In the last month, record heat waves descended upon the Pacific Northwest, killing hundreds. Concurrently, wildfires are spiraling out of control, while once-in-a-generation flooding hits the Midwest. Last week, New York City’s air quality declined precipitously as a result of the fires more than 3,000 miles away. At this point, it is inarguable that climate change is devastating our natural world, our economy and our society; truly, the climate crisis knows no boundaries. We simply cannot wait any longer to address this unfolding disaster.
Right now, Congressional negotiations are unfolding on a broad infrastructure package alongside a $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill, which together carry a unique opportunity for Congress to make historic investments in clean energy, environmental justice and sustainable transportation. Dayenu, a national organization started a year ago to mobilize a Jewish climate action, was created to meet this moment. Dayenu is building an intergenerational movement of American Jews to confront the climate crisis with decisive action and spiritual courage.
As leaders of the New York Dayenu chapter, we are mobilizing our neighbors to engage in climate action. Last week, our chapter delivered Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer a letter signed by more than 300 Jewish New Yorkers demanding that the upcoming infrastructure package invest in good-paying jobs and transition our country towards an environmentally just future. Given the threat posed by climate change, we believe this package must include investments in energy efficiency, clean energy, transportation, targeted funding to combat environmental racism, a national Clean Electricity Standard and support for the care economy that will allow a diverse clean economy workforce.
President Joe Biden has pursued a bold agenda to address the climate crisis. On his first day in office, he had the United States rejoin the Paris climate agreement. A week later, he signed an executive order to “Tackle the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad.” On Earth Day, April 22, he convened world leaders to address the urgent need for collective action on the climate crisis. During that summit, he announced that the United States will target reducing planet-warming emissions by 50 percent to 52 percent across the economy by 2030 compared with 2005 levels. The Biden administration also proposed the American Jobs Plan, part of the administration’s economic recovery proposals that includes historic investments in climate action through infrastructure that would create good-paying jobs while making the American economy more equitable and sustainable. These positive actions have been well-received by religious leaders, who continue to call for bold action in defense of God’s creation.
An unfathomable tragedy is unfolding right now in Surfside, where eleven people are confirmed dead and 150 still missing.
The collapse of an apartment building — without warning, and for reasons that remain unclear — defies expectation. Tragedies like these are moments of shattering. We are praying for the families of those who have perished and that survivors may yet be discovered beneath the rubble.
For Jews, the collapse of the Champlain Towers strikes particularly close to home. Over a third of North Beach, where the building is located, is Jewish — part of a vibrant and diverse community. Florida is home for many of us, a place of family for others, and a cultural locus for the Jewish community across the country and world.
Like many, we are horrified by the unfolding scenes of devastation in Surfside. We know that in the short term, immediate assistance is needed for the victims and their families: this is a tragedy that will reverberate for a long time through the Jewish and the broader Surfside community. To that end, the Greater Miami Jewish Federation has set up an emergency assistance fund that will support those in the community who have been impacted by this tragedy, alongside other local charities. Let us support those who are suffering right now and grieve together, as a community, in this heartbreaking time.
But let us also recognize the urgent need to invest in the resilient infrastructure our communities need to build a future that is safe, equitable, and livable for generations to come.
What exactly caused this tragedy remains uncertain. But we do know that climate change is shifting the ground underneath South Florida in dramatic and destructive ways.
Rabbi Jennie Rosenn had already dedicated her career to the Jewish pursuit of social justice when, six years ago, she experienced an awakening to the climate crisis.
She had been reading more about the environment, both in the press and in reports from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Then she went to San Francisco to visit her father during a heat wave. Rosenn knew that compared to other climate catastrophes, high temperatures in the Bay Area were relatively insignificant, but it was a powerful enough experience to give her a hint of the “apocalyptic” nature of the global problem.
“People had been talking about this for years,” she told eJewishPhilanthropy. “How did I not get this?”
She also came to realize that the unequal impacts of climate change on low-income and minority populations made the environment a social justice issue, and started to think about creating a new Jewish organization that would focus on environmental policy and ground its work in Jewish values, text and ritual. The result was Dayenu, which launched in April, 2020.
“This was not something to do lightly,” Rosenn said. “I don’t have thick skin. And it would be disruptive in certain ways. But we all need to be doing uncomfortable things right now to respond to this moment.”
In 2019, Rabbi Jennie Rosenn—a veteran of the Jewish nonprofit world—founded Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action. In March 2021, Steven Spielberg selected the organization, which has quickly sprung into the center of the vibrant climate justice movement, to receive a portion of his million-dollar Genesis Prize.
Arielle Silver-Willner: What drove you to start Dayenu?
Rabbi Jennie Rosenn: I once thought of “the environment” as out there, and was less viscerally connected than I was to people, to civil and human rights issues. But a lot of things contributed to my awakening.
I remember reading reports on the climate crisis and realizing that this was coming much faster and more furiously, and that terrified me. Without major change, climate collapse was going to happen in my lifetime! And the future for my children, let alone my grandchildren, was in peril. Would there be enough food to eat? Water to drink? Clean air to breathe? I felt like, “Where the hell have I been?! People have been talking about this for years. How did I not get it?”
Fiery orange skies. A record number of tropical storms. A global pandemic, triggered by humanity’s unstinting exploitation of natural resources. For 364 days of the year, doomsday messages dominate the world of climate media. As a graduate student in Environmental Communication, I consume a lot of them. And sometimes, those messages consume me.
But then there is Earth Day.
Once a year, motivational newsletters flood my email inbox, inspiring me to reduce my meat consumption, plant a tree in my backyard and beautify the world around me. I go on my favorite hike, notice native plants in newfound places and try my best to convince my parents to invest in solar panels. On Earth Day, I feel true motivation to take action on behalf of our planet’s climate. This 51-year-old holiday makes me feel like a sustainable world is possible and that, by reducing my own carbon emissions, I can make an impact in this monstrosity of a crisis.
Yet when I consider just how bad our climatic future might be, Earth Day feels painfully inadequate. As the highest emitter of carbon dioxide cumulatively, America is not doing nearly enough to reduce its emissions. President Joe Biden’s recently proposed infrastructure plan aims to reduce emissions by investing $2 trillion in public transit, electric vehicle infrastructure, disaster relief and climate research. Although the plan is an important start, it would only cover a fifth of what multiple reports estimate the federal government must invest to avoid the most severe consequences of global warming.
What can one person do about climate change? For Grace Wallis, the answer is simple: a lot, but not enough. “Individual actions don’t create direct change, immediate change, in the areas that are most effective — which would be policy change,” she said.
That’s why the 23-year-old Stanford grad student is focusing not only on modifying her own personal actions but also working to mitigate climate change at the state level, lobbying lawmakers in the Capitol on issues such as fracking and pollution. She’s been doing it with the help of climate organization Dayenu, a New York-based national endeavor that is helping to mobilize the Jewish community on what it sees as the No. 1 issue of our time.
“Policy is really impactful, and community is really impactful in the face of climate change,” Wallis said. “And that’s what Dayenu is really about.”
Founded in April 2020 by Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, Dayenu was set up to give ordinary people the tools and information they need to get educated, raise awareness and pressure elected officials on environmental issues. They’re encouraged to set up their own groups, called “circles,” to work autonomously at the community level, but with coordination and support from the national organization. According to Dayenu’s director of organizing Vicki Kaplan, there are nine Dayenu Circles in the Bay Area so far, with more forming each week.
“I think the fact that people are starting Dayenu Circles shows just how much appreciation there is in the Jewish community for bolder and more direct collective action to address the climate crisis,” Kaplan said.
NEW YORK (AP) — Steven Spielberg said Thursday that he will donate his $1 million Genesis Prize to 10 nonprofits that are working for racial and economic justice. The film director and his wife, actress Kate Capshaw, will match those donations with $1 million of their own.
In February, Spielberg received Israel’s prestigious 2021 Genesis Prize in recognition of his contribution to cinema, his philanthropic works and his efforts to preserve the memory of the Holocaust.
“America is facing a crisis, and our responsibility is to act now,” Spielberg said in a statement, adding that Judaism and Jewish history provide “the ethical precepts commanding us to work for a more just and equitable world.”
Spielberg will donate to Avodah, Black Voters Matter, Collaborative for Jewish Organizing, Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action, Jews of Color Initiative, Justice for Migrant Women, National Domestic Workers Alliance, Native American Rights Fund, One Fair Wage and Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
“We admire these organizations for their honesty and moral imagination and urge all those who share this vision to join us, so that the work of these non-profits may continue and grow,” Spielberg said in a statement.
Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, Dayenu’s founder and CEO, said the group was honored by the donation.
“This grant is a timely recognition that climate justice is a Jewish issue, and that confronting the climate crisis requires addressing racial and economic injustice,” Rosenn said in a statement.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is fighting climate change one vegan meal at a time.
Veganism transforms an individual and the whole family unit, Yanklowitz said, because it makes people more thoughtful about what they are eating and why. It also heightens their awareness of the impact they are having on the environment.
“I’m very grateful for those working on political revolutions, but I want to be on the side of a spiritual revolution that starts person by person, home by home,” he said.
From changing an individual’s diet to garnering community support for legislative changes, Jewish leaders across the country gathered to discuss the best ways to take on climate change.. Yanklowitz was one of five activists who addressed the relationship between Judaism and environmental activism during the Judaism, Science and Medicine Group’s annual conference hosted by Arizona State University via Zoom on Feb. 28, 2021.
In 2014, a Public Religion Research Institute survey found 78% of American Jews consider climate change either “a crisis” or “a major problem” — the highest proportion of any religious group in America.
But that sentiment doesn’t necessarily translate to action.
“There was amazing work happening, there continues to be great work happening and we need more — for the Jewish community to fully show up in all of our people and power and play a critical role in the larger national climate movement, and in turn, the global climate movement,” said Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, founder and CEO of Dayenu. She launched the organization last April to mobilize the American Jewish community to confront the climate crisis.
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.
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