olam Team at CSS, “I have often found them a little strident…or, I felt inadequate to the task of understanding. Then I met Joe Morris. Joe impressed me with his spiritual approach and his vast knowledge. He is a scientist with a huge heart, when he explains what needs to be done and why … I can feel propelled to action. “
Despite a lull during Covid, Joe has recently merged the Green Team into the CSS Tikkun Olam team. He recently worked on this year’s Earth Day event held at Temple Beth Zion and looks forward to the event again next year at CSS. If you would like to connect with Joe, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.