On Jewish Earth Day, more Jewish groups take climate action

Tu BiShvat, the Jewish new year of the trees, barely registers on most Jewish calendars, except as an occasion to plant trees or eat fruit and nuts.

But the one-day holiday, which begins Sunday (Jan. 16), has gotten a boost these past few years as environmentalists have reimagined it as the Jewish Earth Day. This year, Tu Bishvat started early with the Big Bold Jewish Climate Fest, a five-day online event (Jan. 10 -14) that has drawn hundreds of Jews to reexamine ways to make climate action a central priority of the Jewish community.

Despite the growing urgency of tackling the global climate crisis, environmental values haven’t always been at the forefront of Jewish institutional life. Judaism doesn’t have a pope who can issue an encyclical on climate change like Pope Francis did in 2015 with his ecological manifesto, “Laudato Si’.” But multiple Jewish organizations are beginning to consider the environment, spurred by rising global temperatures and growing climate weather disasters.

Increasingly, major Jewish organizations have signed on, including the Jewish Federations of North America, an umbrella organization representing 147 local federations. Its Federation and Jewish Community Foundations system holds an estimated $21 billion in collective endowment and donor-advised funds — money it uses for social welfare, social services and educational needs for Jews in the U.S., Canada and around the world.

At a panel Tuesday, three local federation leaders in Baltimore, Providence and Vancouver spoke of their efforts to make their buildings environmentally sustainable. The Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island, for example, began 2022 by drawing 100% of its electricity from renewable energy at its 80,000-square-foot facility in Providence. The Associated Jewish Federation of Baltimore has awarded nearly $900,000 in interest-free loans to synagogues and other Jewish institutions for energy-efficient HVAC upgrades or solar roof projects.

Sarah Eisenman, chief community and Jewish life officer for the Jewish Federations of North America said the organization will be launching a series of webinars for staff who want to ramp up environmental initiatives.

Jewish environmental groups such as Hazon are leading the educational efforts. Hazon, which claims to be America’s “largest faith-based environmental organization,” developed a “Seal of Sustainability” for Jewish organizations that have undergone 12 months of training and committed to several sustainability initiatives. Some 200 Jewish organizations have received the seal so far.

“We do see increasing commitment and engagement and we need a lot more. We need Jewish leaders and institutions to lean into this project as a global Jewish priority.”

Jakir Manela, CEO of Hazon

Environmental concerns are also beginning to filter down into Jewish investments. A few Jewish foundations are pushing donors to invest responsibly by supporting environmentally sound practices such renewable energy, electric cars or sustainable agriculture, a field known as impact investing.

Five years ago, the Jewish Community Foundation of San Diego became the first Jewish community foundation to offer its fund holders, including 35 Jewish organizations whose financial assets it manages, the opportunity to invest in companies and organizations committed to social and environmental good.

“What we’re trying to promote is that our donors be thoughtful about the social and environmental impact of their investments alongside the impact of the philanthropy they eventually do with their dollars,” said Beth Sirull, president and CEO of the Jewish Community Foundation of San Diego, which has assets totaling $750 million, mostly in donor-advised funds.

An investor network called JLens, begun 10 years ago, encourages Jewish individuals and organizations to apply Jewish values, including caring for the Earth, to their investments. But Sirull said there’s a long way to go. Investment managers in the Jewish community are more interested in limiting risks and maximizing profits.

“We would never have a board meeting on Shabbat or serve pork,” she said. “But when you go to a synagogue investment committee meaning, it’s all about investment, it’s not anything Jewish. It makes no sense.”

Younger Jews, however, appear to have gotten the memo.

Since the start of the pandemic lockdown, Hazon has started the Jewish Youth Climate Movement to mobilize young people to respond to climate change. It has grown to 37 chapters across the country consisting of small clusters of middle and high school students.

In October, the movement organized in New York City to protest BlackRock, the largest investment management company in New York. With signs and banners, they assembled outside the BlackRock offices to demand the firm stop investing in the fossil fuel industry.

Three rabbis and six Jewish teenagers were among those arrested at the demonstration.

Madeline Canfield, a sophomore at Brown University who serves as the organizing coordinator for the youth movement, said it’s all about empowering teens to have what she called “lovingly agitational conversations” with their elders and with Jewish community leaders tackling climate change.

“We can’t solve polarization in Congress but we can solve the way our community orients around the climate crisis,” she said.

The key, she said, is growing the movement’s capacity to reach a critical threshold for change.

“For us it’s about the vision of transforming our own community. That’s the power we do have.”

Madeline Canfield, Adamah on Campus Student Leader