Eileen Levinson, Founder & Creative Director
Wendy Jackler, Program Manager
The Jewish Climate Action Network is dedicated to 1) sounding out an urgent Jewish voice on the crisis of climate change; 2) building relationships with community environmental and justice leaders; 3) inspiring and mobilizing Jewish communities to take leadership and participate in climate campaigns; and 4) providing informational resources to allies working on climate action.
JCAN achieves these efforts through 1) educational events such as conferences, talks, and workshops; 2) activism in local, national, and global campaigns; 3) advocacy for systemic state and national change; and 4) organizing to increase sustainability in Jewish institutions through its holistic Bentshmarking Campaign.
The opening text on the home page of the Jewish Climate Action Network website is the following midrash:
When God created the first human beings, God led them around the Garden of Eden and said: “Look at my works! See how beautiful they are—how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.” (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah, 1 on Ecclesiastes 7:13)
This midrash is followed by the secular climate change activist interpretation: There is no Planet B.
This teaching nicely summarizes the underpinnings of the work of JCAN. But the Jewish wisdom upon which we do our work can be found in so many places. Our twice-monthly meetings open and close with a brief d’var Torah offered by a member of the leadership team, bits of Jewish wisdom culled from the weekly Torah portion, a bit of midrash, Talmud, Jewish philosophy, or liturgy, a contemporary reading, or a bit of the created world itself. So many Jewish texts contain some message about the sacredness of the Universe, our responsibility to God’s Creation, and/or our responsibility to other humans and non-humans.
For example, in regard to energy conservation and not wasting in all endeavors, the commandmant, bal tashchit, do not waste, informs environmental work at all levels: “When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?” (Deut. 20:19-20) This text is further commented on in the Talmud: R. Zutra said: He who covers an oil lamp or uncovers a naphtha [lamp] infringes the prohibition of wasteful destruction. (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 67b)
The imperative to speak out and to protest about what is not right is spelled out in Jewish tradition as well: “All who can protest against [something wrong that] one of their family [is doing] and does not protest, is held accountable for their family.[All who can protest against something wrong that] a citizen of their city [is doing and does not protest], is held accountable for all citizens of the city.[All who can protest against something wrong that is being done] in the whole world, is accountable together with all citizens of the world.” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 54b)
And, Jewish wisdom teaches us that we cannot ignore what is happening to those around us, even if we may feel that we are not being affected, in this case, by climate change, pertinently expressed in this midrash: “Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai taught: This may be compared to the case of people on a ship, one of whom took a borer and began boring beneath his own seat. His fellow travelers said to him: ‘What are you doing?’ He replied, ‘What does it matter to you – am I not boring under my own seat?’ They said, ‘[It matters to us] because the water will come up and flood the ship for us all.’ (Midrash Rabbah, Vayikra 4:6)
Our responsibility for future generations is pointed out to us by in the wisdom of a story about Honi: “One day Honi was journeying on the road and saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked him, ‘How long does it take for this tree to bear fruit?’ The man replied, ‘Seventy years.’ So he asked him, ‘Are you certain that you will live another seventy years?’ to which the man replied, ‘I found ready-grown carob trees in the world, so just as my ancestors planted these for me, I too plant these for my children.’” (Babylonian Talmud, Ta'anit, 23a)
Other examples of Jewish wisdom related to climate change include JCAN’s support of Hebrew College’s effort to renew the practice of reciting the verses about each day of Creation on the appropriate day, as a reminder of the blessing given to us in the first creation story. Noah and the remembrance of the flood is a warning to all of us of the dangers of the rising seas. The lessons of Shmita are a reminder to prepare for the future, not use what we don’t need, and to remain in sacred relationship with the Earth.
JCAN provides Jewish educational text study opportunities open to the entire Jewish community that focus on Judaism and the Earth. Rabbi David Seidenberg taught a 3-part course based on his recent book Ecology and Kabbalah: The Divine Image in the More-Than-Human World, in which he makes the case for a Jewish view of Creation in which everything physical is created in G!d’s image. This powerful message teaches us to see the divine in everything around us and to remember that as we go through our days and use the sacred resources of the planet.
Another aspect of Jewish wisdom that informs the work of JCAN are teachings related to tzedek. As an organization, we are fully aware that front-line communities dealing with climate change tend to be poor and people of color. Judaism teaches at every turn to care for the sick, the weak, and the vulnerable among us. Giving tzedakah and performing acts of gemilut hasadim are fundamental to Jewish practice, and the Torah reminds us again and again to care for the poor, the widow, and the stranger in our midst. It is with the acknowledgement of our own privilege that we focus on reducing our consumption and being responsible about the planet.
JCAN’s work focuses on engaging Jewish institutions through its Bentschmarking Campaign.
To benchmark is to establish a baseline as the basis for planning and carrying out subsequent improvements. JCAN launched its Bentchmarking Campaign in the summer of 2015 [בענטשן bentshen, Yiddish: to bless, as in "may this campaign be bentshed"]. To begin, the campaign is focusing on benchmarking institutions’ energy usage and carbon footprint, intended to pave the way for energy conservation efforts and the installment of renewable energy sources.
JCAN's benchmarking campaign is holistic, comprising a set of complementary benchmarks that lead to a thorough assessment of the life of an institution. The climate crisis demands of us and our institutions deep, systemic, transformative change. We are all needed to work for change, as individuals, as communities, as nations, and as a planet, and JCAN proposes a series of many small steps that, over time, can transform your community. All the areas included in the benchmarking campaign can apply to both institutions and individuals, and JCAN supports Jewish organizations in developing ways to incorporate responses to climate change into individuals’ lives, as well as the life of the organization.
JCAN’s benchmarking program encompasses the following complementary areas of institutional life, with the initial focus being on energy usage:
Energy usage: What is your institution’s current carbon footprint in terms of the energy consumption of the building? How much gas, oil, and electricity do you use each year?
Finances: Where are your assets invested? How much of your financial portfolio is invested in the fossil fuel industry, whether it is your own institution’s investments or the larger community’s?
Food and Waste Stream: What is the carbon footprint of your organization’s food consumption and waste production? How close to being a zero waste production institution are you? How healthy are the cleaning products used in your building?
Transportation: How do people get to and from your synagogue? How widespread is carpooling? What encouragement is given to using public transportation, walking, and bicycling to and from events?
Ecosystems: How viable and diverse is the ecosystem surrounding your building(s)? To what extent does your property provide a carbon sink to offset your carbon usage? To what extent does it contribute to your sustainability?
Advocacy: How frequently do members of your community engage in advocacy around issues related to climate change? How frequently do you advocate or take other political actions related to climate change together, as a community?
Education: How knowledgeable are members of your community and your community as a whole about the climate crisis? How often is the climate crisis discussed within your community? What connections can community members make between Jewish teachings and climate change?
Spirituality: On the spectrum from denial to activism, where do members of your community and your community as a whole stand? What is being done to support members spiritually, to help them avoid or emerge from eco-despair?
By taking a baseline reading of where an institution stands at the present in these eight areas, it will become apparent where work is most needed to move forward in a way that brings your community into a realistic, open-eyed, responsible, and compassionate relationship with the planet Earth.
Numerous JCAN activists attended the People's Climate march in New York in September, 2014, which energized them and was the first time JCAN’s message went out to the world. A large number of people were excited to see a banner saying “Jewish Climate Action Network,” and some eagerly photographed the JCAN banner.
In the spring of 2015, JCAN sponsored what may have been the first conference on Judaism and climate change, which was attended by over 100 people. On an anecdotal basis, we have often heard relief that there is a Jewish organization devoted to climate action: “It’s about time.” JCAN has grown from its Boston beginnings to having partners in New York City as well.
JCAN launched its Bentshmarking Campaign in the fall of 2015. Working from a spreadsheet provided by a partnering organization, the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts, we reached out to people in almost every synagogue by postal mail, phone, and/or email. By the spring of 2016, 23 congregations had signed on, and seven had completed the first step of the benchmarking process, using a tool created by on another JCAN partner, Massachusetts Interfaith Power & Light.
The impact on individuals is hard to measure, but our email newsletter list has grown to 240 recipients, and our list serve has 40 participants. And as one JCAN activist reports, “I participated in the climate movement only haphazardly until I encountered JCAN, which put me in touch with other organizations and helped me become a staunch activist. Even more, JCAN gave me the tools and ideas to organize my synagogue, so that climate change is now the leading issue that the social action team works on.”
We have learned the importance of putting a Jewish face and voice to climate action. By using Jewish wisdom to say that climate disruption is a Jewish issue, we make it possible for all those concerned about climate disruption to feel that the Jewish community has their back, they are not alone, their tradition speaks to the concerns they have in their hearts. From young people to elders, the Jewish wisdom JCAN brings to its work makes it possible for climate action to be a part of living an authentic human and Jewish life. And for those who may not have their eyes open to the reality and dangers of climate disruption, by supporting and encouraging action within Jewish institutions, JCAN helps to bring awareness and change into the lives of more members of the Jewish community.
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