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.”
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.
Why was this Earth Day different from all other Earth Days?
There were many reasons. For one thing, this year’s national celebration of the planet turned 50. For another, this Earth Day, celebrated on Wednesday, Apr. 22, occurred in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Consequently, Earth Day 2020 was the first to take place entirely online.
But lest you think a virtual celebration of Earth Day is less momentous than the usual live Earth Day observances, think again.
Joelle Novey, director of Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light: “All of us are called to protect and to restore This is the central reality we face.”
This Passover, abandoning bread for matzah will hardly register as a disruptive change. Our experience of the coronavirus has upended everything. It turns out our world is much more fragile than we thought.
Things we have always taken for granted — that grocery stores will be stocked with food; hospitals will have available beds and health-care workers proper protective gear; that we can go to school and work; that we can spend time in gyms and synagogues; and that we can hug our family and friends — are no longer the realty.
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.
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