Forward Thinking

Battling Climate Change, the Jewish Way

By David Seidenberg

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The rally in Washington D.C. last Sunday on climate change, organized by the Sierra Club, 350.org, and hundreds of other groups, was the largest of its kind in U.S. history, attended by up to 50,000 people, from all over the country. Buses came from all over, some traveling for several days to bring people to Washington DC from places like Montana.

Nili Simhai of the Teva Learning Alliance, which teaches nature programs to Jewish day school children called it “an historic moment.”

“it’s important for us to be here,” Simhai said. “Sustainable climate policies are at the core of what Teva has been teaching for years.”

A few thousand people were there to represent religious groups, like Quakers, Lutherans and Catholics, and of course there were thousands of Jews at the climate rally, but just a few Jewish organizations. The Shalom Center and the Green Zionist Alliance were there, as was my own organization, neohasid.org. And of course, the First Nations people from Canada, whose land is being destroyed by the tar sands development, brought all of their passion and vision to the rally.

One of the chants I heard most often was, “We are unstoppable! Another world is possible!” Another was, “Hey, Obama, we don’t want no climate drama!”

Speakers praised President Obama for finally finding his voice on climate change, but plenty of people in the march were skeptical about whether Obama would match words with deeds. All are closely watching whether he acts to stop the Keystone Pipeline.

But is climate change a Jewish issue? We all thought so, and the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life has been making the case in print. The students from the Central Reform Synagogue in St. Louis who were there with their rabbi and Hebrew school teacher think so too, but what the Jewish community thinks is still up in the air.

There’s one tricky element: Jews have long advocated strongly for energy independence, and the Keystone Pipeline would bring us oil from friendly, reliable Canada. That pipeline would bring us Canadian oil, but the tar sands oil is some of the dirtiest oil on the planet.

Part of the problem is that when you add the energy needed to extract the oil, one barrel of tar sands oil is as bad as three barrels of average oil. And that amount doesn’t even include the residual “petroleum coke” that is left after cracking and refining, which burns dirtier than the dirtiest coal. But the bigger problem is the carbon bottom line. If the climate models are right, and we use all the Canadian tar sands oil on top of the oil reserves now on line, we may be looking at an 6-to-10 degree rise in temperatures and not just a 2-to-4 degree rise.

So is this Jewish? As we say, “No flour, no Torah.”

Without a healthy planet there is no Torah, no Judaism, and no Jewish people. But another fact that might scare the Jewish community is this: climate models predict that even with a more modest rise in overall temperature, the Negev desert could expand 200 kilometers to the north. That would include all of Israel’s lowlands!

Looking out over the crowd from the hill of the Washington monument, Rabbi Arthur Waskow busted out with the Shehechiyanu prayer.

“Blessed be you Yah, who kept us alive and sustained us and brought us to this moment!”

Saying Amen to his prayer was one of the most beautiful moments of the rally for me. The other was when the First Nations people on stage called on all of us —thousands of people — to dance a circle dance to their chanting and drumming. Dancing is an amazing way to connect with the Earth. But it is also a powerful way to pray, according to both Hasidim and to the First Nations.

Simhai later reported to me that she was “especially moved by all the people from the frontline communities who have been fighting this fight for a long time, and who will do whatever it takes to secure the people on the land.” That reminded me of the promise of the Shema: “Listen well if you want to live your days on the land as long as the heavens are over the Earth.” May it be so.

Rabbi David Seidenberg is the creator of neohasid.org and savethenegev.org, and one of the foremost scholars on Judaism and ecology.


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