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.           
By | Apr 01, 2024
Environment, Featured, Latest
Rabbi Laura Bellows, Director of Spiritual Activism and Education, holding up matzoh at a protest in Washington, DC.

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.

Image Credit:, Climate Change Institute, University of Maine. Image description: Daily mean surface air temperature estimates from 1940 to 2023.

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.

New Jewish Books on Climate

Core Jewish values such as saving lives, protecting the poor and vulnerable, and caring for God’s creation, the Earth, have long inspired Jews to care about the environment. As the climate crisis has worsened, a growing number of Jewish writers are examining the issue through a Jewish lens, arguing for a greatly stepped-up Jewish response.  

Late last year the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) published The Sacred Earth: Jewish Perspectives on Our Planet, 36 essays and poems by a diverse group of Jewish theologians, scholars, artists and activists. Also last year, Laurie Zoloth, a leading bioethicist, published Ethics for the Coming Storm: Climate Change and Jewish Thought

In early 2024, shortly before her death, Rabbi Ellen Bernstein, the founder of the first national Jewish environmental organization, Shomrei Adamah, published Toward a New Ecology: Reading the Song of Songs in the Age of Climate Crisis, a new translation and commentary. The book came just two years after her Earth-focused Haggadah, The Promise of the Land

Jews who have written new books on climate for people of any faith or none are too numerous to list here. Two who sound the alarm and argue for more disruptive responses are psychologist Margaret Klein Salamon (Facing the Climate Emergency: How to Transform Yourself with Climate Truth) and sociologist Dana Fisher (Saving Ourselves: From Climate Shocks to Climate Action).

Organizing Jews for Climate Action

The new kid on the block organizing Jews to advocate for rapid and systemic change is Dayenu. Established in 2020, Dayenu supports “spiritual adaptation”—helping Jews to come to terms with climate grief and loss—and leads public campaigns for rapid, systemic change. It invites Jewish communities to form or affiliate as Dayenu Circles, grassroots groups that work together to undertake climate advocacy. There are now 87 Dayenu Circles across the country.

“Many people are living with fear, anxiety, and guilt and the sense of disconnection that comes from going about one’s day-to-day business with the looming—or already present—threats to the safety and well-being of themselves and those they love,” says Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, Dayenu’s founder and CEO. “Dayenu seeks to support Jews and Jewish communities to spiritually adapt to this new and terrifying reality.”

Students and community members gather in front of BlackRock’s building in downtown San Francisco on Tuesday April 19, 2022.

Image Credit: Justin Katigbak | Survival Media Agency

The group’s name plays with the familiar Passover exclamation, conveying that humanity has enough solutions to solve the problem and impatience with inaction, as in “enough already!” Dayenu’s staff of 15 offer spiritual adaptation workshops, training for new organizers, guidance for creating Dayenu Circles, and campaign toolkits underpinned by strategic political analysis and made lively with creative use of Jewish symbols.

For example, ahead of the High Holy Days in 2021, Dayenu Circles showed up at the offices of 16 U.S. senators in more than a dozen states urging them to support ambitious climate legislation that was then stalled in the Senate. The protestors tapped into the High Holy Day themes, blowing shofarot and chanting “Hear the call!” 

In a 2022 Passover campaign demanding that banks stop funding fossil fuels, Dayenu volunteers gathered at banks in dozens of locations across the country to read Ten Plagues arising from climate change. Recalling the ancient Israelites’ hurried flight from Egypt, they held up matzoh and chanted: “Move your dough!” Such attention-grabbing public actions are amplified through social media and stories in Jewish and secular news outlets.

Behind the fun is serious intent. “Dayenu is focused on mobilizing the Jewish community around levers of change that are going to have a real impact on the climate crisis,” Rabbi Rosenn explains. “It’s not just about putting solar panels on your roof but advocating for policies that ensure that the whole community can rapidly transition to clean energy and that those who are hardest hit and most marginalized benefit.”

Dayenu encourages Jewish organizations to screen fossil fuel investments from their financial holdings. A Dayenu study of American Jewish foundations, Federations, and denominational movements identified “a $3.3 billion opportunity to leave fossil fuels behind and invest in a just, livable future.” 

Other Jewish organizations that support grassroots policy advocacy include the Jewish Earth Alliance, which organizes congregations to write to Congress through monthly action alerts and organizes bi-annual lobby days; and the Jewish Climate Action Network, which is active in New York City, Massachusetts, and the Washington DC metro area. Like Dayenu, these and other organizations are helping to shape an increasingly vibrant and vocal Jewish climate action 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.

Image Credit: Justin Katigbak | Survival Media Agency

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.”

Reform Movement Stepping Up Climate Advocacy

The URJ, which links more than 800 Reform congregations, has long called for action on climate change. A 2017 resolution urged congregations to advocate for governments to “uphold or go beyond” U.S. commitments under the 2015 Paris Agreement. But the resolution didn’t name fossil fuels as the main culprit nor call for a rapid shift to renewable energy. 

Rabbi Jonah Pesner, the director of the Religious Action Center (RAC), Reform Judaism’s social justice arm, said that a new URJ resolution to be adopted this year will go further. “As a movement collectively we are taking on the question of fossil fuels and how we invest our endowments,” he said. “Climate change really is an existential threat. The clock is running. We have no more time.”

URJ resolutions are important because they set the scope of action for member congregations and are often taken up by other Reform governing bodies, such as the CCAR. A strong URJ resolution could help to nudge forward similar moves by other Jewish institutions and, more broadly, in the governing bodies of other faith traditions.

Rabbi Pesner credits Dayenu for encouraging a stepped-up URJ response, and for elevating the issue within the American Jewish community. “The Dayenu Circles have been very helpful, centering people for whom this is already a concern and equipping them with tools and strategies to raise awareness and have conversations about how American Jews can be part of the broader climate movement,” he said.  

Already the RAC has stepped up climate advocacy. Last year, it brought hundreds of people to Washington DC for meetings with legislators and staff at the Environmental Protection Agency and the White House. Participants urged the Biden administration to commit to cut climate pollution in half by 2030 and to limit soot, tiny pollution particles generated by burning fossil fuels, that cause heart and lung disease as well as other health problems.

Jewish Responses to Climate Change in Context

These and other policy-focused Jewish responses to the climate emergency aim to accelerate action in the United States, which has the responsibility and the means to lead the global transition to a low-carbon economy. 

The United States has produced more heat-trapping pollution than any other country and has the highest per capita emissions. And, the country’s many serious problems notwithstanding, America is still the richest, most technologically advanced, and most militarily powerful country on Earth. What happens here matters for the rest of the planet. 

Can Jewish climate advocacy influence U.S. policy? Certainly not alone. Jews are but a tiny portion—about 2.4 percent—of the U.S. population. Nonetheless, we have a proud history of contributions to many social justice issues, including labor protections, the women’s movement, reproductive rights, and support for Civil Rights. Many participants in the growing Jewish climate action movement are proud of this history and see it as a source of strength.

At a minimum, Jewish climate activists say, American Jews need to be doing our share. A popular slogan in the climate movement proclaims: “To change everything we need everybody.”  Two famous Jewish teachings reinforce this call. The first comes from Pirket Avot: “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.” The second is the often-quoted question from Hillel: “If not now, when?

Lawrence MacDonald is the author of “Am I Too Old to Save the Planet? A Boomer’s Guide to Climate Action” and the co-coordinator of the Dayenu Circle at Temple Rodef Shalom, Virginia’s largest Jewish congregation.

Top Image: Rabbi Laura Bellows, Director of Spiritual Activism and Education, holding up matzoh at a protest in Washington, DC. Bora Chung | Survival Media Agency

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