Sing to Survive: New Jewish Songbook Combats Climate Crisis

By | Jul 24, 2023
Arielle Korman and Anat Hochberg

Abby Bresler’s motivation to combat climate change is personal.

Bresler, a musician and manager of environmental organization the Jewish Youth Climate Movement at Adamah (formerly Hazon), has a respiratory condition that makes breathing more difficult when the weather is hot. After she had trouble breathing during a heat wave several years ago, Bresler decided that just living sustainably was not enough to engender the kind of change she felt was necessary to her health. 

“The future—and present—of me, my disability community, and other frontline communities was going to be this reality, if I and others didn’t come together to make change.”

Now, Bresler works to organize Jewish youth against climate change. At protests—be they outside the headquarters of investment firm BlackRock or inside the Rhode Island State House—singing songs rooted in Jewish culture and prayer is one of Bresler’s key tactics. “I think music inherently helps us build power, because it sustains us in our organizing and wards against burnout,” says Bresler. 

Songs have always had a central role in American protest movements, and Jewish song is an integral part of climate organizing, not only for Adamah, but also for other Jewish environmental action organizations, like Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action, which was founded in 2020.

This May, Dayenu released “Rising Tides, Rising Voices: Songs for the Jewish Climate Movement,” a songbook for Jewish climate activism. Laura Bellows, a rabbi and Dayenu’s director of spiritual activism and education, believes this digital songbook—which brings together a diverse set of songs—Jewish and secular, English and Hebrew, chanted and sung—is the first of its kind. She hopes the resource will help galvanize the Jewish climate movement as extreme weather events increase. 

NASA found that this June was the hottest June in recorded history; that same month, New York became the city with the worst air quality in the world as smoke from large Canadian wildfires rolled south. The earth’s temperature is also expected to keep increasing at a rapid rate over the next few years, and conditions like these are what inspired Dayenu to compile these songs as calls for action. “We know that this next decade is going to decide a lot about how we—and future generations—live, in terms of our changing climate,” says Bellows. “We have to work with communities across the country and across the world, but particularly the most impacted communities, to try to re-envision what a just and livable world looks like.”

Activists like Madeline Canfield, who organizes with Adamah, say that song can sustain advocacy organically. Canfield is from Houston, Texas, where heavy floods frequently inundate neighborhoods, and Jewish neighborhoods in the city have been among those severely impacted by flooding in recent years. Now a college student and organizer with Jewish environmental organization Adamah, Canfield says singing Jewish songs, like Olam Chesed Yibaneh (“The world is built with kindness”), at protests has become integral to her work. 

“Song-leading has this big history—both in Jewish community and in protest movement—so it’s very organic,” says Canfield. In her experience, singing can rouse crowds for hours-long protests and attune them to the values of justice that Jewish liturgy espouses.

Dayenu’s songbook is split into three sections, each designed for a different audience. The songbook opens with a section of short, simple, quick-to-teach songs and nigunim (Jewish melodies composed of repetitive syllables) to engage crowds; then it features songs meant to inspire groups moving into action; and it closes with pieces meant for moments of grief or healing. 

The 64 songs range from traditional liturgical music to original contemporary tracks. Each was selected by Arielle Rivera Korman—a musician, rabbinical student and former rabbinic intern at Dayenu—and Bellows, building off of work by Dayenu alum Rabbi Maor Greene. 

While some of the tracks in Dayenu’s songbook, such as Hinei Ma Tov, include classic, well-known translations of Hebrew into English, other lyrics deviate from those of more traditional songs. A song entitled Enough/Dayenu doesn’t adhere to the expected format of the Passover chant; rather, its lyrics claim: “We’ve had enough / No more waiting / We’ve had enough / The world is burning.”

Lyrics, guitar chords and links to audio recordings are included for many of the compositions. Most tracks were recorded by smaller artists, who are Mizrahi, Sephardi or Jews of color.

“We can pull on past songs, and it’s amazing how well they can fit current contexts,” says Bresler. “But I think there’s something to be said for music written in the here and now, for the here and now, for the future and by young people.

Like Dayenu, Adamah centers original music for the climate movement in its programming. 

To engage younger activists in climate organizing, Adamah held a songwriting initiative last year, and over several meetings, its participants learned about the histories of Jewish music and songs for social justice, and they ultimately produced 27 new songs to bolster the Jewish climate movement. “[Music] can set a tone for an action or event, and I thought that the Dayenu songbook did a really good job of sharing which ones are songs for the streets versus songs for healing,” says Bresler. “A song can totally soothe a crowd or ratchet up the intensity. I think that’s really a powerful tool.”

The Dayenu songbook also includes two new, contemporary songs that it produced professionally—L’dor Vador by Rena Branson and Hope With Our Hands by Zo Tobi for this project. But marshaling music in support of climate action is not new to organizers at Dayenu or elsewhere. Environmentalist songs have rippled through air waves for decades, and Dayenu’s songbook grew from a collection of several songs that the organization has used for previous climate activism campaigns.

Several songs do not mention Jewishness or Judaism in particular. The lyrics to “Courage,” a South African anti-apartheid song in the songbook’s “For the Streets” section, read: “Courage, my friend / You do not walk alone / We will walk with you / And sing your spirit home.” Replete with first-person-plural pronouns and imperative verbs, the music’s uniting factor is its focus on the present need for collective action.

And Bellows cites a history of resourcefulness among Jews as a particular reason for which Jewish activists should fortify larger movements for environmental justice.

 “Jews have a lot to bring to the broader climate movement, and we need to be showing up in those spaces,” says Bellows. “We have stories—ancient ones, like after the temple was destroyed and the Jewish people reinvented the religion—of reinvention, of imagination, of the kinds of skills and tools and possibility-thinking that we need for these times.”

Top image: Anat Hochberg (Left) performing music with Arielle Korman. (Credit: Jess Benjamin)

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