Local Jewish environmentalists of all ages are heading to New York City to advocate for action on climate change.
Michelle Marks, 67, stood out in a West Philadelphia meeting space filled with mostly 20-somethings painting cardboard signs with phrases like “Philly Loves Climate Justice.” The group of local Jewish activists were preparing for the Sept. 21 People’s Climate March in Manhattan.
The march, expected to draw some 100,000 people from across the country — with a strong Jewish presence — aims to pressure world leaders before the U.N. Climate Summit on Sept. 23 in New York.
“I have a daughter who is a little older than most of the people here,” said Marks, who belongs to the Tikkun Olam Chavurah, which meets throughout Philadelphia. “She’s about the age where she’s starting to think about getting married, and some day soon, I may be a grandmother. I want my grandchild to be born into a world where I’m not going to be worried for the rest of my life about the environment.”
Marks, who is preparing to retire from her position as a social sciences professor at Manor College at the end of the academic year, was among about 15 people at the event sponsored by Hazon, a Jewish environmental organization, and Repair the World, a Jewish service-learning organization that played host at its offices. They will join an anticipated 3,000 individuals from the area traveling by bus to the march, according to 350.org, a primary organizer of the event.
Jewish leaders and organizations have become involved in preparations for the march to a greater degree than past environmental activism, several volunteers said. In Philadelphia, support cuts across the various streams — sponsors include the Reconstructionist synagogue Kol Tzedek, the Orthodox synagogue Mekor HaBracha and the Shalom Center, a progressive Jewish organization. They are part of a surge in climate change activism that has resulted in more than 100 Jewish organizations across the country signing on to support the New York event.
“I think it’s relatively recently that there are people who are really experienced and passionate environmental activists who are also really involved in the Jewish community,” said Leah Lazer, 22, a Hazon program associate. At Sunday school where she grew up in Connecticut, she said, she “never got much of an environmental education.”
At the same time, she acknowledged that “there have definitely been amazing Jewish activists for the environment throughout history.” She mentioned Rabbi Arthur Waskow, head of the Shalom Center, who spoke at a rally for the march on Tuesday outside City Hall.
“It was impossible to get anything done with a Congress that was serious about civil rights” until after the famous March on Washington in 1963, said Waskow, who participated in that as well. “And then it changed. We must make the march next Sunday exactly such a turning point in the history of American commitment to deal with the climate crisis.”
In July, leaders of local Jewish organizations met to discuss plans for the event and how to connect Judaism and environmental action by talking about the concept of the Shmita year, a yearlong farming hiatus called for in the Torah that begins on Rosh Hashanah, a few days after the march.
Tali Smookler, who works for Repair the World and has attended a number of climate action events in recent years, said she has never seen such a diverse group of people come together. Events alone “aren’t going to change anything, but they are a really good opportunity to bring people together and voice the need for action on climate change,” she said. “Also, this is often an entry point for people, and they continue to be involved.”
Such activism is not new for Marks. In the 1970s, she used to ride buses to a site in Montgomery County where Philadelphia Electric Company was trying to build a nuclear power plant.
“I didn’t want my child to grow up close to a nuclear power plant, which, of course, she did,” said Marks. (Despite opposition to the project, PECO opened the Limerick plant in 1986.)
But Marks said she is optimistic about the chances of this march prompting meaningful action on the issue.
“Look at all these young people who are out here today. There are going to be hundreds of thousands of people at that march, and if the world leaders don’t listen, other people are.”
Buses will leave from throughout the Philadelphia area on Sept. 21. Jewish groups will meet at West 58th Street between Eighth and Ninth avenues for a multifaith concert starting at 11 a.m. before beginning to march. For more information, visit peoplesclimate.org.