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Beyond Greening: Jewish Responses to Climate Emergency

As the climate emergency becomes ever harder to ignore, American Jewish organizations rooted in social and environmental justice are moving beyond localized efforts to reduce their carbon footprints to advocate for rapid system change—including an end to fossil fuel era.

For many American Jews, it’s hard to make space for thinking about climate change in the wake of October 7 and amid the war in Israel and Gaza. Already before Hamas’s October 7 attack, American Jews had plenty to worry about: rising antisemitism, threats to abortion rights and LGBTQ equality, voter suppression, even the fate of American democracy.

Nonetheless, American Jews, like the U.S. public at large, have become increasingly alarmed about climate change. Climate-related disasters—floods, wildfires, heatwaves and mega-storms—have become a daily reality. Average global temperatures are breaking record highs month after month. Scientists warn that the planet faces a climate emergency and that a catastrophe threatening civilization as we know it can only be avoided with the rapid phase-out of fossil fuels, the biggest source of the pollution heating the planet.

In 2014, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) reported that eight out of ten Jewish voters said the planet’s climate was facing a crisis or major problem. In a 2020 J-Street exit poll, Jewish voters ranked climate as the second most important issue after COVID-19. In 2020 and 2021, the Jewish Electorate Institute found that climate change was the top issue for Jewish voters, ahead of voting rights and the economy. A 2023 PRRI poll showed that Jews continued to be more alarmed about the climate crisis than any other faith group. 

American Jewish responses to this existential threat include a spate of new books, fresh efforts to organize grassroots Jewish climate activists, increased attention to climate within the Jewish environmental movement. Fresh initiatives abound from leading Jewish institutions, including the national leadership of the Reform movement, the largest branch of American Judaism.

A growing Jewish climate action movement is working to organize people with these concerns as effective climate advocates by drawing on three sources of strength: the Jewish social justice movement, with roots in the Civil Rights campaigns of the 1960s; the decades-long Jewish environmental movement, traditionally focused on nature-based spirituality and localized greening; and the wide participation of American Jews, especially Jewish youth, in the secular climate movement.

Jewish Environmental Movement Acts on Climate 

For most of its history, the U.S. Jewish environmental movement focused on outdoor education; nature-based spirituality; and localized greening, reducing a community’s environmental footprint through things like composting and rooftop solar. While these activities remain important in the movement, there is a growing recognition that responding to the climate emergency requires a broad coalition and more pointed advocacy.

This shift has been accelerated by the creation of Adamah, a merger of Hazon, a two-decade-old Jewish environmental group that was itself an amalgam of multiple grassroots efforts, and the Pearlstone Center, an outdoor education campus in Maryland. Launched last year, Adamah (Hebrew for Earth), is the country’s largest Jewish environmental organization. Climate action is one of four pillars of its work, along with immersive nature experiences, environmental education, and leadership development.

Adamah CEO Jakir Manela, who previously led the Pearlstone Center, has organized Adamah’s climate work around three national programs: the Jewish Climate Leadership Coalition, a growing network of more than 300 Jewish organizations; the teen-focused Jewish Youth Climate Movement (JYCM), which currently has 70 chapters; and Adamah on Campus, a network of university-level student clubs, mostly based at Hillels, which currency has 15 chapters.  

The Coalition brings together organizations such as synagogues, summer camps, Jewish federations, Hillels, and others that “recognize the existential threat and moral urgency of climate change and commit to take action.” Coalition members prepare Climate Action Plans that include goals for reaching net-zero emissions and “mobilizing the community to take other forms of climate action.”

“Adamah has helped to create a broad and deep consensus for climate action unlike any that had existed before in the Jewish community,” Manela said. “Our approach is to get everyone on the bus and help them find ways to take increasingly impactful climate actions year over year.” “The growth of the Coalition has been much more dramatic than we anticipated,” he added. 

Adamah established a Climate Action Fund that has so far raised $1.2 million and disbursed grants and interest-free loans of about $400,000 to support implementation of the Climate Action Plans. Coalition members participate in communities of practice for JCCs, congregations, Hillels, federations, camps and day schools.

Adamah’s guidance for the Climate Action Plans includes advocating for “climate-smart policies” and choosing “organizational investments, endowments, and banking relationships based on their climate impacts.”  For organizations that want to focus on advocacy or decarbonizing their investment holdings, Adamah refers them to Dayenu and other partners. 

“Given our unique scale, reach, and influence as the largest Jewish environmental organization, there is potential and demand for Adamah to do more on climate,” he adds. “We are thinking about that a lot these days.”

Article by Lawrence McDonald.