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.”
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.
With the election less than three weeks away, Jewish groups are out in force seeking volunteers to get out the vote.
Here are four Jewish ways to volunteer on and before November 3rd.
Organize for the environment with Dayenu
Dayenu, a national Jewish start-up has been working to drum-up political engagement at the intersection of two major interest groups before the 2020 election, Jews and environmentalists.
“Voters are paying attention to the climate crisis in the 2020 elections — the question is how we can help them take action on their convictions,” said Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, CEO and Founder of Dayenu. “Grounded in our Jewish values, Dayenu is encouraging Jewish Americans to confront the catastrophic impacts of climate change, racism, and the COVID-19 pandemic, and make change on a systemic level. Together, we can build a country where all people have clean air and water, good jobs, and strong communities. But not unless we vote.”
Dayenu is looking for volunteers to help organize around the intersection of climate justice and Jewish Identity. Join them at their website: https://dayenu.org/signup
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.
As the founder of a new organization building a Jewish movement to confront the climate crisis, the lead-up to the High Holidays this year is painfully resonant.
“Who by fire?” the Unetaneh Tokef prayer asks. “Who by water?”
This year, we will recite the prayer amid unprecedented fires, destruction and toxic smoke in the West and flooding in the South, where a series of slow-moving storms have left communities underwater.
Both of these disasters are fueled by climate change and the policies and inaction that continue to make it worse. Most years, the shofar blasts awaken us. This year, we are already painfully awake.
Millions of Americans are living through the unimaginable. Those of us in other parts of the country are pierced by daily images of destruction and surreal statistics. We talk with family, friends and colleagues out West who tell us it is “apocalyptic.” We catch a glimpse of what will soon be our reality — if not by fire then by water, or heat, or drought. The devastation of climate change is not a distant future. It is now.
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.”