By Mirele B. Goldsmith
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, while Jewish organizations rally with compassion and creativity, government is failing the test of providing protection and security. The devastating loss of over 135,000 lives is the result of a deep moral crisis in the halls of power. Jews are heartbroken, worried, and frightened, not least because we are aware that an even tougher challenge is on the way. Damage to the climate is accelerating and will be with us for far longer than the coronavirus.
Americans can worry about more than one problem at a time. In fact, a survey conducted by Yale University and George Mason University in April 2020 found that Americans are deeply concerned about climate change, even in the midst of the pandemic. Both issues are top of mind for Jews, and rightly so. COVID-19 hotspots in cities that are home to major Jewish communities have demonstrated just how bad things can get when we are unprepared for global disaster. Natural disasters, made worse by the changing climate, have severely impacted Jewish communities. In 2012 Jewish institutions in the New York area were hit hard by Superstorm Sandy. In 2017, 2,000 Jewish families in Houston lost their homes to Hurricane Harvey. In 2017 and 2018, Jewish summer camps in California burned to the ground in wildfires.
Until now, the most common Jewish responses to climate change have been personal, such as recycling, composting, and reducing consumption of animal products. Congregations have implemented energy efficiency improvements. These efforts are valuable, but they are not enough. Just as it takes more than the actions of one neighborhood to stem the tide of COVID-19, it will take every sector to slow climate change. Civic engagement is required to meet the systemic challenges posed by the impacts of the changing climate. We need to press governments at every level to take action at the necessary scale and to ensure that solutions put us on a path to a sustainable, just and equitable world.
We know how to do this. The American Jewish community has an impressive history of civic engagement in a host of issues reflective of our values and important to our safety and security. Recently, there has been renewed interest in how to stimulate Jewish civic engagement and in how Jews today understand the connection between such engagement and their own Jewish identities. In a study described in a recent eJewish Philanthropy article, Connecting the Dots: American Jews and Civic Engagement, it was reported that a majority of Jews expressed the belief that Jewish tradition encourages civic engagement, and that as Jews they have a responsibility to be engaged.
Just over one year ago, recognizing that Jews in Washington, D.C., could play a unique role in stimulating civic engagement at the national level, we launched the Jewish Earth Alliance as a grassroots coalition to enable Jews around the country to engage consistently and collectively with the United States Congress. We bridge the gap between local communities and the Capitol by helping concerned Jews cultivate relationships with their representatives and senators. Coalition partner groups receive monthly updates about opportunities to weigh in on emerging legislation and resources for engaging their members in writing personal letters to their legislators. Local volunteers hand-deliver the letters every month. By showing up regularly in-person, or currently by email and phone, we are able to meet with Congressional staffers and develop relationships. Our message is that climate change is a moral challenge that calls for urgent action informed by bedrock Jewish values of responsibility, compassion, and solidarity. As people of faith, we must protect God’s creation – from the many species threatened by rising temperatures to our local and global human neighbors.
As the country went into lockdown in March, we wondered whether Jews would have the desire or the energy to continue this kind of civic engagement. After a brief lull in April, we are seeing a surge in interest. As the COVID-19 crisis has deepened, and the moral repercussions of global calamity have become starkly apparent, Jews are recognizing that we must engage more effectively in the political process. We are heartened by the emergence of related national initiatives over the past year, such as Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action, Hazon’s Jewish Youth Climate Movement, and JTree, and anticipate that engagement will continue to grow along with the understanding of the effects of the changing climate on our communities.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal the shortfalls of our political system, the limitations of our leaders, and how inequity puts everyone at risk, Jews will be more and more eager to speak up for change. Equally important at this frightening time is that empowerment is a source of hope. As Jewish leaders, we must seize the opportunity to strengthen Jewish civic engagement, meet the needs of our community, and ensure that our country is prepared to rise to the challenges posed by climate change.
Mirele B. Goldsmith, PhD, is an environmental psychologist and co-founder of Jewish Earth Alliance