Like the Hindu faith, the Jewish faith is among the oldest continuous religions, born when people lived in nature, not in cities. Some of Judaism’s major holidays are based on ancient harvest festivals: wheat and barley in late spring, olives and grapes in autumn. We even have a New Year of the Trees, one of my favorite holidays. The blossoming of the almond tree, the first tree to bloom in Israel, signals its start. I planted an almond tree in my garden here in San Jose just to wonder at its beauty in bloom.
Over millennia, life continued, following Earth’s natural rhythms: rain in its season, dry warmth in its. People, like the wildlife around them, lived within the boundaries of Earth’s cycles. In the past century, however, human technology began to overtake nature. Our dominance of nature became pronounced in the past 50 years. As we caused the natural world to become out of sync and detrimental to life, environmental organizations, both secular and religious, grew to counter the problems. In the past few years, one environmental crisis—more threatening than any other—loomed as existential: climate change.
The Jewish community had no organization devoted solely to solving the climate-change crisis. Two years ago, Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, who worked for 20-plus years in social justice organizations, realized that many of the issues she worked on would be ameliorated by tackling climate change. So she started Dayenu: a Jewish Call for Climate Action.
As we make our way through this hot, smoky summer — witnessing record-breaking temperatures and the uncontrollable spread of fires in California and Oregon — the reality of climate change can no longer be ignored. Since the industrial revolution, human activities have polluted our atmosphere with 2.4 trillion metric tons of carbon dioxide, an unfathomable amount of a greenhouse gas that’s proven to lead to extreme weather, food-supply shortages, increased wildfires, health problems, and so much more. Communities on the frontlines of poverty, racism, and pollution suffer these consequences most intensely. Our broken world is calling out for Tikkun Olam – for repair.
San Jose Spotlight
Summarizing the 4,000-page study, carefully assembled by teams of climate scientists around the world, the UN released a statement that simply said, “This assessment of the latest science is a severe warning regarding the well-being of human society and all life on Earth. It is testimony to the fact that efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the past decades have been wholly insufficient.”
For over a century researchers have suspected that we are warming our atmosphere, and for the past 50 years evidence has mounted that the culprit was increased burning of fossil fuels. Since 1965, every U.S. president (with one notable exception) has warned that global warming was a threat to national security, and pledged to curb emissions. But in all these decades no broad-based, systematic action was designed to address this looming crisis.
No surprise that for decades comprehensive federal efforts to reduce carbon consumption have been stymied by fossil fuel companies. Borrowing the playbook from the tobacco industry, they spent millions on propaganda designed to cast doubt on the role of carbon emissions. When, despite their hand waving, further studies showed greenhouse gases to be the cause—and a carbon tax was proposed as the cure—they switched tactics to suggest that individual consumers could restore the climate simply by changing light bulbs and planting trees.
A flyer in the window of a local hardware store caught my eye recently: “Sea Level Rise is Real. Here’s how you can help.” The first item on the list of suggested actions read ”pick up litter.”
I felt a chill as I imagined some well-intentioned community group devoting time and effort to disseminating this lie. There is no amount of personal greening or neighborhood clean-ups that will make a dent in the climate crisis. The recent IPCC report makes clear that we are hurtling towards a world where close to 1 billion people suffer in extreme heat and hundreds of millions suffer drought.
One morning this spring I was circling the yard behind my apartment on the phone with my therapist. I’d perfected the particular choreography of our virtual sessions. Pacing the largest outside area that didn’t necessitate a mask, I rolled exercise into the process of analyzing my family dynamics or my self-confidence deficit or my gnawing sense of existential doom.
That week, the topic was doom. Specifically, the climate crisis. As I attempted to unravel my knotted mess of feelings, differentiating the dread from the anxiety and the helplessness from the despair, she stopped me. “Were any of your grandparents Holocaust survivors?” she asked.
“No, they weren’t,” I replied. Taken aback, I started to scroll back through what I had said to find what might have tipped her off. Was it my lack of faith in governments and corporations to work in the best interest of humanity? Or expressing my primal sense of need to stay physically close to loved ones in an attempt to ensure our safety?
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.
Pipeline 3 is a human rights, environmental and climate disaster … and the Climate Crisis is a Jewish issue
My first tallit was based on the second verse of Genesis. Inscribed on the atarah/neckband was: V’ru’ach Elohim mirachefet al p’nai hamayim – “_And the spirit of God hovered over the face of the water.” All that existed was God and water amid the void. My teacher, Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank _z”l, taught that this was the moment of greatest potential, when anything could happen. Indeed, with two words, God created light, and then the rest of the universe. I would reconnect to that sense of possibility each time I put it over my head to say the blessing.
Last month, as I listened to indigenous elders in northern Minnesota talking about their responsibility to the water and relationship to the Divine, this moment from Torah flooded my imagination.
I was one of 2,000 people that morning in Anishinaabe territory, sitting in silence, honored by hospitality and humor, captivated by stories of struggles for human and cultural rights, and inspired by education about treaty rights and the campaign against the rebuilding of Pipeline 3 by a Canadian multinational. This pipeline would carry tar sands from Alberta through untouched wetlands and the Mississippi headwaters before terminating in Superior, Wisconsin. The following day we accompanied the Anishinaabe leaders to vulnerable spots along the pipeline route to amplify their call to protect the waters and their rights to hunt, fish, gather and grow on the wetlands.
Of the thousands in attendance, 300 were members of an interfaith coalition, bringing the values and voices of religious traditions to the gathering. The Jewish delegation, about 30 strong, included groups from Chicago and Minneapolis and a diverse cohort from Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Justice, including two of us from Milwaukee. We shared an understanding of earth and water as gifts we’re called to protect and repair, and of air as ru’ach Elohim.
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.”