Thursday, October 15, 2020 | 27 Tishrei 5781
The Jewish holidays are over, and the rest of our lives now proceeds. I’ve been thinking about one particular future date that should be in our calendars – and why it should be in our calendars, and how and why we might work backwards from it.
September 9, 2029
It’s about nine years from now. That’s a long time for most of us. But not that long. Kids born this year will be starting fourth grade? Bar and bat mitzvah kids this year may be in college.
Some of us will be retired, or in new jobs, or new relationships, new cities. And some of us will no longer be here.
But Jewish tradition runs long. We sing lecha dodi on Friday nights, and that dates back a few hundred years, to the kabbalists of Tzfat. We learn from the Rambam and Rashi, each living centuries before Shakespeare. We learn about and from the rabbis of the Talmud, and they lived sixteen centuries ago or more. And when we say kiddush on Friday night, or recite the sh’ma, we’re reciting words that have been said continuously for close on twenty five centuries, give or take.
So nine years isn’t really that long.
But here’s the thing: decisions and choices made these next nine years will have immense consequences on human civilization for the remainder of this century. They won’t make much impact on the next nine years. Whatever climate events ensue in these next nine years, whatever hurricanes or heat waves, droughts, or famines, or fires – those things will happen. If we all drove a Prius as of tomorrow, or never got on an aeroplane ever again, or never ate meat – the changes to the climate wrought thus far, by a century of industrialization and forty years of closing our eyes – those changes are underway.
But what we do in the next nine years will have a huge impact on the planet for the next century and more.
If you’re a kid, a teen, a 30-something, even a 50-something – what happens in the next nine years will have a potentially humongous impact on the entire remainder of your life.
One of the (sort of?) (maybe?) good things in the last year or two, including even since COVID began, is that it does feel like “climate” has moved up the agenda. There aren’t so many people now who aren’t scared or alarmed. But there are an awful lot who are overwhelmed. For whom it feels like we’re on a train hurtling to an unknown dangerous future, and there is nothing we can do about it.
Well… Yes and no. Jewish history reads both ways on this question. On the one hand, we can testify to the bestiality that human beings are capable of. Intolerance. Witch hunts. Passive bystanding. And so on. Jewish history records what should be a whole series of alarm signals about western society right now. The cynicism, the absence of shared values or stories, the untruths, the venal politicians, the inequality, and so on. These things are dangerous, and they’re especially dangerous given that the exigencies of climate actually require of us coordinated actions that involve self-restraint and shared responsibility – precisely the things that are made harder by an erosion of social cohesion.
But, despite this, Jewish history is also always a story of hope, always a story of human agency. “They tried to kill us / we won / let’s eat” is known as the shorthand for the key Jewish holidays. But ours is also the story of averting tragedy. This is why we read Yonah on Yom Kippur. Jews have been disproportionate winners of Nobel prizes not because we are smarter, but (I would argue) because we are immersed, directly or indirectly, in a culture that values creativity, learning, lateral thinking, and a deep desire to effect positive change. That’s what human agency is. That’s where hope comes from, and is made manifest.
So – anyway. The next nine years. This is going to need to be like the moonshot times a gazillion.
Never in human history will so many resources need to be marshalled towards a broadly singular goal: first to slow the growth of the proportion of carbon in the atmosphere, and then in due course to reduce it.
Everything else flows from this task. If we care about “justice” or “inequality” or “civil society” or (more parochially) “the Jewish future” or “engaging our young people” or – frankly – anything else – each and all of these things, and their medium and longer-term trajectories, will be determined by what the world’s carbon output is in 2029, and what happens from now till then, and where we’re pointed at that time.
Succeeding in this task is above my paygrade. It’s above yours. It’s above Melinda & Bill Gates’s, or Warren Buffet’s, it’s above Greta Thunberg’s. It’s above the paygrade of the US government or the Chinese government, by themselves. It genuinely needs all of us. It’s gonna need every national government, every city, every state; every supranational organization. Every company, huge and tiny. Every law firm, every consulting firm, every kid, every retiree.
And it’s going to need all the world’s religions.
His Holiness the Pope is certainly punching above his weight. Laudato Si, published five years ago, remains the single most important religious document ever written in relation to our treatment of this world – with the possible exception of the bible itself. Laudato Si is readable, and if you have never read it, you actually should.
But it’s my understanding that even the Pope and senior leaders of the Roman Catholic church have their own self-critique of Laudato Si – that it was a good and important document, but has it engendered sufficient follow-through in practice?
That’s why I want to mention September 9, 2029. It’s nine years away. Long enough for all of us – and all of our institutions – to have no excuse not to change.
How do you eat an elephant? One mouthful at a time…
We must use these next nine years, coherently and thoughtfully and deliberately, to change the trajectory of Jewish institutions, to influence for good everyone with whom we connect, and in aggregate to add the weight of Jewish life towards the task of helping the world right its course.
Well: how exactly do we do that?
So here are some other dates, for you to put in your calendars now, and to make some notes on your to do list.
January 28, 2021. That Wednesday evening – and the next day, the 29th – is tu b’shvat, the Jewish new year for trees.
Tu b’shvat is not just fruits and nuts, and it’s not just for kids.
It’s the day that comes once a year to remind us of something we should be thinking about every year — how are we treating this natural world that sustains everything we have?
So please put it in your calendar. If you’re part of any synagogue, JCC, Hillel, federation – start to plan something for that night or that day. Do it with your neighboring institutions. Do it with local shuls or schools or churches. Do it virtually or in person. Invite the mayor. Invite your new Congressperson. Invite a local expert. But have this conversation: what could we be doing to live more sustainably? What changes could or should we make? What’s the process we could begin?
Here’s what’s nice about September 9th 2029. You do have some time till then (if you and we don’t waste it). By then you could change the power you consume; the food you consume. You could punch up your educational resources. You could grow food or compost it. You could stop using plastic. You could change and reduce the cars you use. You could change your investment policy, and make sure not merely that you’re not investing in fossil fuels but that, proactively, you’re investing in green growth. You could build coalitions with your neighbors, and learn together, and share together – share resources, amplify impact.
Tu B’shvat – eight days after the inauguration of the new president – is the start of the rest of our lives. Use that day to learn and to gather – and to think about what you might do on April 22nd (which is Earth Day – #SoundTheCall).
And by then, on April 22nd, you could be thinking about the next shmita year, which begins eleven months from now – September 6, 2021. You have a whole year to try to slow your velocity. Learn about shmita. Learn its primary texts — and launch a wide-ranging conversation coming out of them – about our relationship to land, and rest, and time and money and so on. We’re launching a weekly Shmita-Parsha blog this Friday to help you do this.
And then on September 25, 2022, the new seven-year shmita cycle begins.
By that September – 23 months from now – really every Jewish institution should have a seven-year plan. And I don’t really mean a detailed “plan”, though if you do have one, that might be great. I mean what Eisenhower famously meant when he said “plans are worthless – but planning is everything…” So that might mean a task force, a Green Team, a process, a board sign-off, a commitment from the CEO or the senior rabbi. We are not required to complete the task.. But nor may we desist from it.
This is why Hazon exists. There’s no one route from now till September 9 2029. But it needs commitment. It needs planning. It needs direction. It needs determination. It needs creativity.
But first of all: commitment. Foundations and federations need to start with a year or two out – your first blank-ish year – and say: Ok, we’re going to devote x% of our grant-making to grants that will strengthen all of our grantees in relation to environmental sustainability – whether that’s educational programs, physical plant, new resources, investment policy, food – or all of the above.
A school needs to say: Ok, this year has been COVID and craziness. But not everything is a swivel. This too shall pass. Between Tu B’shvat next year, and the end of the shmita year in 2022, we’re going to put together a team. We’ll brainstorm. We’ll figure out low-hanging fruit. We’ll learn. But – most of all – even if we start small, we’ll commit to move this forward.
And so on. And at Hazon we have programs and resources that help to move the flywheel. Yes, this needs work on the ground (which we’ve piloted in Detroit and elsewhere), it needs leadership programs (Adamah, JOFEE Fellows, Teva), it needs reconnecting with each other and with the natural world (Isabella Freedman), it needs to support the Israeli environmental movement (our Israel Ride, and the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, and others). It needs us to support and empower teens (the new Jewish Youth Climate Movement). It needs genuine education on the topic of industrial meat and dairy (our work on food and climate). And it needs the many other JOFEE organizations that have sprouted in these last 15 or 20 years, all of them worthy of your support, all important institutions to nurture and grow.
At Hazon, round about Tu B’shvat, we’re going to be launching two overarching frames for all of this work, one for individuals and one for institutions.
For individuals: a new Brit Hazon. A new commitment, a new covenant. Just three things:
(1) make some further change in your own behavior. By itself it’s not enough. But it lets you look yourself in the mirror – and it gives you some standing to encourage others to effect change;
(2) give time and money to organizations that are striving to make a difference. That includes Hazon, and any or all of the other JOFEE organizations, and the secular environmental organizations;
(3) amplify your voice. Right now that means – for instance – do not forget to vote. In every election, always, vote for whomever is most serious about passing and implementing policies that will unleash our creative energies for a healthier and more sustainable world. But “amplify your voice” also, very much, means speak up in your shul, your school, your foundation. Put this on the table.
And then the Hazon Seal of Sustainability. This is for institutions. Again we have many resources. Again we intend to invest in this going forwards. Again, we want to increase the velocity of best practice. But know that the heart of the Hazon Seal is its very beginning:
Pass a board resolution that –
(1) launches or recommits to a Green Team or Task Force (that is not just “the obvious suspects” or “the environmentalists” – a Task Force that includes some of your strongest people, however defined);
(2) commits the institution to doing all that it can, slowly and steadily, through September 9, 2029;
(3) includes the CEO or senior rabbi or head of school or chair of the board all committing to moving this steadily forwards.
September 9, 2029 is the end of the next full seven year shmita cycle in Jewish life.
Let’s make this election count.
Let’s make this coming Tu B’shvat count.
Let’s use next year to plan for the shmita year.
Let’s use the shmita year to look back and look forward.
And let’s use from now till the start of the next shmita cycle as the time to set up our Task Force or our Green Team, commit to the Brit Hazon, join the Hazon Seal of Sustainability, and point your institution in the direction to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
Apart from whatever election-related activity you’re involved in, I commend:
The Hazon Vision Rides (and get in shape from now through December 1st) – bike, swim, walk, hike, also;
The Virtual Israel Ride starting October 25th, with a wide range of events so that you can really have some equivalent experience of being on our Israel Ride, and supporting both Hazon and the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies;
And click here if you want intellectual food for thought – the four remarkable lectures by Rabbi Yedidya Sinclair, given from Jerusalem last week, on the development of an overarching Jewish theology in relation to climate change.
Finally, please join us at this year’s General Assembly, 3-4:30pm ET on October 25th, for “The Post-Covid Climate Challenge.” I’m chairing it. Panelists include Prof. Alon Tal (whom I’m hoping will have been elected chair of the Jewish National Fund by then), a leader from our Jewish Youth Climate Movement, and other distinguished guests. Register here.
Finally – yes – we’re now in year-end fundraising. Hazon’s board and staff have been amazing this year. Our institutional funders have been solid. But we need to raise about another $150k+ to balance the books this year, and more still to have a decent chance of going into ‘21 with some money in the bank. Click here to give a donation. Better yet — if your stocks have held up better than you might have expected – feel free to give us some appreciated stock, while the going is good. Seriously. Just email me or call if you’d like to chat about how you can make a difference.
So: may we be blessed. May we strive to act well. May we encourage and support, may we be kind, may we be resolute.
And may we use these next weeks – and year – and next nine years – for good.
Shabbat shalom and chodesh tov,