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The climate question: Jewish groups begin to act

By Asaf Elia-Shalev

NEW YORK — “Let me put it this way: In 2021, we donated to one climate organization, and in 2022, we donated to 17 of them,” said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, referring to the charity fund she runs with her husband, Victor Mizrahi.

Dayenu CEO Jennie Rosenn holds up a banner after addressing the crowd at a rally urging New York State lawmakers to pass the Climate and Community Investment Act in New York, April 7, 2021. (Gili Getz/Dayenu)

This year, the couple sent nine climate reporters to Israel to meet tech startups working on ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Mizrahi and her husband have also begun commercially investing in such startups.

“The pace of the change is not nearly meeting the demand at the moment,” said Laszlo Misrahi.

Climate change has long ranked at or near the top of a list of issues concerning Jews in the US, but until recently the issue had a marginal place on the agendas of Jewish communal organizations.

Said Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, the founder and CEO of the Jewish climate group Dayenu “We’re seeing an awakening to the role that the Jewish community has to play in addressing the climate crisis.”

In March, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a report stating that “there is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.”

The large Jewish populations living in the coastal US are vulnerable to extreme storms, sea-level rise, severe heat and other weather disruptions — a situation dramatized in the recent Apple television series

“Extrapolations,” in which a rabbi contends with rising sea waters infiltrating his Florida synagogue.

The last few months have seen four new initiatives aimed at both greening Jewish institutions and directing collective action on climate.

• One.

In December, Rosenn’s group published a report calculating that endowments of Jewish organizations from family foundations to local federations, are invested in the fossil fuel industry at $3 billion.

The report urges Jewish leaders to withdraw these investments and put the money toward clean energy instead.

• Two.

In March, another Jewish environmental group, Adamah, organized a new green coalition of local federations, Hillel chapters, summer camps, community centers, day schools and others. Commitments made by members of Adamah’s Jewish Climate Leadership Coalition include sending youth leaders to global climate summits, reducing emissions of buildings and vehicles and lobbying the federal government to pass climate policies.

More than 300 congregations and nonprofits have joined.

For Earth Day, Adamah announced a million-dollar fund offering interest-free loans and matching grants to Jewish groups for projects to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

• Three.

At the annual conference of the Jewish Funders Network in March in Phoenix,attendees visited asylum seekers to hear about how environmental disasters drive cross-border migration. Attendees were invited to imagine the challenge of spending the summer season outside, with temperatures sometimes reaching 120 degrees.

“We wanted to expose them to how the existential threats posed by climate change are not long term, but are already here,” said Rabbi Shmuel Yanklowitz.

• Four.

Ellen Bronfman Hauptman and Stephen Bronfman, children of Birthright founder, Charles Bronfman, said that their $9 million gift is climate-focused, bringing Birthright more in line with the values of a new generation that is environmentally minded.

Birthright organizers will use the funding to develop programming focused on climate that could, for example, expose participants to Israel’s clean tech scene. The money is also intended to help Birthright lower its own carbon footprint.

The Jewish world is lagging behind the larger climate movement. Divesting endowment funds from the fossil fuel industry, for example, is seen as a bold step among Jewish groups even though at least 1,590 institutions representing nearly $41 trillion in assets have already publicly committed to doing so, according to a website tracking such pledges.

About a third of the groups on the list are defined as faith-based organizations, but only three are Jewish: Kolot Chayeinu, a congregation in Brooklyn; the Reform movement’s pension system; and the American Jewish World Service.

Adamah’s climate plan doesn’t include a pledge to divest but only a promise that it will investigate the option of doing so for its endowment and employee retirement funds. Instead, its plan touts the group’s education and advocacy efforts, and focuses on reducing emissions at its retreat centers.

Adamah’s chief climate officer, Risa Alyson Cooper, acknowledged that Jewish community institutions have been “largely absent” from the divestment movement and said her group regards divestment as one of several required tools for addressing the climate crisis.

Further, critics of the divestment movement say it has not figured out how to replace the required energy.

Cooper said the Jewish community hit a milestone when 12 of the 20 founding members of Adamah’s climate coalition said in their climate plans that they would consider amending their financial practices.

That was significant in light of the organizations’ complex and deliberate governing structures, which can make executing such changes onerous.

“While the Jewish community may have lagged behind in years past, we are catching up quickly,” Cooper said.

Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, executive vice president of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, said that wielding financial holdings for social impact has been a hallmark of advocacy by Christian groups.

Last year, the Presbyterian Church (USA.) opted to divest from fossil fuels in light of the climate crisis.

The Jewish community, however, has tended to act primarily through charitable donations.

One of the reasons for the difference, she said, is that the Jewish community is much less centralized with communal assets spread across many endowments, making the actions of any single group less impactful.

Another reason is that Israel is the target of divestment boycotts, and many in the Jewish community do not want to reinforce the tactic.

Kahn-Troster said of her 15-year-old daughter Liora Pelavin, a member of the Jewish Youth Climate Movement, an arm of Adamah:

“Finding a meaningful Jewish space to do grassroots-level climate advocacy that many young people are demanding has been really important to Liora.”

The IJN contributed to this story.

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