The Jewish News
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.”
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.
For those who live in the Bay Area, Sept. 9 was a day they will never forget. Nina Schmier remembers waking up that morning to a completely orange sky, the bizarre byproduct of an intense wildfire season that has become an annual occurrence for Californians.
“I felt like everything was breaking down in our world,” said Schmier, a 16-year-old who attends Hillsdale High School in San Mateo.
The recent blazes in the state, scientists say, were worsened by a warming planet.
But are voters in the upcoming election focused on climate change? It’s an issue that can easily get buried, with the national conversation dominated by Covid-19, the possibility of a disputed election, racial justice protests, the economy, debates over health care, Amy Coney Barrett’s ascension to the Supreme Court, the spectre of right-wing fringe groups and the war against disinformation.
But for Schmier and others, those orange skies were a foreshadowing of a disastrous future.
Now, she is one of many young activists determined to keep climate change at the forefront of voters’ minds.
Max Sussman, 31, spends much of his life advocating for climate justice. As important as the work is to him, however, he worries that it keeps him from being as active in the Jewish community as he would like.
That dynamic shifted a little over a year ago when he met a rabbi at an event protecting Native American land. The two sat together and Sussman learned about Dayenu, a national organization that describes itself as a Jewish call to climate action. Suddenly he found a place where two central aspects of his life could intersect.
Dayenu is reaching out to voters in seven states including Arizona, Florida and Pennsylvania before the general election on Nov. 3. Its Chutzpah 2020 campaign is an effort to talk to Jewish voters about the reality of climate change and methods of combating it with “spiritual audacity and bold political action,” said Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, the CEO and founder.
The climate movement in the United States has grown increasingly diverse in recent years, with young people and front-line communities leading the way. But what has been missing, according to Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, is a strong Jewish mobilization effort at the national level.
Rosenn’s newly launched organization, Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action, wants to change that.
The Hebrew phrase “dayenu” is well-known among Jews. It’s the title of a popular song communities have sung at Passover celebrations for a millennium now. In English, dayenu is typically translated as “it would have been enough,” reflecting gratitude for all of God’s gifts.
But there is another possible translation, rooted more in urgency than thanks, that Jewish environmentalists say speaks to the current moment.
“‘We’ve had enough,’” Rosenn, Dayenu’s founder and CEO, said in a telephone interview. “It’s time for us all to act. We’ve had enough with the climate changing and there not being robust enough action.”
A new national Jewish group dedicated to tackling the climate crisis is emphasizing the connections between racial injustice and a degraded environment.
Minority communities, says Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, founder and CEO of the new group, Dayenu, “are more likely to have polluting industries close by, less access to cooling in extreme heat, and significantly limited access to quality medical care.”
Launched one month before George Floyd’s killing in police custody led to weeks of demonstrations against police brutality and racial injustice, Dayenu aims to link the issues in its push for clean energy and a “Just Green Recovery” — a pledge by the presidential candidates to rebuild the world after the coronavirus so that it is more just and sustainable rather than supporting the coal and gas industries.
Rabbi Jennie Rosenn has spent most of her career working on Jewish social justice causes. Until recently, however, there was one issue that didn’t resonate as strong.
“The environment was something that I knew was important, but I wasn’t passionate in my kishkes [gut] about it the way that I was other issues,” said the New-York based rabbi, who until 2017 led community engagement for the Jewish refugee resettlement group HIAS.
That changed over the last few years, especially after Rosenn experienced a heat wave firsthand one summer in the San Francisco Bay Area “that felt apocalyptic.”
She decided last summer that she wanted to found an organization dedicated to fighting the climate crisis, and on Monday the rabbi launched Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action.
Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action, a new national Jewish organization dedicated to confronting the climate crisis, is preparing to launch in early 2020. Founded by Rabbi Jennie Rosenn in partnership with social justice and environmental leaders in the field, and with nearly a million dollars of seed funding secured, Dayenu will be an intergenerational organization mobilizing the Jewish community to take bold political action and wrestle with the deep questions that surface as we face the climate crisis.