This Tu B’Shevat, A Call to Invest in Climate Action

Environment, Latest
Hannah fine with five other organizers at a rally for the green new deal. Two hold signs that say "sustainability is a Jewish virtue"

The Jewish community went big on climate change last week with the second annual Big Bold Jewish Climate Fest (BBJCF), a conference featuring more than 50 presenters over the course of 13 mainstage events, as well as an additional 46 community-hosted events, from “Bentshmarking: Calculate Your Synagogue Carbon Footprint” to “Coming of Age in the time of Climate Crisis: Stories of Climate Grief and Resilience.” Most of the sessions were recorded and can be viewed online. “The focus of the fest this year was about investing in solutions, and pulling away from supporting the systems that perpetuate the problem,” says BBJCF executive producer Lisa Colton. “We are really trying to make climate action a central moral priority of the Jewish community.”

The festival opened with messages from members of the Jewish Youth Climate Movement, a Gen-Z led initiative of Jewish environmental non-profit Hazon. One speaker, 20- year-old Violet Kopp, a sophomore at Tufts, relayed her indignation towards older adults who foist their responsibility and hope onto younger generations. “When people say to Gen Z, ‘You are the future,’ it’s like, yeah, we are the future. But we’re also the present, and so are you, Boomers and Xers,” said Kopp. “In my experience, it’s a lot of ‘yes, we care about the climate, we are committed to saving the planet.’ But then when we say, ‘Okay, great! So, divest from fossil fuels, or stop serving meals that come from factory farms,’ they’re like ‘Whoa, hold up!’”

This is the second annual BBJCF, an outgrowth of a similar Jewish festival Colton organized in her hometown of Seattle, which itself emerged from a social justice group discussion at the home of Ingrid Elliott during which Rabbi Josh Weisman connected the the climate crisis with the biblical story of Noah. “That conversation illuminated an opportunity to engage the entire Seattle Jewish community around this question,” remembers Colton. “This is the new meaning of Tu B’Shevat. I felt like instead of eating dried fruit at the Seder and talking about trees, we could actually be using this holiday to be in dialogue with the Seattle city council and supporting their action on climate policy.” The next year, in the new virtual environment created by COVID lockdowns, Colton, Weisman and Elliott enlisted the help of Hazon and Dayeinu, a politically oriented Jewish climate action group. And so the Big Bold Jewish Climate Fest was born.

The misalignment between Jewish money and Jewish values was the main emphasis of this year’s festival. According to a survey conducted by the Jewish Federations of North America, between public charities and private foundations there are over 100 billions of dollars in Jewish philanthropic assets. Beth Sirull, head of the Jewish Community Foundation of San Diego, said in a “Fossil Freedom” session that a large portion of the billions of dollars in Jewish philanthropic assets is contributing to the forces harming our planet, such as the fossil fuel sector of the economy. “As part of my job, I go to investment committee meetings,” said Sirull in one session. “Back when we had them in person, you’d see the kids in Hebrew school, and the parents bagging food for the poor, and all these Jewish values being celebrated. And then the minute you walk into the investment committee meeting, it’s only about making money, and Jewish values are sort of left outside. And that’s what we’re trying to change here.”

That message was amplified by moderators such as Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster of the Interfaith Council on Corporate Responsibility, who thinks divesting from fossil fuels is not only about one’s personal portfolio, but also about the leverage that managers of endowments and foundations can exert over the larger economy. “As a community, we’ve been absent from conversations about using our financial leverage—our financial power as institutions or individuals—to create a more sustainable planet,” said Kahn-Troster. “We do so much good with our tzedakah, butwithout looking carefully about where we’re investing, sometimes our investments undermine the better world that we are trying to create.”

The festival’s offerings were not confined to the realms of mega-finance. Fred Davis of the Jewish Climate Action Network and others shared stories and insights about how to get synagogues and other community spaces to become fully fossil free. “Decarbonization is the Promised Land,” said Davis. “It’s an eventual, long term, difficult goal, but we must keep faith, we must be grounded in activism. An absolutely essential step to today is at the consumer level, the ground level…Every changeover opportunity needs to be grabbed. That means next time a car needs to be bought or a heating system needs to be replaced, it must be electric.”

Davis shared the “messy” struggle to retrofit his Massachusetts shul’s building to lessen its effect on the environment, starting with the insulation and lighting fixtures and eventually progressing to a new solar power system. His next goal: an electric heat pump to replace the gas system. He says the turning point on the solar panels came when the rabbi, after years of internal debate, told the group to “find a way to yes.” “Every synagogue or community has some kind of group process,” said Davis. “So engage! That’s activism! Get in there!” He says that the synagogue’s electric bills went from almost $20,000 in 2015 to net zero in 2021. “When I go to the board [about the heat pump], I can point to this huge number, $169,000, in savings over the years.”

Whether on the scale of one synagogue’s budget or billions in high finance, Colton says all Jews have a responsibility to put not only words but money behind efforts to combat climate change, and that the cumulative and cultural impact of such changes is significant. “If the thousands of synagogues around the country were to commit to net zero emissions in the next seven-year shmita cycle, that would be a really powerful way to walk the walk,” says producer Colton. “It makes a small dent in the overall picture, but that too is needed, both to contribute to the solutions and to model our values throughout our work. We can’t have a climate change sermon from the bimah on Tu B’Shevat while still running an incredibly energy inefficient building. We have to connect our values to our real action in the world.”

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