Rachel Binstock is an organizer with Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action, which aims to strengthen grassroots Jewish networks confronting climate emergency. Binstock is a past director of Urban Adamah’s fellowship program in Berkeley and will soon be starting the Dorot fellowship in Israel.
What do you see as your role in confronting the climate crisis?
Most of my decisions as an adult have been defined by the reality of climate change. I became a farmer and farm educator to help people come into proximity with the food they eat, and understand the challenges in our industrial food system. And I became a spiritual guide, rooted in my own ancestral tradition, to help people meet the fallacies of our capitalist system and find ways to transcend it.
Professionally, for the last year and a half, I’ve been working for Dayenu, developing workshops that help people confront the climate reality. In the workshops, we take participants through Joanna Macy’s four stages of group work: gratitude, honoring our pain for the world, seeing with fresh eyes, and finally, going forth. We weave in Jewish wisdom and visioning exercises. They’re designed to help people take in the existential bigness and overwhelm of confronting the climate crisis, and hopefully to support them in metabolizing some of that, so that they can integrate those experiences into actions as a part of a larger whole, whether that be lifestyle changes, talking to their loved ones or colleagues, joining a local, state-wide, or national initiative, or launching a Dayenu Circle in their own community. We call that work spiritual adaptation.
What is one way the climate emergency has directly impacted your life?
I was living with a partner, maybe 15 minutes out of Ashland, Oregon. We were living off-the-grid, in the woods. We were starting a homestead in order to start welcoming other people in. But we had a crazy fire leap through our town. The fire started on the north end of town, and then burned straight through Phoenix and Talent, which are the two towns just north of us. Our cars were packed with our valuables, like our passports and any mementos that we wouldn’t want to leave behind. I had friends who lost everything. (I wrote about my experience for the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education and Hazon, the Lab for Jewish Sustainability.)
A large reason I’ve moved away from that part of the world is because I’m not really interested in dying by fire. And I have a lot of heartbreak about that, because I really love that land.
Where have you found community, allies, and connection in your work?
I feel so blessed to have found Dayenu. I was a political organizer right out of college, and got really burnt out. I’ve been a part of movement spaces that have felt really challenging because of conversations around Israel and Palestine, and a disregard or erasure of Jewish oppression. So after eight years of being an earth-based Jewish educator and farming and teaching, it was a real homecoming for me to find a place where I could use a political analysis that felt really spot-on in an organization that can understand ancestrally where I come from.
What tools or practices for processing the enormity of the climate crisis have you found within the Jewish tradition?
I think the big one is lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, v’lo ata ben chorim l’hibatil mimenar: “it is not upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it,” which is from Pirkei Avot. My challenge in working on climate in my career thus far has really been about, how do I find my place? How do I weigh my impact? How do I participate and use my time in efficient and effective ways?
That teaching reminds me that I just need to be a part of the puzzle, and that I need to stay focused and connected to that commitment. You don’t have to be the node at the center of the spokes of the wheel, but you should find your spoke and you should find your place.
The other answer to that question that comes up for me often is thinking about my ancestors and the journeys they took. My grandmother, my dad’s mother, was born on the run from a pogrom in Uzbekistan, in Bukhara. She spoke seven languages and couldn’t read or write in any of them. She was displaced three times in her life. The fact that I’m the first college-educated person in my dad’s lineage, and that I have been able to thrive in the United States of America, and be a well person, is such a privilege.
When I think about that ancestry, I think, “Wow, we made it through so much. I’m one of the people who made it.” There are so many ancestors along the way who did not make it. For whatever reason, my lineage was touched with protection. And I feel that strength in my bones when I think about my grandmother’s story, and when I think about what she went through. I am really impressed with what perseverance and radical imagination and deep commitment to thriving we Jews have had.
What other traditions and lineages do you draw upon?
Living simply and learning primitive skills, like hide tanning and basket weaving and making rope and cordage and fiber arts, and spinning your own thread and yarn from wool. Part of what I love about these ancestral skills is that they throw a wrench in our understanding of resources and the value of resources and where they come from and how they get to us.
It creates a story, and it creates a context, and it creates a relationship that allows you to be more than just a human consumer. You don’t just order something online and then it arrives at your house in a bunch of plastic and cardboard. You harvest something, and then you process it and you work with it. Part of how we got into this mess is that we’ve forgotten what it means to be a human. We’ve forgotten our place in the ecology and the systems in which we are embedded.
In the lead-up to COP26, what have you been doing and feeling?
Unfortunately, I feel skeptical. I think a lot of these big international climate gatherings have been optics. What I’d like to see is a promise beyond what our governments feel is possible. That’s what we need. We don’t need this political game right now. We need everybody to be committing beyond what they think is possible, and aggressively figuring out how to get there. And the truth is, we know how to get there, we just need the political will.
What aspects of the climate emergency do you think deserve more urgent attention?
I went to a Stop Line 3 protest in Minneapolis as part of a Jewish delegation. And we went on this prayer walk. People were walking from the headwaters of the Mississippi all the way to the state capitol in protest. The Line 3 pipeline crosses the Mississippi and affiliated tributaries over 200 times, which means that this pipeline threatens at least 40 percent of U.S. people’s drinking water. Line 3 is going to be the equivalent of 50 coal-fired power plants. And it’s threatening Indigenous treaty rights and the ability for the Anishinaabe people to be growing their wild rice in northern Minnesota. No one has done an environmental impact statement because there was a loophole that allowed Enbridge, a Canadian company, to fast track the process. President Biden and the governor of Minnesota both have the ability to retract these permits, and nobody has. But there’s just been an amazing showing of Indigenous and ally support to do civil disobedience and to challenge this pipeline.
How do you find meaning and hope as you navigate the climate crisis?
I find a lot of hope running these workshops, feeling the energy that is generated from them. I find a lot of hope remembering that the Earth is going to be okay—we’ve just created certain imbalances and created more challenges for us to live in harmony with it. And I feel really hopeful when I see thriving communities and thriving ecosystems, and when those two things are woven together. I feel so alive and so excited and so inspired when I see people living in a beautiful way with the natural world, when I see people tending gardens and valuing seeds and taking care of each other. I find a lot of hope in human kindness. And when I stand in majestic, beautiful places and can remember how beautiful the Earth is and how beautiful we are because we are the Earth, I find a lot of hope there.
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