A Jewish Response to Climate Change

Under the auspices of New York Interfaith Power & Light, I’ve launched a new initiative, Aklim – A Jewish Response to Climate Change.

The old national initiative, Coalition of the Environment and Jewish Learning (COEJL), is defunct and its website is no longer functional. An updated approach to Jews and Climate Change is long overdue.

Of all of the religious traditions in the United States that have taken a stand on climate change, that it’s real and it’s human-made, the Jewish organizations have been one of the least active. This inertia needs to be rectified.

There are many great causes out there that deserve the imprint of the moral certainty of religion. All of these great issues of social justice are for naught though if we don’t address climate change. Indeed, many of these issues that stand as priorities today are effects of climate change. Immigration from Central America is rooted in climate change destroying the agricultural cycles in Honduras and Guatemala, leading to poverty and starvation. The corrupt regimes could not respond. The Syrian civil war begins with the rapid desertification of marginal lands in Southern Syria. Assad forcefully declined to help his migrating people, and years of frustration burst into protest and violence.

Politicians do not want to touch climate change. Climate change mitigation is messy and the U.S. pricetag begins at trillions of dollars. Further, the Fossil Fuel industry donates huge sums to political campaigns. They also fund political action committees to sabotage politicians who do not adhere to the fossil fuel industry directives, raising up challengers to unseat established legislators.

In one voice, the religious traditions need to rise up and place climate change as THE priority. It is time that all the Jewish denominations added their wherewithal to the struggle.

Testimony before the NY State Senate Committee

Testimony before the NY State Environmental Conservation Committee

12 February 2019

I am Rabbi Glenn Jacob, and while I am executive director of New York Interfaith Power & Light – an organization dedicated to passing climate science-based legislation from a religious perspective, I come here first representing the initial wave of climate refugees in New York State. In 2012 on 29 October, Superstorm Sandy slammed my neighborhood in Oceanside, Long Island with a five-foot surge of water. My house had over $100,000 worth of damage, of which $18,000 was covered by flood insurance. I told my wife the day after the storm that we would move, and in November 2017, I moved from 25 miles east of Manhattan to 40 miles north.

My personal experience is framed in my religious perspective. I and my organization are non-partisan, representing about 15 different religious denominations from Suffolk County on Long Island to the city of Buffalo, with all points, rural, suburban, and urban in between. The message we bring is that climate change is a moral issue and the Climate and Community Protection Act (CCPA) is a matter of personal and professional integrity.

Contrary to caricatures, most synagogues, churches, mosques, temples, and gurdwaras have no issue accepting scientific facts, concepts, and conclusions. Climate change is real, climate change is manmade, and the only question is what is humanity going to do? To do nothing, to keep the status quo is evil in religious language. It is the path to more harm and danger to human life – deliberating allowing destruction is evil, a human, preventable evil.

The good news, to borrow the term from the Protestant Tradition, is that we have the knowledge base, the technology and the wherewithal to address climate change. Everything to address climate change is in some sort of readiness in New York State, from detailed plans for job creation to the equitable spread of resources, to energy infrastructure initiatives. The only thing we have lacked in the last few years is the political will.

Our religious traditions do not tolerate half-truths, because they have no integrity. To say that we are going to lose jobs in the fossil fuel industry is to deny that we are bringing entirely new energy industries into the state. To say that the CCPA will cause prices to rise is a half-truth as well. We already balk at paying for the damages of evermore powerful storms and violent temperature swings. Roads meant to last 20 years are lasting 15 years or less; we have yet to fix the most expensive damage from Sandy. Do you want to spend the taxpayers’ money solving the crisis or do you want to spend ever increasing sums patching roads, wires, sewers, channels, and buildings, which we see are already falling short of completion, just to maintain the status quo?

Whether you want to or not, you will be spending large sums of taxpayer funds on climate change in the coming years. The climate science and our real-world experience confirm this conclusion; no prophecy is necessary. Climate change is more than a technical issue, a reasonable issue, or a political issue; it is an unavoidable moral issue. The question from your religious constituents is: Are you going to spend state funds with integrity, namely the CCPA and its goals to address climate change, or are you going to squander the short twelve-year window we have to address climate change? We are the first generation to confront climate change and we are the last generation that can address climate change.

As I stated in the beginning, the CCPA is a matter of integrity, the integrity of the political will to act.

Garage Sale Reflections

I proposed to my wife over thirty years ago when we were both in grad school, poor but happy in a small midwestern city. My mother-in-law to-be telephoned her relatives in Canada to inform them of the upcoming nuptials and they asked the obvious question: what do they want for a wedding gift? Without consulting us or her husband, she replied, “Silver service.”

For thirty years, my wife and I have dutifully wrapped and boxed a least twenty pieces of silver service and schlepped them around the country as we moved for jobs. We cannot remember ever using one piece although my wife swears that we must have served on silver at least once. My only memories are pulling out the silver, moaning over the tarnish and wasting an afternoon polishing the pieces before wrapping them in fresh plastic wrap and putting them back in the cabinet.

We are moving again but this time we are paying for the move ourselves. After packing and unpacking the silver into cabinets and cupboards to be conveniently forgotten for years I insisted, the silver goes. We never use it and I am done polishing it. Thus began a series of conversations that culminated in a garage sale on a Sunday morning.

Downsizing has been a process. The back corners, the utility shelves and the closets were searched. Once we decided the task was insurmountable and someone else’s fault, we rallied our energy and started. The first weekends concluded with piles of junk on the curb. The weight of paperwork, notebooks and outdated materials of one Ph.D., one D.D., three M.A.’s, four undergraduate degrees and several careers was alarming. The unsalable was depressing. Metal for salvage was set aside for those entrepreneurial souls who cruised the neighborhoods on certain nights. By Monday morning, some of items were gone and others were dutifully thrown into the back of the garbage truck.

The house was purged and the garage was refilled. The digital notice went out and in the early evening the night before the sale, I nailed a sign at traffic light at the top of my neighborhood. Everything from the backyard was moved around to the fence for quick setup. The early morning alarm was set.

All the items were arranged for display on the asphalt of the driveway. I euphemistically referred to the furniture, the housewares, cd’s, silver, and other items as “crap” as in, “I put all the crap out; let’s see if it sells.”

By midmorning, I no longer thought of the items as crap. I had been blinded by my privilege. The couch, love seat, stuffed chair combo that had worn poorly was offered for free because bedbugs are an issue in my area and no reputable organization accepts them now. A family came somewhat early, asked about the furniture and claimed the set. A friend had phoned them, telling them of the offer. They took off all the cushions and then began calling everywhere to find a truck or van. In the late afternoon, we loaded the furniture in the back of large pickup belonging to a friend of a friend. The family was exhausted but content.

The gas grill went. The dresser was purchased by an employer for a woman who had no money after paying rent on an empty apartment. A woman who ships or delivers goods to poverty-stricken homes bought a box of bedsheets, mattress covers, bed ruffles, and tablecloths. We had a long conversation about the lack of supports. Her friend bought the mini-fridge for a house kitchen that only had a stove. More than one grandparent swung by searching for tools for their grandsons who work construction for a living.

Few if any want used books. No one wants dated stereo equipment either.

Almost everything went. Most of the items went to people without much means rather than the professional resellers that trawl garage sales early in the morning. Everything we sold was in working order. People needed what we had to offer, from tools and home goods to school supplies.

We had expected to make a couple hundred dollars with the assumption that we did not want anything we offered for sale to go into the landfill; better to sell it than dump it. Whether we realized what we had done, we had priced everything or repriced everything to get it out of my house into other households who would use it. I told the family who bought my gas grill where to get their propane tanks filled at the best price. I tied the eleven-foot extending ladder to the roof of a young woman’s car, after she walked her toddler in his stroller home first.

In Hebrew, business is called maseh u’matan, give and take. Nothing was priced to make a profit but I made a goodly one nonetheless. Everyone who chose to speak with me was treated with respect and the respect was reciprocated every time. People walked away with a smile and I smiled with them. The young man who purchased my lawnmower must have needed it because the relief on his face was evident when I quoted the price.

Their need struck me. Several of my visitors walked over from one of the main avenues only a few streets away. I must pass their homes daily, never giving them a thought or even a glance. As we talked and bargained, late model SUV’s trundled past, heading out of the neighborhood, their occupants staring at us as they passed. People said “thank you” and shook my hand. We exchanged names, neighborhood updates on traffic and congestion, and political commentary.

I probably gave away too much and priced lower than I could have. However, what I received in return for used goods that I no longer wanted was more than worthwhile. Said one man as we discussed the cushion-less couch in the mid-afternoon, “You understand; you have a good heart.” I truly got more out of my garage sale than profit.

As for the silver-plated serving pieces that started this process, on my wife’s advice, I swept them up into a box and sold them in bulk for a quick price to the purchaser of the dresser. I placed them in her car to be doubly sure she took them. There was a happy dance on the driveway when her car disappeared around the corner.

Response to Charlottesville

Having lived in David Duke’s home state of Louisiana for two years, I can tell you what he did today. He woke up and got to work, as he has done every day since he decided to spread his message. The man neither paused nor did he let defeat deflate his drive or let success give him pause through all these years. He may be cheering and celebrating today yet he was on the phone, posting online, and planning his programs, intent on his goal just as he has done every other day.

He is a racist, a bigot, and an anti-Semite but the First Amendment protects his right to spew his hatred.

What about you? What about me? Do you and I have the same depth of passion, but for justice and right? After all, fighting for climate change legislation is tough in a fossil fuel world. Explaining racial injustice and raising awareness of the economic injustices of energy policies to communities that do not want to hear facts and reason is a stubborn climb. Holding proudly to one’s faith in a cynical world can be a daily hurt. Are you still fighting?

This missive is not about the Neo-Nazis and the White Supremacists though. This message is about those who have the passion to fight for what is right, good, and godly, about those who stand up to the evil and hate. These people are our family, our friends, acquaintances, workmates and our members-in-faith.

One died and nineteen more lay wounded in the Charlottesville confrontation. Many, many more though, people of all colors, creeds and faiths, marched; they held the lines, and shouted down the hatred. Their passion brought them forth and their courage kept them going. The citizens of Charlottesville refused to accede to hatred, to acquiesce to murderous rage. Instead they welcomed those who hold beliefs of equality, justice, and freedom for all of God’s children. Together, they gave the voices of hatred no quarter and no measure of comfort to broadcast their message of intimidation and confrontation.

Evil only expands when it is allowed, when people of goodwill do not stand as a bulwark against the malicious tide. Silence, apathy and vacuum are tacit permissions to continue to fill the streets with hate-filled rhetoric. The streets of Charlottesville were not silent though and intimidation was met with spirited determination.

What about you? What about me? Are we going to sink into the sofa cushions or lean back into our computer chairs, and watch passively as a few good souls contest a contagious fear and paranoia? Whether the summons is the Hindu call of Gandhi, the Christian call of Martin Luther King Jr., or the beckoning of the ancient Israelite prophets, the universal demand of justice is broadcasting loud and clear across the land.

Will you and I answer the call? Shall we answer with unequivocal passion?

“Then I heard the voice of my God saying, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us? Then I replied, ‘Here I am; send me.’”  Isaiah 6:8

Here I am; send me.