Protecting Creation: A Jewish Response to Climate Change

— Dan Segal, chair of Jewish Community Relations Council, Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia

Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, Rear Adm. David W. Titley, Dr. Jalone L. White-Newsome and Dan Segal.

Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, Rear Adm. David W. Titley, Dr. Jalone L. White-Newsome and Dan Segal.

Climate change is one of the gravest issues facing our nation and our planet. As I write, over 150 world leaders are meeting in Paris at the UN sponsored Climate Summit which hopefully will address many of the dangers brought on by excessive production of greenhouse gas emissions.

Earth’s average temperature has risen by 1.5°F over the past century, a dramatic increase compared to the last 1000 years, and is projected to rise another 0.5 to 8.6°F over the next hundred years. Small changes in the average temperature of the planet can translate to large and potentially dangerous shifts in climate and weather.

Many places have seen changes in rainfall, resulting in more floods, droughts, or intense rain, as well as more frequent and severe heat waves. The planet’s oceans and glaciers have also experienced some big changes – oceans are warming and becoming more acidic, ice caps are melting, and sea levels are rising. As these and other changes become more pronounced in the coming decades, they will likely present challenges to our society and our environment.

Our reliance on fossil fuels comes with a host of dilemmas beyond its effect on the weather. We must be sensitized to the grave national security concerns created as nations become destabilized over lack of natural resources such as water. Solutions to climate change have an uneven effect on poor nations who are far less able to cope with the damaging effects of climate change than are wealthy nations and yet are being asked to help resolve a problem many of them feel they did not help create.

And yet day after day we flip our light switches, boot up our computers, and drive our cars. What should we do? While we cannot remove ourselves from the necessity of using energy, we have a moral obligation to alleviate the proliferation of greenhouse gasses as it will affect our lives on many levels.

Rear Admiral David W. Titley

Rear Admiral David W. Titley

Most scientists agree on what needs to be done, yet there is still doubt among many world leaders that we have the political will to carry through on what the scientists propose. Indeed the politicization of the topic in our country, in which far too many refuse to even admit to the existence of the problem threaten to divide our nation and put our planet further at risk.

As U.N Secretary General Ban Ki Moon told leaders as the UN talks in Paris began last week, “The future of your people, the future of the people of the world, is in your hands. We cannot afford indecision, half measures, or merely gradual approaches. Our goal must be transformation.”

Although international commitments and legislation in Washington are critical in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and increasing energy independence, our challenge at the local level, is not to wait passively for policymakers to make their next moves. Policy makers need to hear from all of you. We need to bring our communal, institutional and personal strengths to bear now.

Lynne Iser asks participants to pair off to discuss climate change.

Lynne Iser asks participants to pair off to discuss climate change.

It is for this very reason that JCRC decided to convene a Protecting Creation Forum for our Jewish community to help us understand the relationship between energy, security and the environment and our moral obligation particularly as Jews. Not that there aren’t many wonderful organizations already deeply involved in the issue of climate change, many of whom are co-sponsoring this program. But because of the critical nature of climate change, we at JCRC felt the need to bring the various groups together so that collectively, we could face this issue as a community. Our goal is for you to take what you learn here today back to your organizations and synagogues.

Climate Change Advocacy 101 for Jews

Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, Rear Adm. David W. Titley, Dr. Jalone L. White-Newsome and Dan Segal.

Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, Rear Adm. David W. Titley, Dr. Jalone L. White-Newsome and Dan Segal.

Often a failure in communication is not the message or the messenger, but how it is presented. I am not talking about a Madison Avenue campaign to convince people to buy something they don’t need, but an understanding of the audience.

Yesterday, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Jewish Community Relations Council held a conference Protecting Creation: A Jewish Response to Climate Change. The speakers were clear and articulate representatives of their professional realm:

  • Rabbi Nina Cardin from the Baltimore Jewish Environmental Network;
  • the Rear Admiral David Titley, retired from the United States Navy and currently Senior Scientist and Director of the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at Penn State;
  • Dr. Jalonne White-Newsome, of WE ACT for Environmental Justice; and
  • Dan Segal, Chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council.

I learned that since 2010, Philadelphia has experienced: its snowiest winter, its two warmest summers; its two wettest years; two hurricanes; and derecho (a widespread, long-lived, straight-line wind storm that is associated with a land-based, fast-moving group of severe thunderstorms. Derechos can cause hurricane force winds, tornadoes, heavy rains, and flash floods.) I learned that Pennsylvania is one of the dirtiest states, producing more pollution than the country of Chile. And I learned that the fact that the ice caps in Antarctica are increasing is a testament to the warming conditions elsewhere, bringing more water to the Antarctic.

It can be overwhelming to think about a global problem, but we can start with a personal or household exercise in calculating our carbon footprint. We can promote community-based resiliency planning, because the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina has showed us that the most vulnerable were the elderly and handicapped who were without access to transportation out of their disaster area. So, a contact list of individuals who live alone or cannot drive in our neighborhood would result in faster response than relying on the National Guards.

Promoting our concerns for the environment means knowing how to speak to those who do not share our beliefs. It means advance preparation, so we are aware for example that a particular Congressional representative has a relative with asthma, which is exacerbated by air pollution. It means meeting our audience on their terms, incorporating their concerns.

Rabbi Shawn Zevit of Mishkan Shalom spoke from the audience about his inter-faith work, in which his fellow clergy face difficulty talking about climate change when their parishioners are facing unemployment and eviction from their homes. It is easily dismissed as a problem of white privilege. The Sierra Club found that by reaching out to disparate niche populations, they were effective in integrating their cause. They now work with veteran groups, a particularly effective ally in capturing the attention of Congress.

Rear Admiral David W. Titley

Rear Admiral David W. Titley

A few years ago, I was given a platform from my synagogue for environmental issues. So, each week I was able to present one environmental fact to the kehillah through our shul bulletin. This was well received until the week I wrote about meat consumption being a major hazard to the health of our Earth. In the flurry and fury of complaints to the rabbi from meat lovers, I lost my forum. (Rear Admiral Titley said, “We will not convince people with the scientific facts, because scientists have tried for 30 years and failed.”) I learned yesterday that the way to influence my shul peers is not to bludgeon them with the facts, I have to re-frame my approach to make it a religious value, a mitzvah.

Let us brainstorm together on ways to create a cleaner, healthier, and more sustainable world for future generations. Time is running out, as the Arctic ice caps melt and coastal cities and island nations face flooding and contamination of their water tables (ruining their supply of drinking water). We all aspire to a good and meaningful life, we just have differences in how to meet our goals.

2012 Jewish Community Food Stamp Challenge Continues

— by Benjamin Suarato

Rabbis and cantors in communities across the country representing all four major denominations are committing to living for one week on a food budget of $31.50, the average allotment for individuals on SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly SNAP), as part of the 2012 Jewish Community Food Stamp Challenge, running from the lead-up to the High Holy Days starting September 7 and continuing through Thanksgiving. Participating clergy will take the challenge in order to educate congregations and communities about the realities of hunger and raise a loud collective Jewish voice about this crisis.

“Hunger and food insecurity touch every one of our communities, but it is rarely talked about and frequently misunderstood,” said Rabbi Leonard Gordon, co-chair of the Jewish Community Food Stamp Challenge representing the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and a member of the JCPA board. “The Food Stamp Challenge is a way for rabbis and cantors to make the invisible daily struggles of congregants and neighbors real while demonstrating the Jewish community’s deep commitment to help those in need. This includes education about the programs and assistance available.”

More after the jump.
“The involvement of rabbis and cantors from all streams of Judaism, in every region of the country is a testament to the centrality of ending hunger to the work we do as Jewish leaders and the unity of our community in elevating the conversation on poverty,” said JCPA President Rabbi Steve Gutow. “This will be my third Food Stamp Challenge and each time, I am reawakened to the true struggle faced each day by those who depend on SNAP to put food on the table. It is a lesson that is now being brought to communities across the country through this committed involvement of religious leaders.”

SNAP participation has been functioning as intended, steadily increasing with the needs of those still struggling during the slow economic recovery, yet the program, one of the key instruments to addressing hunger in America, has been facing proposals of severe cuts to funding.

“On a budget of only $1.50 per meal, many SNAP recipients must settle for unsatisfying meals that lack the necessary nutrition and energy to meet the demands of work and family,” said Abby J. Leibman, President & CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. “By trying to understand, even in a very small way, the challenge these families face, we will be better armed to protect SNAP from the threat of cuts.”

The 2012 Jewish Community Food Stamp Challenge is being led by a unique partnership of organizations spanning the religious spectrum, including:

    the Jewish Council for Public Affairs,

  • MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger,
  • the Rabbinical Assembly,
  • the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism,
  • the Union for Reform Judaism,
  • the Central Conference of American Rabbis,
  • the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association,
  • Uri L’Tzedek,
  • American Conference of Cantors, and
  • the Cantors Assembly.  

Resources created for this mobilization, include sample sermons, advocacy opportunities, programming ideas, and other tools for engaging congregations and communities. The Food Stamp Challenge is open for others besides clergy who are interested in participating in this experience.  More information and registration can be found online.  

The Steering Committee that is providing leadership for the Jewish Community Food Stamp Challenge includes:

  • Chaired by Rabbi Leonard Gordon of Congregation Mishkan Tefila in Chestnut Hill, MA (representing the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Lenny is also on the JCPA Board of Directors)
  • Rabbi Jay Kornsgold of Temple Beth El in East Windsor, NJ and Rabbi Ed Bernstein of Temple Torah of West Boynton Beach in Boynton Beach, FL  (both represent the Rabbinical Assembly)
  • Rabbi Harold Kravitz, Senior Rabbi at Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Minnetonka, MN (representing the committee as Chair of the Board of Directors of MAZON:  A Jewish Response to Hunger)
  • Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis, MO; Rabbi Neil Borovitz of Congregation Avodat Shalom in River Edge, NJ; Rabbi Nancy Kasten, an active teacher and volunteer in the Dallas Jewish community, board member of Hebrew Union College; and Rabbi Judith Siegal of Tempe Judea in Coral Gables, FL (representing the Union for Reform Judaism/Central Conference of American Rabbis)
  • Rabbi Shawn Zevit, who worked for the Reconstructionist Movement for fourteen years and now serves as the visiting rabbi at T’Chiyah Reconstructionist Congregation in Detroit, MI (representing the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association)
  • Rabbi Ari Weiss, Executive Director of the Orthodox social justice organization Uri L’Tzedek
  • Rabbi Sharon Brous, the founding rabbi of IKAR in Los Angeles, CA
  • Cantor Jack Chomsky of Congregation Tifereth Israel in Columbus, Ohio (representing the Cantors Assembly)
  • Cantor Shannon McGrady-Bane, co-chair of the ACC Social Action and Justice Committee (representing the American Conference of Cantors); and
  • Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs

For more information about the 2012 Jewish Community Food Stamp Challenge, please contact Robin Rosenbaum, JCPA Poverty Campaign Coordinator, at: [email protected]thejcpa.org or (202) 212-6037.

Jewish clergy in all communities have been weighing in about how the goals of the Jewish Community Food Stamp Challenge have resonated with their varied experiences:

“I am taking the Food Stamp Challenge along with my family because it is important to not only talk about the fact that so many people in America are in need of food assistance, but also that we take action. When I take the Food Stamp Challenge I will have a better understanding as to what people who receive food stamps are feeling each and every day. By encouraging the members of my congregation to join me in this endeavor we will be making a statement that we must continue this important work of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) and advocate on behalf of those who are in need. This is what Judaism asks of us and what we must do.”

— Rabbi Jay Kornsgold of Temple Beth El in East Windsor, NJ

“With so much at stake in terms of how we are providing healthy, accessible and affordable sustenance in our country, inaction was not an option for me, challenged by my preparation for High Holy Days as visiting rabbi of Reconstructionist Congregation T’Chiyah in Detroit, to do more than only utter words and offer prayers for those in need. I have been spurred on by the wonderful response from friends, family, and clergy and members of faith communities everywhere. Let’s collect food for those in need this Yom Kippur and Thanksgiving and invite those who live with food insecurity to our sukkot, AND let’s work for systemic change for the millions who live on Food Stamps every day in our own communities, congregations and nation.”

— Rabbi Shawn Zevit who worked for the Reconstructionist Movement for fourteen years and now serves as the visiting rabbi at T’Chiyah Reconstructionist Congregation in Detroit, MI

“In my congregation, publicizing the Food Stamp Challenge has galvanized the community’s youth and social action leadership to make this a year to focus on hunger and food insecurity locally and in Israel.  Our students have adopted the slogan “Hunger is no Game” as the theme for the year (basing themselves on the recent movie, The Hunger Games”).  At a time when the social safety net is shredding and the alienation of rich and poor from their common humanity is increasing, taking the Food Stamp Challenge reminds us, in a small way, of our interconnectedness.”

— Rabbi Leonard Gordon of Congregation Mishkan Tefila in Chestnut Hill, MA (representing the United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism,  Lenny is also on the JCPA Board of Directors)

“We move about our communities like ships on non-intersecting courses across a vast ocean, not realizing how many among us are really struggling to feed themselves and their families on a daily basis.  The maze of public assistance in food and other resources is unknown to many of us — but is becoming known to more and more of us, even as powerful forces in our society seek to decrease the resources available to the growing number in greater need.  

“I hope that our involvement with this project will enable people to see and feel more clearly — and to remove the stigma attached to those who receive help.  I have long suspected that there are more needy among us than we know — that people internalize the idea that if they are Jewish they can’t be needy, so if they are needy, they mustn’t be Jewish — or full members of our Jewish community.  A project like this may shed some light and some heat.”

— Cantor Jack Chomsky of Congregation Tifereth Israel in Columbus, Ohio

“Our society is short on empathy for those in need. The Food Stamp Challenge is a tool to channel us away from indifference towards empathy for the food insecure. I’m taking the Food Stamp Challenge as a personal reminder to avoid indifference and to work with others to fight food insecurity.”

— Rabbi Ed Bernstein of Temple Torah of West Boynton Beach in Boynton Beach, FL

“The 18th century Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin said, ‘If you want to raise a person from mud and filth, do not think it is enough to keep standing on top and reaching a helping hand down to the person. You must go all the way down yourself, down into mud and filth. Then take hold of the person with strong hands and pull the person and yourself out into the light.’

“As Jews we know that it is not enough to make sure that others have enough to eat. We need to challenge ourselves to experience what those in need actually experience- the anxiety, the pain, and even the humiliation- so that we always remain motivated to fight for economic justice for all. At this time, when more children in this nation are food insecure than ever before, I feel compelled to motivate myself to find solutions in every way I possibly can. The Food Stamp Challenge is one path I am taking to motivate and inspire me to do my part to bring more light and wholeness into this New Year.”

— Rabbi Nancy Kasten, an active teacher and volunteer in the Dallas Jewish community, board member of Hebrew Union College

JCPA, the public affairs arm of the organized Jewish community, serves as the national coordinating and advisory body for the 14 national and 125 local agencies comprising the field of Jewish community relations.