On Jewish Land Day, more Jewish groups take climate action

(RNS) – Tu BiShvat, the Jewish New Year for Trees, barely fits into most Jewish calendars except as an occasion to plant trees or eat fruits and nuts.

But the one-day holiday, which begins on Sunday (January 16), has gained momentum in recent years as environmentalists rebranded it as Jewish Land Day. This year, Tu Bishvat got off to an early start with the Big Bold Jewish Climate Fest, a five-day online event (January 10-14) that drew hundreds of Jews to re-examine ways to make climate action a priority. center of the Jewish community.

Despite the growing urgency to tackle the global climate crisis, environmental values ​​have not always been at the forefront of Jewish institutional life. Judaism does not have a pope who can issue an encyclical on climate change like Pope Francis did in 2015 with his environmental manifesto, “Laudato Si’.” But many Jewish organizations are beginning to take the environment into account, spurred by rising global temperatures and increasing weather disasters.

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Increasingly, major Jewish organizations have signed on, including the Jewish Federations of North America, an umbrella organization representing 147 local federations. Its Jewish community federation and foundation system holds approximately $21 billion in collective endowment and donor-directed funds — money it uses for the social welfare, social services, and educational needs of Jews in the United States. United, in Canada and around the world.

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

Sarah Eisenman, head of community and Jewish life for the Jewish Federations of North America, said the organization will launch a series of webinars for staff who want to step up environmental initiatives.

Jewish environmental groups such as Hazon lead education efforts. Hazon, which claims to be the “largest faith-based environmental organization” in the United States, has developed a “Seal of Sustainability” for Jewish organizations that have completed 12 months of training and engaged in several sustainability initiatives. Some 200 Jewish organizations have received the seal so far.

“We are seeing an increase in engagement and engagement and we need a lot more,” said Jakir Manela, CEO of Hazon. “We need Jewish leaders and institutions to address this project as a global Jewish priority. »

Environmental concerns are also beginning to seep into Jewish investments. A few Jewish foundations are pushing donors to invest responsibly by supporting environmentally friendly practices such as renewable energy, electric cars or sustainable agriculture, an area known as impact investing.

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

“What we’re trying to promote is that our donors think about the social and environmental impact of their investments as well as the impact of the philanthropy they end up doing with their money,” 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, launched 10 years ago, encourages Jewish individuals and organizations to apply Jewish values, including the protection of the Earth, to their investments.

But Sirull said there was a long way to go. Investment managers in the Jewish community are more interested in limiting risk and maximizing profits.

“We would never have a board meeting on Shabbat or serve pork,” she said. “But when you go to a synagogue’s investment committee, it means it’s all about investment, it’s not something Jewish. It does not mean anything.”

Young Jews, however, seem to have gotten the memo.

Since the start of the pandemic-related lockdown, Hazon launched the Jewish Youth Climate Movement to mobilize young people to respond to climate change. It has grown to 37 chapters across the country, made up of small groups of middle and high school students.

In October, the movement organized in New York to protest BlackRock, New York’s largest investment management company. With placards and banners, they gathered outside BlackRock’s offices to demand that the company stop investing in the fossil fuel industry.

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

Madeline Canfield, a sophomore at Brown University and coordinator of the youth movement organization, said it was about empowering teens to have what she called “loving conversations and restless” with their elders and with Jewish community leaders tackling climate change.

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

The key, she said, is to develop the capacity of the movement to reach a critical threshold for change.

“For us, it’s about the vision of transforming our own community,” Canfield said. This is the power we have.

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