As the Biden administration gears up to combat climate change, I’d like to see the leaders of my religious community at the forefront of those rallying to the cause.
It’s not as if the Jewish rank and file are unconcerned. Back in 2014, a PRRI survey found that fully 78% of us consider climate change either “a crisis” or “a major problem” — the highest proportion of any religious group in America. And there’s no shortage of Jews involved in large secular environmental organizations, to say nothing of a number of small Jewish ones.
But the leadership of the communal umbrella organizations has pretty much been missing in action.
The question was posed at the opening panel of the Big Bold Jewish Climate Fest, an online agglomeration of discussions, performances, presentations, rituals and workshops that took place at the end of January around Tu B’shvat, the festival known as the “New Year of the Trees” that has become the annual focus of Jewish environmentalism.
“Why isn’t climate change high on the communal agenda?” asked organizer Lisa Colton.
During Beth El Congregation’s virtual Tu B’Shevat Seder, Rabbi Dana Saroken invited Rabbi Jennie Rosenn (Founder and CEO of Dayenu) to discuss how we can confront the climate crisis with Jewish values and spirit.
After four tumultuous years, many Americans saw Inauguration Day as a turning point for our nation. The swearing-in of President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and a new Congress marks a new chapter in U.S. history, but it should not — and can not — be seen as a “return to normalcy.” There is nothing normal about this moment.
In the last year, we’ve witnessed a deadly global pandemic, taken refuge from raging wildfires and destructive storms, participated in record-breaking mobilizations protesting police brutality and systemic racism, voted in a historic election and watched in horror as white supremacists attempted to stage a violent coup. These converging crises make clear what many of us have known for a long time: that our society is in need of a re-assessment.
Going back to “normal” is no longer an option. Addressing these existential crises will be the work of our lifetimes. As we enter the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shvat, the “new year of the trees,” we reflect on what it means to be rooted in that work.
On Jan. 27, the Big Bold Jewish Climate Fest kicked off five days of free virtual programming both celebrating Tu B’Shevat and calling for climate action. Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, founder and CEO of Dayenu, told viewers the time has come — even that the time is past — for the Jewish community to be passionately involved in climate justice.
“It’s about whether we believe that every human being is created in the image of God,” Rosenn said during one of the festival’s opening panels held live on YouTube.
David Machbitz, 18 and an engineering major at Arizona State University, shares Rosenn’s passion. He will be one of hundreds of presenters in the national festival.
When he first became interested in climate activism, it took him by surprise. He spent most of his time thinking about school and science, but in 2019 he suddenly became interested in social justice and political action. Inspired by Greta Thunberg, he started thinking more deeply about climate change during his senior year in high school. He remembers watching Thunberg’s activities and thinking, “Whoa! This is something I should do something about.”
In August 2015, I received a surprising email. It was from Brian McLaren, an evangelical author and activist, inviting me to be part of a historic ecumenical and multi-faith response to Pope Francis’ Laudato Si encyclical and visit to the United States that September. The event was called “Coming Together in Faith on Climate,” and I was one of two national Jewish leaders asked to present, alongside the likes of Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse.
Five years ago, there were only a handful of rabbis and cantors who were taking public action on climate change. It was a strange feeling to be one of them. On the one hand, as a newly minted rabbi, I was excited by the opportunities to speak, write, sing, and organize for climate justice, often in interfaith contexts.
Dayenu is a new movement of American Jews confronting the climate crisis “with spiritual audacity and bold political action.”
Concerns about climate change and its impact on our world “loom like big clouds” over everything for Josh Bender of Ann Arbor. The Michigan State University graduate, now in his second year of rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, says he’s made environmentally focused changes in his daily life like eating less meat and avoiding single-use plastics.
But he wanted to do something to tackle the global problem on a larger scale.
“With big societal changes you can sometimes feel powerless to do anything about them,” Bender says. “I remember during the election, I wanted whoever the nominees were to be people who got what a serious generational issue this is.”
This week’s guest, Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, discusses Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action. Dayenu is building a movement of American Jews confronting the climate crisis with spiritual audacity and bold political action. Dayenu mobilizes Jewish support for climate solutions, builds collective power with national and global movements, and raises up a spiritual, religious, and moral voice.
The climate crisis is the existential crisis of our time. We feel the heat. We read the staggering predictions of sea level rise. We witness the floods, fires, and hurricanes wreaking havoc across the globe, and we know that without very significant changes, we are hurtling towards an unlivable and unsustainable future. Many people are already experiencing the painful impacts of Climate Change.
We have known our world was broken. Even before the pandemic hit, we knew that we couldn’t continue as we had been and expect our children and grandchildren would have a safe planet to live on.
But the deep disruption caused by the coronavirus has put these truths into even sharper focus. We have experienced our profound interconnectedness. We have a new knowledge of what disruption feels like, what happens when governments fail to prepare and respond adequately, and what not listening to science leads to.
Dayenu founder and CEO Rabbi Jennie Rosenn was featured in Avodah’s video series, Speak Torah to Power about her journey to becoming a dedicated climate activist.
In this election, American Jews are voting on climate like our lives depend on it — because they do.
Over the past eight weeks, we — together with more than 800 other Jews and in partnership with more than 40 Jewish organizations — have been reaching out to voters across the country as part of Dayenu’s Chutzpah 2020 campaign.
Jews young and old, from across the country, have been gathering (virtually) twice a week to contact voters in key states, especially those experiencing immediate impacts of the climate crisis like triple-digit heat in Arizona, flooding in Michigan and frequent hurricanes in Florida.
We identified voters who are “climate-concerned” using research from Yale University’s Program on Climate Change Communication and matched this data to voters who are Jewish, as well as those who are infrequent voters. We contacted them to boost voter turnout and urge leaders to have the chutzpah to take bold action on climate change.
Dayenu volunteers, ranging in age from middle school students to baby boomers, have reached out by phone and text to voters across Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
We set out with a goal to reach 200,000 voters. By election day, we have reached more than three quarters of a million voters.