On Dec. 6, members of the Jewish community gathered to discuss climate change.
At the same time that 190 countries are meeting in Paris for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, a local conference convened to ask the question: What can the Jewish community do about this defining issue of our time and of the future?
On Sunday, the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and 18 co-sponsors hosted “Protecting Creation: A Jewish Response to Climate Change” at Temple Adath Israel in Merion Station, where speakers discussed the politics, science, national security concerns and social implications of climate change.
“Being concerned for the Earth has always been a Jewish value,” said Beth Razin, the manager of the Holocaust and Israel Programs for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. “We are the stewards of God’s earth.”
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, the founder and director of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia, told the Jewish Exponent he asked the JCRC to hold the event. He stressed the need to reduce the use of fossil fuels and begin to use solar power more.
“I think it’s important for the Jewish community to be addressing the climate crisis,” Waskow said.
Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin is the director of the Baltimore Jewish Environmental Network at the Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center in Reisterstown, Md. She has also served as general consultant to the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.
Cardin pointed out that the program took place as the Paris climate talks were halfway through their two-week gathering and one month after the United Nations released its 2030 Sustainability Goals plan to work toward global environmental, social and economic prosperity. However, she said, the American Jewish community is absent from the table.
“With few exceptions, we are largely silent about or, worse, dismissive or derisive of climate change issues,” Cardin said. “That has to change.
“Judaism teaches, and the American Jewish community has always embraced, the mitzvah, the call, to assure the welfare of all, especially the less fortunate; the pursuit of social justice; understanding that economic, social and political stability — aka peace and prosperity — depend on environmental health, justice and stability,” she added. “We believe that we have an abiding commitment to future generations. This is what the Torah has been teaching us for 2,500 years.”
She urged attendees — and the Jewish community at large — to emphasize the teaching of Genesis 2:15, that humankind is meant to work and protect the land and create an ideological frame that names and marks their commitment to working on climate change.
“Like tikkun olam, this should become a recognizable banner filled with teachings and values of our tradition that mobilize and guide the work of our community,” the rabbi said.
Additionally, she wants people to create seven-year sustainability plans that can serve as the roadmap to help people get from here to there.
“The question every federation, agency, school, organization and synagogue must ask is: where do we want to be in seven years?” Cardin said. “What sustainability and development goals should we set for ourselves — and how shall we achieve them?”
Rear Adm. David Titley, who is the director of Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at Pennsylvania State University, is a nationally known expert in the field of climate, the Arctic and national security. After showing images of how temperatures have been rising throughout the world since 1884, charts showing the rise of sea level, and the weather-related disaster projections of major insurance companies, some in his audience were left gasping at the ramifications of his presentation.
“It’s all about water and change,” Titley said. “The climate risks are increasing and we’re going to need to address it.”
Titley emphasized that local action is important, but it needs to be partnered with national and international policies to stabilize the climate.
“We are changing the climate today, and, based on very well-established science that goes back more than 100 years, we know why, and we have a pretty good idea of what is to come if we don’t change our energy systems,” Titley said. “This will only happen though if we care enough to tell our elected leaders that this is an issue of concern to us — and we need to see action at the local, state and federal levels.”
Jalonne White-Newsome is a federal policy analyst for WE ACT for Environmental Justice. She coordinates the national Environmental Justice Leadership Forum on Climate Change as well as co-chairing the Urban Air Toxins Workgroup for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Air Act Advisory Committee. According to its website, WE ACT for Environmental Justice is a “Northern Manhattan community-based organization whose mission is to build healthy communities by assuring that people of color and/or low-income participate meaningfully in the creation of sound and fair environmental health and protection policies and practices.”
She told the audience that her organization advocates for communities that suffer from environmental racism, which is when corporations take advantage of poor communities by placing harmful factories and hazardous materials there.
Many cities face environmental racism, but one of the worst is an area along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, in the River Parishes of Louisiana, which contains numerous industrial plants and is referred to colloquially as “Cancer Alley.”
“We want to make sure that the policies and programs that are supposed to be protecting those that are most vulnerable are doing that,” she said. “Just because of color or low income, it doesn’t mean people should live in an unsafe area.”
The modern era of social environmental justice began in 1982 with the Warren County PCB Landfill, located in Warren County, N.C. The landfill was created as a place to dump contaminated soil from an illegal PCB dumping incident. However, some residents in the majority poor and African-American county protested the move by laying down in the landfill to prevent the dumping, which sparked other communities throughout the country to take action against similar incursions.
“It’s important to understand that communities are at extra risk,” White-Newsome said. “Many people don’t realize this issue can have a big local impact.”
Lynne Iser, founder of Elder-Activists.org and a member of Mishkan Shalom who ran one of the day’s workshops, noted that many people don’t realize they are interconnected with the Earth and all of their actions can have negative consequences.
“I think that the Jewish community is very people-oriented in our care of those who need help,” Iser said, “but we have not grasped, as Rabbi Cardin said, that climate change is one of the key factors that will create more disruption, migration, poverty, drought, food shortage and threats to our national and personal security.”
“Just as we put man on the moon, built nuclear weapons, we can solve this issue — but not if the partisanship in Washington continues to divide this country and frankly waste our resources, energy and spirit.”
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