Jewish Environmental Manifesto
American Judaism is defined by its extraordinary activism. When Jewish learning and identity needed bolstering, we organized schools, youth groups, JCC’s and Hillels to respond. When “continuity” was a concern, we mobilized to fund funky efforts engaging Jews who hang close to the edge. Whenever Jewish rights and liberties were restricted, we created a network of defense organizations, which helped not only Jews but others who suffered prejudice and exclusion.
In the last decade alone, the leadership of the Jewish community launched such remarkable and successful efforts as Taglit/birthright, designed to confer upon every Jew between the ages of 18 and 26 the right and ability to visit Israel; PEJE – The Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education designed to increase enrollment in Jewish day schools; and the Foundation for Jewish Camping designed to increase the number of Jewish children “participating in transformative summers at Jewish camp”.
All of these efforts - powerful, valuable and successful - were launched because dynamic Jewish philanthropies and donors organized, studied, led, funded and inspired them. These Jewish leaders did not wait for the right combination of staff, ideas, capacity and programs to come to them. They saw a need, a vacuum in our capacity to respond to that need, and mobilized. They gathered the lay leaders, the professional staff, the thinkers and strategists and social scientists, and they put their money behind their commitment.
It is time we utilize that same formula, employ that same energy, engage that same wisdom and dynamics in the arena of Jewish environmentalism. The vibrancy of the environment and the well-being of the Jewish community need nothing less.
The facts are clear: the environment is being rapidly degraded by business-as-usual. We need to re-imagine and redesign the ways we mine, manufacture, build, power, use and dispose of the stuff of society. If we don’t, we will irrevocably deplete and so exhaust our available resources (both natural and monetary) that we will diminish the security, health, dreams and options we bequeath to our children. Thousands of young Jews see environmentalism as the defining issue of their lives. And they see organized Judaism making little to no significant contributions to the cause. Which means they see Judaism (or at least organized Judaism) as making little to no difference to them.
We can respond to both needs in one comprehensive response. Here is what we must do:
1) Reclaim tending to the earth a mitzvah. We must re-establish environmental ethics as a mitzvah, a sacred standard of Jewish practice, like tikkun olam, feeding the hungry, caring for the elderly, freeing the captive.
We must enfold it in the practices and policies of all that we do, from the paints we use in our classrooms and Section 202 housing, to the food we serve at our simchas to the flooring we choose for our JCCs, to the curricula we develop in our day schools and synagogues, to the investment policies of our Federations to the vans we buy to carry our seniors to the legislative policies we endorse on local, state and federal levels.
In short, environmental concerns must become part of the formula the guides the actions and decisions of the Jewish community in the basic conduct of our lives.
2) Offices of Sustainability. Every significant Jewish community should create an Office of Sustainability to assist in the “greening” of the buildings under local Jewish ownership or management. The American Jewish community controls millions of square feet of public space, from federation buildings to JCCs to synagogues to schools to senior homes and more. Our collective behavior can significantly reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases nationwide, create healthier indoor space for all those who work and visit our buildings, save money that can ultimately be used to bolster salaries of our communal workers and support greater programming from pre-school to senior centers, and serve as a model for others, both for-profit and not-for-profit concerns, in our communities.
But synagogues and schools and others cannot do this themselves. The learning curve, the options, and the financing to pursue greening strategies are often daunting to organizations that want to do the right thing (never mind those who are skeptical). Going green often requires the investment of human resources that these individual organizations do not possess. This can be easily remedied, however, if each sizable Jewish community created one centralized office that can assist all local Jewish organizations, encouraging them and guiding them in their green building efforts. This office could be based in the Federation, or the JCC. This would not only assist in our environmental agenda but also serve to strengthen the ties among a community’s various Jewish organizations.
Many of our communities are already blessed with Jews involved in the green building trade, green waste management, green consumer knowledge, green energy experience. And many of these Jews are not yet engaged in the Jewish community. We can both benefit from their knowledge and experience and, perhaps for the first time, make meaningful and potentially enduring connections with them.
3) Green Fund. We need a handful of influential funders and philanthropists to come together to use their moral and financial suasion to move this issue toward the top of the American Jewish agenda, and as importantly, to embed it in our contemporary Jewish identity. Just as we think of American Jewry as committed to supporting Israel, working toward tikkun olam, and protecting human life and dignity around the world, so we now need to add: the protection, sustainable management, and attitude of awe toward this miraculous but fragile world of ours.
Through the leverage of a Green Fund, a group of philanthropists can inspire and enable the Jewish community to fully engage in this work. They can guide a national discussion on Jewish environmentalism so that every school, every federation and every synagogue embraces and explores this issue. They can entice and grow the field with a call for RFPs (requests for proposals) for new or expandable programs, seeking out the most creative and most successful, They can fund Jewish environmental classes and programs to create more informed lay leaders, train and support Jewish environmental professionals, and build an educated and committed populace. They can assist in the initial funding of local Jewish Offices of Sustainability. They can support the pioneering and ground-breaking work of national Jewish environmental organizations such as Teva, Isabella Friedman, Hazon Kayam Farm, the Jewish Farm School and others that work on both ends of the learning continuum, teaching the teachers and the learners.
A Green Fund created and guided by Jewish philanthropists can bring welcome and beneficial energies, wisdom and freshness to our community.
With these three initiatives: restoring a sacred engagement with the environmental to the status of a fundamental mitzvah that commands our attention and behavior; creating mechanisms to green our Jewish built-environment; and providing the social, moral and financial leadership to make this happen, we can pursue our sacred mission, substantively and spiritually re-connect with many Jews, and contribute to the healing of this wounded world.