What if We Stopped Waiting? Climate Action Now

Updated: Jun 5, 2019

I stumbled into learning about climate change about five years ago, while in the midst of Rabbinic School. Nothing beforehand could have prepared me for the scale of what I learned because sea-level rise and dying polar bears are just the tip of this iceberg (pun intended). It’s all of the other consequences of environmental disruption that will eventually touch every one of us which leave me concerned. To be clear: the increase in frequency and intensity of hurricanes, droughts, and flooding, the consequent civil disruption and migration to the U.S. and around the world (including Israel),the consequent disruption of world crop production, as well as disruption to energy infrastructure, an increase to xenophobia of every kind including anti-semitism, and insect-borne viruses such as Lyme and Zika, etc.

Naturally, these realities provoke fear, as well as denial. Both are normal emotional response to danger in front of us, and the grief for massive loss of life, human and otherwise (1) As clergy, I think our job to help our communities face the threats before them, honor realistic fears as they arise, and transform them into courage, creativity, and wise action. For good or for worse, the Jewish community has had a lot of practice responding to crises. As just one personal example, I am only able to write this reflection because of the organizing power of the American Jewish community in the 1970’s and 1980’s to pull down the Iron Curtain and free 2 million Soviet Jews. I am one of those Jews, only here because thousands of you reading this post, organized, called your Senators, and took to the streets. I am still dumbfounded by the commitment that took, though I know it was founded upon Soviet Jews who were willing to risk losing their jobs, go to jail, and sometimes risk their lives to try to get your attention and free themselves. (2) At the same time, the danger of environmental destruction is outstandingly more complicated and bigger than any of the past. It’s not the “most important” or “biggest” issue, but the context for all issues. You can’t do any of the mitzvot when your house is on fire. Given the scale of what is at stake today, it is natural for us to feel that at a loss for what to do, or to believe that we as individuals cannot possibly do anything big enough. (3) It also serves political power to convince citizens that a person has to be somehow special to make a political difference, or that our greatest power as citizens lies in our consumer choices instead of political acts.

Thankfully, there are also many reasons for hope today. The Green New Deal has started a new level of conversation around the country. It’s being championed by young adults of the Sunrise Movement, which feels a bit Biblical, “And God will turns the hearts of the parents to the children…”(4) In Europe, a swiss 16-year-old named Greta Thunberg ignited worldwide weekly protest on Friday afternoon by her example. A group called Extinction Rebellion, with a scary but potentially appropriate name, has pushed its government to declare a “Climate Emergency” with their protests. With hope and skepticism, we await what’s next. However, what if we stopped waiting? When people ask me “what should I do?” I usually turn that question into “What are you willing to do?”

I want to make two suggestions in response to this question. First, you do not need to become a professional political organizer to help us transition us to a more ecologically-sane society , we just need you to contribute whatever your field of expertise and passion. (5) If you’re interested and able to contribute politically, that’s fantastic, please do that! At the same time, there are today already nearly 1,000,000 (that’s right, 1 million) organizations, spread through every continent, working towards a sane and just ecological transition. (6) Therefore, your greatest strength may be, not learning some new political skills, but leveraging your professional skills to volunteering with the local/civic organizations already doing this work. The just and green transition that is already underway requires every kind of skill. We need engineers to help us re-think technology, doctors to research and amplify the health threats of climate change and treatments, artists and poets to help us more creatively envision a thriving future, business folks to help raise money and rethink how the economy works, teachers to tend to the souls of young folks and help preserve their natural awe for nature, therapists to help us understand “denial” as a stage of grief (in addition to a political strategy), and everyone else in between. As for Rabbis, I suggest our role is as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel z”l taught, “to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable” We can create ritual to help our communities cope in these challenging times, drawing on depths of resilience throughout our history, and re-framing this from a time of partisan fears to an opportunity for vision and leadership.

Number two, perhaps it's time for the Jewish community to reframe our identity in the world, and to make an understanding of climate change the context for all the justice work that we do, the way that we pray, and the way that we think? (7) Post-holocaust, a 614th amendment was suggested – to not give Hitler a posthumous victory by letting the Jewish people die out. Given that the Pentagon describes Climate Change as a “threat multiplier,” the threat we are under today is all too real. On the other end of the motivational spectrum, this reframing would also be a remembering, a recognition that Judaism is an Earth-centered civilization. Perhaps Bereisheet (Genesis) names us Adam, after Adamah/Earth, as a time capsule for this exact generation, so that we may all become Adamah-niks (8), Jews who know that our lives depend on a healthy relationship with the Adamah/Earth and the fullness thereof? As an immigrant from the Soviet Union who is only here because so many of you organized and lobbied, and so many other Soviet Jews risked their livelihoods and lives, I wonder, what will happen when we're able to make that transformation?

[1] Denial too, is one natural response to pain, long-understood as a stage in the process of dealing with grief. Of course, denial is also a political/corporate strategy to protect fossil fuel interests. It's important to understand both these forms.

[2] I also know from conversations with some of you that the organizing to free Soviet Jewry was in significant part motivated by the memory of not doing enough, early enough, during the Shoah.

[3] In my attempt to make sense of things, I’ve spent the last five years getting my hands dirty on farms whenever I can - to try to understand how humanity has arrived at this turning point. I’ve joined protests and organized. Last summer, exasperated by the immensity of it all, I did what many of our ancestors did when faced with a spiritual crisis, spending the summer in Pilgrimage, in prayer and reflection on this new level of “exile” and destruction in our world. Tisha b’Av was real in a new way that year, as the global heat-wave caught me in southern New York state, and I ran out of water far between small towns with no one even driving by to ask for help for hours.

[4] Malachi 3:26 (or Malachi 4:6 in the Christian version)

[5]This would have the side-benefits of giving all of us more local control over food production, energy-independence, time our families and neighbors, and the health benefits of increased time in nature, among many others (none of which should be partisan issues).

[6] While I agree with much of what Klein writes in “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate” I don’t think that capitalism is the root of our problem. Communism is just as bad at taking into account human health and ecological consequences of business, and the roots of our problems go back many centuries before either of these institutions to a mindset which objectifies nature in general.

[7] Pope Francis already did this with his Climate Encyclical. Rev. Jim Antall did it for the United Church of Christ with his recent book, “Climate Change, Climate Church”

[8] The word Adamah-nik is used to describe people who have participated in a Jewish environmental/educational program called Adamah, part of a network of such organizations which has grown exponentially in the U.S. in the last several decades. Here, however, I am using it to refer to something much bigger.