In the face of the climate crisis, the human species faces an unparalleled existential crisis – will we survive, or will we follow the path of the dodo bird and other species now extinct? Can we both acknowledge the reality of anthropocentric climate change and respond with the speed and vigor required to reverse its trajectory?
The jury is still out on these questions. Much is being done around the globe, from developing technologies to reduce energy consumption, to transforming farming practices to educating women and girls, and much more. By looking at the actions of local organizations and communities, it is possible to have hope. But when one measures the rate of Arctic ice melt, ocean acidification and sea-level rise, or global air and water temperature rise, the cards appear stacked against a positive outcome.
This existential crisis transforms the question of responding to climate change into a moral and universal one. Even if we manage to slow the rate of change of the climate, vulnerable populations are already being hit by climate impacts – note small island nations already disappearing under rising seas, poor communities without access to refuge from increasingly frequent and powerful storms and climate refugees streaming across national borders in search of a reasonable life. The list goes on.
Climate disruption is a global problem, but in the face of the existential threat it poses and the need for a moral voice in response, understanding and responding to climate change becomes a Jewish issue. Today’s Generation Xers are the parents of children whose future is in question. Today’s Millennials wonder about their own future – will the planet even be livable a generation or two from now? And regardless of how that question gets answered, all of us, but especially young people, are burdened with the unenviable task of finding the spiritual, psychological, emotional, and physical strength to absorb the reality of what is happening, processing it, and finding new meaning. On this journey, chochma/Jewish wisdom, can play a vital role.
Responding with honesty and courage to climate disruption is critical in order for the Jewish community to exhibit moral leadership both to our own community as well as to the world beyond. Responding with eyes and hearts and institutional doors wide open and with a readiness to become part of the solution instead of the problem, at every level, is critical in order for Jews of any age to be able to be fully present to the climate crisis however they identify, whether tribal or covenantal. Being ready to reach deep into the chochma/wisdom available within our tradition opens the opportunity to confront the existential and moral nature of what is happening to the planet with the full participation of body, mind, and soul. Becoming partners in responding to climate change provides the Jewish community with the opportunity to provide support and resources for emotional, spiritual, and psychological resiliency to all generations.
In 2013 (at LimmudBoston), the Jewish Climate Action Network stepped into the fray, putting the words “Jewish” and “Climate Action” together in a way that had not previously been done. Since then, a group of volunteers from the greater Boston area has gathered together to mobilize Jewish communities to build resiliency and take strong leadership against climate change through education, carbon footprint reduction, and sustainable practices. To this end, JCAN publicly brings an organized Jewish presence to the climate crisis conversation; inspires and mobilizes Jewish communities to take leadership and participate in meaningful climate action and justice campaigns; builds relationships with environmental and justice leaders; encourages and facilitates holistic sustainability in Jewish institutions, from moving to fossil fuel free investments to zero net waste and energy usage; encourages education on both climate change and how Jewish wisdom speaks to human responsibility for the planet; and develops and provides Jewish wisdom resources that relate to climate change and our human and Jewish relationship to the Earth.
Through these various methods of engagement, JCAN’s efforts align with Schwarz’s four propositions in Jewish Megatrends. Due to the gift of its indigenous roots and strong connections to the Earth, Jewish tradition is filled with chochma/wisdom about the sacred nature of the Universe and our human relationship to it, as well as the responsibility that comes with being sentient, spiritual beings.
Climate change is, by its broad nature, the major social justice issue of our times, one that acts as an umbrella under which all other social justice issues become magnified. If we want to save the planet, we must begin by saving it with and for the poor and vulnerable, for they are often the front-line communities. Engaging in climate action and climate justice work makes the tzedek/justice portion of any Jewish institution’s work more complete.
Secular climate organizations and businesses engaged in renewable energy and conservation have a high percentage of Jews, brought by the Jewish values of tzedek/justice and concern for the planet. JCAN’s visible and vocal presence in the public sphere, including both local and national climate actions, demonstrates to the unaffiliated of any age, but Millennials and Gen Xers in particular, that the Jewish community cares about them and their future.
In the face of the terrifying prospects for the future of our planet–as well as terrifying events in the present–Jewish climate activism can provide a sense of kedusha/sacred purpose and meaning. Working together to preserve the planet for future generations–of all faiths and no faith–as well as all the non-human inhabitants of the Earth, and doing so within the context of their Jewish identity, provides a deep sense of kehillah/community and builds relationships across communities and theological identities.
JCAN makes it possible for people with a passionate need to respond to the climate crisis to authentically bring their Jewish souls to this work in community with other Jews, at the same time that it makes it possible for the Jewish community to collectively exhibit concern and take action with a deep Jewish voice.
Rabbi Katy Allen is the co-founder and President pro-tem of the Jewish Climate Action Network and the founder and rabbi of Ma’yan Tikvah – A Wellspring of Hope, an alternative congregation that holds services outdoors all year long. She is a board-certified and former hospital and hospice chaplain who received her ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion NY in 2005, and who now serves as an eco-chaplain through the One Earth Collaborative.