In November 2009, leaders of Hazon and Jewish Climate Initiative were tapped by the Alliance of Religions and Conservation to represent Judaism at an international gathering of religious leaders at Windsor Castle and take the lead in developing a seven-year plan for Jewish climate action. The result was the Jewish Climate Change Campaign.
The founders say climate change poses an “existential threat” that the Jewish community must work to address.
Two things are clear: first, we need to do more than we are doing; second, the path to doing more seems difficult, with the challenges overwhelming and time and money finite.
Like Christian climate action, the Jewish Climate Change Campaign is based around the idea of caring for God’s creation – an idea that comes from the Old Testament’s Book of Genesis, which Christianity and Judaism share. But there are other Jewish traditions and teachings that the Campaign draws on heavily.
Take, for example, the core practices of observing Shabbat (sabbath) and keeping Kashrut (kosher). As a day away from the technology and consumerism that dominates modern daily life, Shabbat can provide a model for how to reduce one’s ecological footprint. And Jewish Climate Campaign calls for an expanded view of Kashrut (kosher) to include the ecological consequences of food choices, noting that food production accounts for a quarter to a third of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.
They also mention Tikkun Olam (saving the world), Pikuach Nefesh (saving life), Brit (covenant with future generations), Tzedek (justice), and Bal Tashchit (wasteful misuse of the world’s resources), among others. I’m slightly skeptical on one count: Schmitta (Sabbatical Year), when all agricultural work in Israel stops. It doesn’t seem like a model of sustainability, but I can certainly see how it would serve to strengthen awareness of the natural world.
Focus on Practicality, Individuality
Jewish Climate Change Campaign says their traditions and teachings provide guiding values – a vision – but also necessary determination and “a mechanism, to take small-scale steps to bring that vision to fruition; and a framework for connecting the two.”
… we must be honest and clear-sighted about the dangers we face, yet never paralyzed by fear. We have repeatedly faced destruction in our history and yet emerged with hope ̧ and the determination to create a better world for all; this is part of the Jewish people’s gift to humankind.
… we must begin with practical first steps that we can begin today to advance towards our largest goals. The Jewish concept of halakha (literally ‘the way’) translates our highest hopes for the world into practical, everyday deeds.
Like Catholic Climate Covenant and Evangelical Climate Initiative, Jewish Climate Change Campaign has a pledge it asks people to take.
YES: I believe that the Jewish People can and should play a distinct role in responding to climate change and fostering sustainability between now and September 2015 (the end of the next 7-year sabbatical cycle in the Jewish calendar);
YES: I call on all Jewish organizations, small and large, to create Green Teams that will draw up seven-year goals to effect change and specific steps to get started this year;
YES: I believe we must integrate education, action and advocacy. So I commit every month to learn more about the environment and about Jewish teachings on sustainability; to act by making more sustainable choices; and to advocate for generational change by speaking up to friends, family members, colleagues and opinion-leaders;
YES: I’ll write to my elected representatives “I call on you and our government to build a more sustainable global economy; to support the creation of green jobs; to prioritize protecting vulnerable populations; and to ensure that the UN Climate Change Conference creates the strongest possible framework to ameliorate climate change.”
YES: I hope 600,000 Jewish people join me in signing this pledge. Please add my name to the list.
NOTE: There are over 13 million Jews worldwide; about 40% live in the U.S. The goal of 600,000 is, first and foremost, a large number – 5% of the Jewish population. Also, in Jewish tradition there’s a special blessing if 600,000 people come together. So far 3298 people have taken the online pledge.
But Jewish Climate Change Campaign has a distinctly different feel than the Christian climate action initiatives I’ve explored. There’s a practicality that I didn’t find in the Christian initiatives, a focus on concrete goals. For example, Jewish Climate Change Campaign asks people to cut their meat consumption in half and to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 30% by 2015. It asks those who take the pledge not just to try to get other people to sign it, but to work toward the specific goal of 600,000 signatories – a number with both practical and theological significance.
There’s also a strong focus on individual and grassroots action. The Campaign clearly states that individuals, institutions, and communities all have a necessary role to play, they also note that there is no single person or governing body that will tell the Jewish people what to do. Jewish climate action must be voluntary and grassroots. Along with that comes an overriding message that individual and community action can be effective – that small actions by many individuals can change the world. And not only that, it can be joyful.
One shining example of the young, upbeat energy that seems to embody the Jewish Climate Change Campaign is The Topsy Turvy Bus – a rather unique “school bus” that runs on used vegetable oil and comes equipped with solar panels, worm composting bins, and enthusiastic Jewish environmental educators. This spring, the bus traveled from New York to Florida, and back, stopping along the way to share its message of grassroots Jewish climate action with students of all ages.
Now, really, who doesn’t want to be on that bus?