Jewish Climate Activism in the Synagogue and Beyond
by Lawrence MacDonald and Geri Maskell
Temple Rodef Shalom, Falls Church, VA
We are two members of Temple Rodef Shalom (TRS), the largest Jewish congregation in Virginia, who are exploring with fellow congregants what it means to be a “green” congregation as the world teeters on the brink of rapid, catastrophic climate change. This is our unfinished story.
It begins more than five years ago with a temple showing of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Geri, a clinical psychologist, was in the audience. Lawrence, who works at a think tank focused on global poverty reduction, spoke on a discussion panel. Many of the 200 people who attended signed up to participate in some future (unspecified) action. Then, nothing.
Weeks later, Geri approached Lawrence at an oneg. “Remember that panel?” she asked. “Shouldn’t we do something?” Lawrence reluctantly agreed and we began to organize a “Green Team,” similar to the small, tentative groups springing up in Jewish and non-Jewish congregations across the country.
Not long after, our senior rabbi, Amy Schwartzman, delivered a moving High Holidays sermon on environmental action, followed by a congregational meeting at which she suggested three areas for action: temple education, greening the building, and community engagement. Again people signed up.
This time a bit more happened: programs in the religious school, a volunteer energy audit of the building. Geri launched a “Cool Congregations” effort, in which some 30 families committed to reduce their energy usage by at least 2%. We organized vegetarian potluck supper for Tu BiSh’vat, with Rachel Cohen, who works on environmental issues at the Religious Action Center, as a guest speaker at the service that followed.
Meanwhile nearly every year has set new record high average global temperature. The Arctic ice is shrinking much faster than the experts predicted. Extreme weather events are claiming lives and dislocating millions of people: fires in Russia, summer heat waves in Europe, floods in Pakistan and Australia. Harvests are declining, pushing up global food prices.
Scientists are alarmed but much of the American public, confused by climate change deniers and deceptive advertising by the coal and oil industries, is complacent. U.S. climate legislation stalled in the Senate, then died after the mid-term elections. President Obama stopped saying “climate” preferring to talk about “clean energy.” The U.S. failure to act torpedoed international negotiations.
Could our tiny efforts in Temple Rodef Shalom make a difference in the face of such a daunting challenge? Was there something more that we could do?
We began turning our attention to state and national policy issues, and reaching out to local environmental groups and to other congregations, Jewish and non-Jewish, through networks like Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light and Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement. Encouraged by Debbie Linick of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, we organized fellow TRS members to participate in Jewish advocacy day in Richmond, where we lobbied for renewable energy and other issues, such as separation of church and state, of deep concern to us and other Jews in Virginia.
Today, opportunity knocks for more highly visible Jewish advocacy for climate action. On the banks of the Potomac River, just a few miles from the venues for the RAC’s 50th Anniversary Consultation on Conscience and the URJ Biennial in December, sits a dirty, Eisenhower-era coal fired power plant targeted by the local community, Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light, and national environmental organizations for an overdue retirement.
The GenOn plant symbolizes all that is wrong with U.S. energy policy. Fueled with mountaintop removal coal, each year it produces 145 pounds of mercury pollution, a potent neurontoxin linked to autism, while particulate matter from the plant is responsible for 37 deaths in the Washington region. And the power from the plant is not even needed, serving as a back up for peak loads that could be avoided with minimal smart grid investments.
Closing the GenOn plant won’t solve the climate problem any more than integrating a single lunch counter or bus line would have meant victory in the struggle for equal rights for African Americans. But in the realm of policy and politics, symbols are powerful. Perhaps a climate vigil on the banks of the Potomac would inspire Jewish communities across the country to raise their own voices and push for the closure of other coal plants.
Is such a thing possible? Should Jews who understand the terrible urgency of the climate threat be contemplating anything less?
We and other members of the Temple Rodef Shalom Green Team will be attending the RAC’s 50th Anniversary Consultation on Conscience this weekend, hoping to meet other Jewish climate activists who share our vision of a Jewish prophetic voice that can make a difference in the greatest social justice struggle to ever confront our species. We will be wearing our Temple Rodef Shalom T-shirts and hope to meet you there.
(For further ideas on what we might do together, please see our guest blog post on JewSchool: Climate Action in the Footsteps of Rabbis Heschel and Eisendrath.)
Lawrence MacDonald and Geri Maskell are co-chairs of the Temple
Rodef Shalom Green Team. They will be attending the Consultation on
Conscience in hopes of meeting other Jewish climate activists.
Spotlight on Greening Reform Judaism: During the month of April, the URJ is highlighting resources that help our congregations in their greening and tikkun olam efforts. Learn more about Greening Reform Judaism.