Series on Climate and Major Religions

Judaism and Climate Change

Major sectors of the Jewish Community are taking strong positions on combating climate change. But philosophies and approaches differ somewhat from one branch of Judaism to another.

When Jewish organizational leaders gathered February 6 in New York, two days before the Jewish holiday of Tu B’shvat, the New Year for the trees, they signed a declaration setting a community-wide goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 14 percent by 2014.

The Jewish Environmental and Energy Imperative, signed by 50 Jewish leaders “across the political and religious spectrum,” also establishes a goal of reducing Jewish community greenhouse gases by 83 percent of 2005 levels by 2050 — the national goal announced by President Obama in Copenhagen — and it encourages a community-wide approach to greening synagogues, homes, and buildings.


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Jewish leaders meeting in New York sign declaration to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The declaration is spearheaded by The Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, COEJL, a network of 27 national organizations. It represents the latest development in a flurry of activity among the Jewish community on initiatives to combat climate change.

There are dozens of organizations set up to address Jewish efforts on the environment, both in the U.S. and around the world, especially in Israel. They address issues ranging from the greening of synagogues, to Jewish environmental education, organic farming, and mobilization against natural gas “fracking.”

Lose ‘Moral Compass’ … Harm to Selves and to Earth

With a direct link to nature and the environment, Judaism is founded on the basis of an agrarian society, and many Jewish festivals are agricultural celebrations. The principal philosophical underpinning is found in Genesis, where humans are put in the Garden of Eden to be “stewards” of the Earth. There is a “notion of responsibility, that the human is responsible for the well being of the Earth,” Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, a professor of history and director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Arizona State University, said in a phone interview. The concept is founded on the conviction that the way humans till the Earth relates to moral integrity; lose their moral compass, and humans will harm the Earth, themselves, and their society, Tirosh-Samuelson says.

That scenario is playing itself out today, says Arthur Waskow, a left-leaning Rabbi and Director of The Shalom Center, a group intended to address issues of social justice and protection of the Earth. He says burning fossil fuels violates the covenant with God. “Pouring more CO2 into the atmosphere is a crisis in God’s name and for the web of life on the planet,” he said in a phone interview. He draws parallels between the way the Pharaoh of Egypt, addicted to his own power, refused to stop oppressing humans and as a result suffered the plagues — all ecological disasters. “Today the Pharaohs are giant corporations: big coal, big oil, and big natural gas,” he says. “The only way to deal with a modern-day Pharaoh is to organize the people.”

Protecting Creation ‘Generation to Generation’

Jews are generally likely to accept the results of the science community, which convinces them that climate change is occurring, says Lawrence Troster, a Rabbinic director at J Street, a pro-Israel lobbying group. He also runs an interfaith environmental training program for religious leaders and is considered one of the nation’s leading Jewish eco-theologians. Given what he sees as their strong confidence in scientific evidence, he said in a phone interview, Jews are eager to play a role in addressing climate change.

Because many Jews tend to be on the liberal to progressive side of the political spectrum, they’ve long been active on social issues. The environment, and climate change in particular, is no exception.

“Our tagline is protecting creation generation to generation,” said Sybil Sanchez, director of COEJL, which was established in 1993. “My goal is to help those who care about this issue be as effective as they can be,” she said in a phone interview. She says that in the weeks since the February 6 meeting in New York, several of her member organizations already have assigned staff to participate in a sustainability program to help achieve the energy initiative goals.

Different Branches of Judaism, Different Approaches

Though Jews as a group have been active, the philosophy on the need for environmental activism varies among the different branches. They follow a type of continuum, with Reconstructionist being the most left-leaning, then Reform, Conservative and Orthodox, which consists of the most observant. Troster, a Conservative Rabbi, says that the Reform and Reconstructionist have done a much better job on the national level, with the Orthodox — the more inward-looking and least open to the outside, secular world – having done the least.

That pattern holds true the further to the right you go, he said, with Hasidism, the most observant sect, entirely isolated and opposed to modern science or anything having to do with the secular world. However, Troster says there are pockets of activism within all Jewish communities. And, he points out that there is much action occurring among more secular Jews.

One of those groups is Hazon, aimed at creating a healthier and more sustainable Jewish community. Nigel Savage, Hazon’s director, said in a phone interview that his focus is on “shifting the axis of Jewish life by one or two degrees to help people live more sustainably.” He says the biggest challenge on climate change is how best to make a dent on an issue that’s so large, especially since the roughly 6.6 million Jews in the U.S. represent only 2 percent of the population. But he says Hazon has experienced success. The group’s efforts have resulted in the largest faith-based community-supported agriculture network, with roughly 10,000 Jewish families supporting four dozen farms.

Religious Leaders an ‘Under-Tapped’ Means of Change

The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, founded in 2010, promotes action on sustainability based on religious teachings. It’s been holding interfaith environmental conferences and training emerging clergy on environmental issues, and it hosts Jewish eco-seminars intended to engage a generation of young Jews deeply concerned about the future of Earth.

“We feel religious leaders represent an under-tapped sector of society to promote change,” Yonatan Neril, a Rabbi and the group’s founder and executive director, said in a phone interview. “To the extent that opposition [on climate change] is coming from religious quarters in the U.S., our efforts to work within the religious population may have an effect in influencing climate change discussions.”

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of The Rabbinical Assembly, representing 1,600 conservative Rabbis around the world, says Conservative Jews have been particularly active, bringing the voice of tradition, and the Torah, into civic space. The Rabbinical Assembly was instrumental in founding COEJL and called upon Jewish institutions to perform environmental self-evaluations and energy audits. The group has made a commitment to use only sustainable products at religious functions.

The Reform movement is represented by the Religious Action Center, an advocacy arm, which has been active in calling for measures to combat climate change. In 2009, it passed a comprehensive resolution on climate change and energy that, among other things, supported measures such as “cap-and-trade” to reduce greenhouse gasses. The group also promoted tougher fuel economy standards.

“The Reform movement historically has been a prophetic movement, thinking about Judaism in terms of social justice as a motivating factor in how we live our lives as Jews,” says Ariana Silverman, a Reform Rabbi at Temple Kol Ami in West Bloomfield, Michigan. In a phone interview, she said that leaders of the Reform movement are intent on making sure their voice is heard by policymakers.

Building Coalitions on Fuel Economy Standards, Fracking

Mainstream environmentalist organizations, not surprisingly, have leveraged those views. The work of the Religious Action Center has been a key part of advocacy community efforts, including the push to boost corporate average fuel economy standards, says Dan Becker, director of the Center for Auto Safety’s Safe Climate Campaign.

In Evanston, Il., the Reconstructionist movement has the nation’s only platinum LEED-certified house of worship in North America.

The Reconstructionist movement, the first to openly embrace gays and lesbians as members and Rabbis, has the only platinum LEED-certified house of worship in North America, says Shawn Zevit, a Reconstructionist Rabbi, speaking of its Evanston, Il., synagogue. He says the movement’s historical intertwining of environment and justice paves the way for activism. Zevit said in a phone interview that the movement is more grassroots-oriented, with Rabbis as partners in building a sacred community. Recently, it’s partnered with mainstream environmentalists to challenge fracking.

The challenges increase when efforts turn to mobilizing Jews within the Orthodox movement, which historically leans to the political right. Evonne Marzouk recalls being one of only three Orthodox Jews at a COEJL event in 2001. She founded Canfei Nesharim in 2003 to fill what she sees as a void: engaging the Orthodox in protecting the environment.

“The Orthodox community is not always comfortable with the non-Orthodox approach,” which she says often involves fixing the world in a way that isn’t religious. And the Orthodox are preoccupied with taking care of their own community, focused on the needs of Orthodox Jews, she said in a phone interview. She created educational materials with a Torah-based approach, indicating protection of the environment is, indeed, a Jewish issue. For example, she linked the Orthodox’s hand washing, an Orthodox tradition, with water conservation, and she pointed to Jews’ historic relationship to animals as a basis for enlisting the involvement of Orthodox Rabbis.

Orthodox Jews, Climate Change, and Fox News

Marzouk has created a teaching related to Jewish learning and the environment for every portion of the Torah that is read in synagogue each week. Her efforts have borne fruit, she says: 150 orthodox “agents of change” use her materials to inspire them to protect the environment. The head of the Orthodox Union also signed onto COEJL’s climate change pledge.

But Marzouk said she faces a greater challenge when it comes to climate change, an issue that often breaks on political lines. “Orthodox Jews watch a lot of Fox News,” which mirrors their socially conservative views and presents a more favorable perspective towards Israel, she says.

Rather than try to convince the skeptical community that climate change is occurring, she focuses on support for water conservation and other actions Jews can take in keeping with their faith that what God provides should be used wisely.

Some Jews have become involved in protesting fracking. Mirele Goldsmith founded Jews Against Hydrofracking, concerned that some Jewish summer camps in the Marcellus Shale region might be tempted to lease their land for gas drilling.  That is a concern she expressed in The Forward, which, after her piece ran, investigated, and found that, indeed, four camps had already done so.

“Jews have a responsibility to think about future generations, and this will leave a legacy of destruction for the future,” she said in the phone interview. ”By speaking up, I was able to get the issue on the table and encourage other Jews to speak up too,” she said in an e-mail follow-up. Her group’s first goal was to get 100 Jewish communities to view the documentary “Gasland” to educate Jews so they can become active on the issue. She has persuaded Rabbis to speak at rallies and has played a part, along with many other faith groups, in getting a postponement of a vote to open the Delaware River basin for fracking.

Faith Leaders … ‘Extraordinary Credibility’

Food and Water Watch is a mainstream group that also protested fracking in that region. Eric Weltman, that group’s senior organizer, has helped connect her group to the wider movement, and she has recruited Rabbis as speakers for some of his events. Goldsmith says it would be “impossible for us to be effective” without an alliance with mainstream environmental groups.

“Faith leaders have an extraordinary amount of credibility on any issue that they care to address. They have the capacity to reach out to their congregants and mobilize, engage, recruit and involve them,” Weltman said in a phone interview.

He credits Goldsmith with rounding-up a large number of Rabbis and Jewish faith leaders to sign a letter to President Obama concerning fracking in the Delaware River basin.

The organized involvement of Jews “contributed to an overall story and diversity that in the end made a difference and changed the debate about scientific targets of carbon emissions,” said Phil Aroneanu in a phone interview, U.S. campaign director for 350.org, a group that has also leveraged the Jewish anti-fracking movement.

Competing Jewish Voices on Fracking

But fracking also has its supporters within the Jewish community, specifically the American Jewish Committee, a think tank and advocacy group intended to combat antisemitism and support Israel. AJC says it backs fracking so long as regulations ensure it’s done safely.

“We can’t countenance” shutting it down, Richard Foltin, director of National and Legislative Affairs for AJC, said in a phone interview, pointing to concerns about energy security and related impacts on Israel. Tapping into abundant domestic natural gas resources means the U.S. can be more self-reliant, and not have to rely so much on Middle East countries that support terrorist organizations threatening Israel, he said.

For the same reasons, the organization supports construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline. Foltin says these positions do not detract from the group’s belief that strong measures need to be taken to deal with greenhouse gas emissions.

Joelle Novey says she is disappointed by the AJC’s position and the “relative silence” of the mainstream Jewish organizations on the Keystone Pipeline. She directs the Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light, which engages faith communities in secular environmental campaigns. She was arrested at a White House demonstration protesting the pipeline on August 29th last year, and was among 1,200 — including two Rabbis — arrested over the course of two weeks (also see Yale Forum article).

Novey discussed her concerns about the Jewish community in The Huffington Post. In a phone interview, she said many other groups, including the Quakers, National Council of Churches, and United Church of Christ, are far more active on Capitol Hill, and she sees a lack of organized climate advocacy on behalf of the Jewish community on the national level.

Still, in a follow-up e-mail, she said local Jewish communities she works with in the Washington, D.C., area are ready to engage in grassroots environmental advocacy efforts. She said she successfully engaged a faith-based “green team,” including a local Reform temple, to help shut down the GenOn Energy coal plant in Alexandria, in a campaign called “GenOff.” She also had Evonne Marzouk speak about the benefits of offshore wind power in her community of Silver Spring, Maryland.

Marzouk’s passionate discussion of clean energy “was a really powerful moment that demonstrated the unique value that having a religious community involved in these campaigns can bring,” she said in a phone interview

A Differing Voice on ‘Repairing the World’

The many Jewish leaders interviewed for this article say they haven’t seen “climate deniers” trying to specifically target Jewish audiences. But The Cornwall Alliance, highly vocal against climate change as a serious concern, has been distributing a booklet on its perspectives on energy, the environment, and religion and expects to reach out to many faiths.

In a phone interview, Paul Driessen, a member of The Cornwall Alliance and an observant Conservative Jew, said he believes in the concept of “Tikkun Olam,” a Hebrew phrase that means “repairing the world,” and is interpreted as safeguarding the health and welfare of humanity, the environment, and the Earth. But he said he does not feel the science justifies implementing policy actions to combat climate change, and he maintained in a phone interview that moderate warming may even be good for the planet by increasing growing seasons. He holds that his position is shared by “thousands of scientists” and voiced by The Cornwall Alliance.

Imposing policies “that will result in inadequate supplies of expensive and unreliable energy and thus cause continued and expanded hardship, job losses, and reduced progress on numerous measures of human and environmental health and welfare” is not in keeping with the Tikkun Olam concept, Driessen said in an e-mail. He said activist Jewish organizations have no particular expertise in climate science, and said Jewish members of Cornwall are taking their message to their congregations.

Asked if his views are considered a minority perspective among Jews, he invoked a comment reminiscent of Texas Governor and former Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry: “Galileo was a minority among Catholics.”

That’s a point to which the late Stanford University scientist Stephen H. Schneider liked to respond: “So many people want to be the next Galileo, but so few ever do.”

Also see:
Nationwide Climate ‘Preach-In’ To Target Broad Faith-Group Congregations
The Catholic Church and Climate Change
Episcopalians Confronting Climate Change
Baptists and Climate Change
The United Church of Christ and Climate Change
‘Green Muslims,’ Eco-Islam and Evolving Climate Change Consciousness
Presbyterians and Climate Change
Preachable Moments: Evangelical Christians and Climate Change
Mormon Silence on Climate Change: Why, and What Might It Mean?

Julie Halpert

Julie Halpert, who has covered the environment for more than two decades for national publications, is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor, Mi. She is a regular contributor to The Yale Forum. (E-mail: julie@yaleclimatemediaforum.org, Twitter: @julhalps)
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One Response to Judaism and Climate Change

  1. Eli Rabett says:

    Tikkun Olam, or stewardship is a responsibility that observant and not observant Jews have ground into their bones. Thus, Paul Driessen cannot take the libertarian position, that we are changing the climate and so what, but has to reject that anything is happening. Driessen would have a lot of trouble with the other, and impossible to contest, problem with CO2 emissions, that it is poisoning the ocean for many species by decreasing the pH (making the seas more acidic) and this is a terrible threat. Tikkun Olam makes this a grave sin.