Climate at a tipping point: What do we do? (4 of 7)

Friday, August 6, 2021 | 28 Av 5781


Dear All,

You might think this email would for me be easy and obvious. But it has been the hardest one to write. I want to convey some seemingly contradictory ideas. 

It has been right for the environmental movement not to overstate things (i.e. not to make wild claims beyond what we already know). But it’s been clear for some while that the numbers and the projected negative impact, in terms of temperature rise and concomitant impacts, were and are more likely to be worse, rather than better, than our median projections.

And this summer has felt like a tipping point. 116 degrees in cool temperate Canada. People suddenly wanting air conditioners in Seattle. Flood deaths in Germany. Wildfires in California, Greece, Turkey. Here’s the Guardian today – 14 separate stories, led by “Last Month Was Worst July For Wildfires On Record.”

The Covid pandemic is a parallel cautionary tale.  A lesson about how something out of kilter in one part of the planet can have impacts the whole world over. A reminder of the fragility of systems – and of human beings. An object lesson in the necessity of good science, public health, and good government. And an alarming reminder that when things go wrong it is those who were most vulnerable in the first place – poor people, poor countries, the elderly, the sick – who bear the brunt.

So, then – what? There’s a ton we can and should do.

But we first have to register how insignificant we are to the task at hand. We have to name this to understand the scale and unique nature of the challenges we face, and to be honest with ourselves.

Robin Hood (the nonprofit, not the now-meme-stock) hasn’t managed to eradicate poverty in NYC, even after deploying cumulatively over a billion dollars.
Mike Bloomberg gave $250m for gun control and there are more guns in this country than ever before.
How then do we expect to shift the trajectory of planet earth in relation to the emission of anthropogenic gases, a task that is indescribably greater than eradicating poverty in one city, or guns in one country?

Plus we are now decisively entering the territory of “known unknowns.”

We can assume that measures to reduce carbon and methane emissions will ratchet up, as they should, every year for the rest of our lives, and we all must be part of this – through our own actions; through education, through public advocacy; through institutional decisions and policies; through our investment strategies. The whole shebang.

But we must also assume that, at various points in the coming years, there will be global disruption (and global demonstrations), perhaps prompted by some hitherto unexpected catastrophic weather event. We can assume that indirect societal-scale dislocation is at least locally and regionally possible-to-increasingly-likely. (By this I mean, for instance, the dotted lines that led from drought in Syria, to civil unrest, to civil war, to several million refugees, and thus to the rise of populism and anti-immigrant measures in Europe.)

We can assume that financial markets will start to price-in climate risks in an as yet unknown place or time or manner, so that certain assets become uninsurable. This will trigger further population shifts and calls for central governments to underwrite response and amelioration costs.

I’m not saying all this to make you feel miserable or scared.
I’m saying it because this is a bigger challenge than any that humanity has faced thus far – greater in scale, and far greater in complexity. 

I think most people will acknowledge the likelihood or veracity of what I’ve written so far; yet as I step down as CEO of Hazon, I’m struck that as a community, and as institutional leaders, we haven’t yet really gotten our heads around the range of things we need to be addressing.

I share this now not to depress you, but to challenge us all to raise our game in very significant ways. Ways that are both possible and necessary. And the sooner and better we do them, the better the outcomes will be.

And, crucially, there is a necessity to start to address both “fighting climate change” and “adaptation.” Some of the things we may do will be distinct. But at a communal and institutional level there has to be an understanding that both are necessary.

And because we are so impotent to have ultimate impact (the entire Jewish people are just two people in every thousand, on this planet) we, paradoxically, can and should feel liberated to do all that we can, in all possible directions. This is how and why we need an ecosystem of Jewish sustainability, which builds on the gains of the last quarter century and grows tenfold in the next few years and a hundredfold in the next two or three decades; which is to say a significant change in kind and not just in scale. 

In tandem with this alarming trajectory, there are legitimate grounds for hope. Nick Kristof writes a piece every few years about the indescribable gains of the last century, and even of just the last two or three decades. Extraordinary growth in life expectancy; a billion people moved out of absolute poverty; diseases eradicated, enormous gains in literacy. Covid has indeed been a tragedy, and very obviously so for every single person who died, became seriously ill, lost a loved one, or lost their job. But even as that is true, it is also, weirdly, a success story.  The Spanish flu, a century ago, killed between 20- and 50-million people out of a global population of 1.5 billion. Covid has killed 4 million out of 8 billion. Pro rata to world population, just one person has died of Covid for every fifty who died a century ago.

In the remainder of our lives we must address the climate crisis within the core fabric of every institution of which we are a part. But as we do this, we can and should do it with energy, determination, high vision and a genuine sense of hope. I don’t subscribe to the lachrymose view of Jewish history. But I do see that the long arc of Jewish history is in and of itself deeply hopeful, and immensely valuable. And, even more than that, those elements of Jewish tradition and Jewish culture that have enabled us to survive and thrive are entirely salient to the whole world right now. A commitment to education, to community, to mutual responsibility. Traditions of argument that enable the negotiation of disagreement.

Since there are just two Jews for every thousand human beings, and since we believe in being a light unto the nations – then we need to punch way above our weight. That means that addressing this issue is not instead of any other priority that we have – it is as well as. And it also means re-connecting different parts of the Jewish toolbox, so that we’re understanding not only the challenge, but some of our unique gifts.  And we need to do this work with a deep commitment to taking everyone with us. Every institution, every kind of person, every kind of contribution, every tool and means at our disposal.

We need to love and respect and support the different ways that people are already making a difference. If you are sending your kids to Eden Village – thank you. If you’ve stopped eating industrial meat – thank you. If you’re giving sermons on this topic, calling your elected officials, demonstrating, if you’re consuming less, if you traded an SUV for a Tesla, if you’re flying less, if you’re buying carbon offsets – in each case, thank you. And – in each case – now what else are you – are we, am I – going to do?!

We have to way, way raise our game.

You do not have to be overwhelmed by this.
I want to stress this point – you do not.
You especially do not need to go to “we don’t have time for this / we don’t have money / we don’t have expertise / we don’t have the right people.”
The better place is: “ok – given that I feel like I or we don’t have enough time, or money, or knowledge – but given that this is happening, and we can’t ignore it – we have to start somewhere. I have to start somewhere.”

This is what both the Hazon Seal of Sustainability and the Brit Hazon are about. I want you to understand that these are both important and significant things and that I and we don’t care about them as programs qua programs. They’re here as resources and as the start of forward-facing public commitments – the former institutionally, the latter personally. They’re each here to support you, encourage you, network you. But a hundred institutions, and a thousand people, will make different commitments, will move at different paces, will have different foci. What’s most important is that you start the work, that you commit to it publicly and seriously, that you start at whatever pace seems feasible, and that you then steadily push and learn and grow and raise the bar, year by year.

This is why this has to go on the agenda of every single Jewish institution.

We should understand that the deep cultural change work is a significant part of this. Work on co-housing and intentional communities. The way that synagogues reached out to people during Covid. Changes in how and where we live and work. Non-violent communication, and the tools we develop for resolving conflict. Peacebuilding between Israelis and Palestinians. Critiquing the over-consumption of the world, and striving to build and support alternative models of living. Work on urban systems, the development of longer range plans, strengthening global institutions – this is all part of the work. Every single thing that thickens community, strengthens relationships, lessens inequality, and lowers the political temperature is also vitally necessary, specifically because of the likely disruptions from climate change, in the next few years and decades.

I don’t mean this as intellectual mushiness (throwing everything in the pot), and I also explicitly don’t mean this as letting any or all of us off the hook, in the need to do more. But what I do mean is that, as a community, climate change is happening, and we need a far deeper and broader commitment to addressing it – everything we can do to help the world reverse course; and everything we can do to strengthen communities and institutions to help build a more resilient future.

Put a different way: what would it look like if UJA-Federation of New York wanted to announce, as of September 2022 (the start of the next shmita cycle) that it was making a 7-year commitment to interweave addressing environmental sustainability into every aspect of its work? (And I’m not here, picking on UJA-Federation of New York as if it has done something wrong. It’s done more work on this, one way or another, than any other federation in the country – except the Associated… :-)) I’m picking UJA-Federation of New York because it’s the right level of scale to sketch out what’s possible and what’s needed.

It means setting up an organization-wide task-force to address every aspect of climate change, and looking both at UJA-Federation of New York as an organization (i.e. its own education, its own actions, its own advocacy) and looking, as it does, at the New York Jewish community and the global Jewish community. The work that’s been done in recent years in addressing anti-semitism, in the security of buildings, in increasing diversity – each of these things has involved planning, grant-making, positioning, intergroup relations, staff work, lay leaders – the whole system.  A deeply serious public commitment, not to finishing the task, but to starting it as a central and systemic endeavor – that’s what we need. We have to build this into assessing the real estate footprint of the community. In supporting the city of New York in longer-range planning. Or, to take Israel as an an example: given that Alon Tal is now in the Knesset, and there’s a new government, and given that diaspora Jewish support is finite and must be leveraged; and given that Israel is in one of the hottest, driest, and densest parts of the world; couldn’t/shouldn’t the Federation system be saying, ok, we’re going to make a multi-year commitment to supporting environmental sustainability and adaptation planning in Israel? Shouldn’t Taglit make engaging with environmental issues a core part of its curriculum, a stop on every bus tour – whether that’s connecting to tech, or Jewish teaching, or Israeli/Palestinian issues, or whatever?

This is true for JFNA (Jewish Federations of North America); for JTS (Jewish Theological Seminary) and the USCJ (United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism) and the RA (Rabbinical Assembly); for the entire camp system; for Prizmah and the Jewish day schools; for the JCCs (Jewish Community Centers), for JFN (Jewish Funders Network) and the foundations; and of course for every single institution, and for each of us individually.

We have to literally put this issue on the agenda. We have to use the forthcoming shmita year to learn and to plan. And by the fall of 2022, we have to come together to start to announce – and start to execute – a community-wide 7-year commitment to environmental sustainability, across the entire Jewish community.

Jakir will have more to say on this, in the final email in this series, which we plan to send out in three weeks’ time. And he and I both plan to be at COP 26, to learn about what is happening, to build further interfaith relationships, and to do all that we can to help to catalyze a global Jewish response.


But here’s how I want to end. And why I wanted to stress our disempowerment, the extent of the challenge, etc. We can and should do this work with joy. I know that may sound crazy. But this is really long-run. This is the whole of the rest of our lives. It is true that all sorts of things are urgent. They really are – and, at the same time, they’ve been urgent for the last forty years. They’re going to remain urgent for every day of the rest of our lives. So this is a different kind of challenge. It’s not going to help us if you burn out. It’s not going to help anyone if you get too scared, too angry, too fearful. The kids at Eden Village, the kids at Teva – and the people who teach at Teva. A huge number of JOFEE leaders around the country. People are doing different things. That’s what it means to be an eco-system. Farmers, food activists, political advocacy, educators – we need everyone and we need to support everyone, to encourage everyone.

Tomorrow morning we read Parshat Re’eh. That famous opening line (Deuteronomy 11:26):
I set before you a blessing and a curse…

And then Sunday night – it’s the start of the month of Elul. The season of return, renewal, repentance – it’s here.

Shabbat shalom, chodesh tov,



PS – if you made it this far – we’re going to do a little leaving shindig for me stepping down as CEO, on Wednesday afternoon, August 18th – by Zoom and, for people in NYC, on a rooftop. If you’d like to join us, email for info and an invitation.

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