The Jewish people's new challenge - climate change

Draft plan to be presented with proposals from 11 other religions.

sunrise masada pray 248 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
sunrise masada pray 248 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
Can Judaism provide a solution to global climate change? Jews have tackled many challenges over the past millennia, but none quite as titanic as this. This week, 55 select experts in a variety of fields kicked off their first session in Jerusalem, with the aim of drawing up what has been called a "Seven Year Plan for the Jewish People on Climate Change and Sustainability." The initiative is being spearheaded by the New York-based Jewish environmental organization, Hazon ("vision"), and the Israel-based Jewish Climate Initiative (JCI). The goal is to have a plan with accompanying educational materials and strategy in place by September 2015, when the next shmita cycle starts and, according to Jewish law, all agricultural activity is prohibited. "If we don't move the world even a little bit within seven years, then it probably won't be moved. Think of the Titanic trying to avoid the iceberg. We need to start now," JCI head Dr. Michael Kagan told The Jerusalem Post. "What do we as a people and an ancient religion have to contribute to the world ecological challenge? We're a small people yet we've had tremendous influence throughout history." The first meeting was held on Sunday, ahead of Wednesday's Birkat Hahama, the Blessing of the Sun said every 28 years. It was the first of three meetings to brainstorm on the issue, and was attended by top scientists, business people, environmentalists, policy makers, rabbis and educators. The two next meetings will be held in New York and in London. In between, special working groups will tackle each section of the document separately. A final draft is to be presented at Windsor Castle in November at a meeting of the United Nations-affiliated Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC), along with plans from 11 other world faiths. That meeting could certainly have an impact on the much-heralded conference of world leaders scheduled for Copenhagen in December to hammer out a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol for reducing emissions. ARC, a British NGO with ties to the royal family, had been tasked by the UN to organize the unique project involving 12 major religions. Representatives of each religion have been set the task of drafting a seven-year plan on climate change and sustainability. ARC believes that the world's religions have something unique to add to the discussion and can motivate billions of people to face one of the most serious crises the world has ever known. Hazon's director, Nigel Savage, and JCI's Rabbi Julian Sinclair were assigned by the ARC to produce a draft document and then pull together the separate brainstorming groups to turn the draft into a strategic blueprint. Hazon, the biggest Jewish environmental organization in the United States laid much of the groundwork for the project over the past decade, Savage said. The initiative is just taking its first steps, participants said after Sunday's meeting. There is still a lot that needs to be figured out, they acknowledged. Judaism has two unique aspects that make it different from other religions. Firstly, it is no central authority like the Catholic Church. Secondly, the people and the religion have a state - Israel. "The conference on Sunday revealed how hard it is to figure out how to get it to work more effectively," Savage said Tuesday, "But it clarified that the goals and vision have to differ vis-à-vis Israel and the Diaspora. "Israel and the Jewish people are only a small part of the whole. We can't fix the world, but we have to do our part," he continued. "That said, Israel and the Diaspora are two different things. Israel is a sovereign state with an environmental movement. We need to further strengthen it and provide support for it from amongst US and UK Jews," Savage said. "In the Diaspora, we need to focus on a three-by-three grid. Education, action, and advocacy along one axis, and individual, family/institution, and the wider community along the other. We need to move forward on all nine boxes, but encourage people to move forward in one or two," he said. Theory aside, Sunday's meeting in Jerusalem focused on specific elements in Judaism that might be useful to the climate change debate, Kagan said. "Shabbat is all about conservation and awareness. We started to think about how we could translate Shabbat principles into everyday life," Kagan said, arguing that but there were certainly lessons to be learned. Kagan added: "They say religion and belief are supposed to be motivators - I'm not sure that's true. Does anyone listen to [and obey] religious proclamations? Perhaps we are more open to the idea that God gave Earth to the people to take care of it." In addition to running JCI, Kagan is the author of the Holistic Haggadah and has a cleantech startup called Algaenesis, which focuses on using algae for health products and biofuel purposes. Jeremy Benstein, deputy director of Heschel Center - an NGO working in Israel towards the molding of strong leadership and the promotion of environmental education - pointed to a few areas where Judaism specifically had something to offer. "We've managed to convince most of the world to take a respite from production on the Sabbath, but we've yet to really convince people to take a break from consumption as well," said Benstein, who has written extensively on the connection between Judaism and sustainability. A draft document prepared for Sunday's meeting quoted the exposition on the issue by Rabbi Steven Greenberg, who teaches at the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership (CLAL) in New York. "We Jews have done a pretty good job in delivering nine and a half out of the Ten Commandments to the world," Greenberg was quoted as saying. "The half that we have delivered is the side of Shabbat that is about employment; the universal right to have one day off work each week. The half that we haven't is the part of Shabbat that is about refraining from shopping, driving, flying - the part that deals with our relationship to the created world. We need to deliver that half of the Shabbat commandment to the world now." Benstein offered the notion that a sliding scale, such as Maimonides' eight levels of charity, could be especially appropriate to encourage individual action on climate change. "There would be an entry level, but there would always be more to strive for," he offered. "Judaism is a legalistic religion. That's what you need when dealing with climate change. We know a lot about following the commandments. In this case, the commandments would be changing your light bulbs [to compact fluorescents], separating your garbage, etc," said Benstein, the author of The Way into Judaism and the Environment. "How do you take an as yet unwritten compelling document and get it to the leaders of the Jewish people?" Benstein asked. "While one could probably name 40 to 50 really influential Jews, most of them are not active in environmental issues. We need to figure out how to get this document to them to pass it on." Arava Power Company President Yosef Abramowitz offered a slight modification to the draft document's energy-independence goals. "It's all well and good to say that Israel should be energy independent by 2050. However, we need interim goals," Abramowitz said. "The next Birkat Hahama is in 28 years, which also happens to be the Jubilee year. So let's aim for 50 percent energy independence based on renewables by then." "This is really a chance for us to determine whether Judaism still has anything relevant to offer the world or whether our role in history is done," Abramowitz declared. Savage also picked up on the Birkat Hahama theme. "The next one is April 8, 2037. The question is: What will the world look like then? And what role will we have played in making it a better place?" he asked. Other featured speakers included Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Naomi Tsur, BrightSource Energy-Luz2 Energy founder Arnold Goldman, the head of Tel Aviv University's Porter School for Environmental Studies, Prof. Pinhas Alpert; the Heschel Center for Environmental Leadership and Learning's director Dr. Eilon Schwartz and Beit Av founder Rabbi Dov Berkovitz.