Climate action is part of our Jewish responsibility

Earth Day is an annual event held on April 22 to demonstrate support for environmental protection and there’s a lot to do as a Jewish community to help the environment.

“First and foremost, there’s a lot of Jewish history in relation to environmentalism in a broad sense,” says Rabbi Eytan Kenter.

“In the very beginning of the Torah, we have this teaching, the idea that we don’t only have a responsibility to work the soil for what we need, but we have a responsibility to protect the soil, to protect the Earth.”

Rabbi Kenter says not only is it our job as Jewish people to work “to the benefit and advancements of the world in which we live,” but that it’s our first job given to us — everything was created for humanity and people were told to make sure we didn’t ruin or destroy the world.

In the past, the JTeen group from Kehillat Beth Israel (KBI) has focused heavily on climate change and on the responsibility we have to take care of the world. Rabbi Kenter says the teens have in the past felt even more onus on them, because they feel the generations before them haven’t done enough.

“Oftentimes there’s a sense that someone has to do something about this. There’s this idea that we’re going to be the ones who have to do something because the people before us didn’t,” says Rabbi Kenter. “Our children will lead and guide and inspire us to maintain the world that we want to be a part of.”

On a personal level, Rabbi Kenter says “I feel this too. It’s easy to not do the things we need to do because we’re not experiencing its effects in the present.”

But he says regardless of whether you see the effects at home, it should be a Jewish imperative, “a mitzvah, to be mindful and caring of the environment. Just like being kosher is a Jewish imperative.”

As a synagogue, KBI is working to be environmentally friendly and responsible, especially looking ahead to when the pandemic restrictions ease and in-person gatherings are applicable again — global emissions fell by 2.3 billion tonnes during 2020, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Even just working from home when we can, can be considered a sustainable action,” says Rabbi Kenter.

KBI is looking for grant programs that work with faith-based organizations to be more environmentally friendly — and they’re doing simple things like changing light bulbs.

“We have to do something as a community to keep environmental terms at the forefront — what are we doing to be environmentally friendly and mindful and how can we support the needs of the community in environmentally friendly ways?” he says. “If we’re all involved and doing our part it makes it easier.”

One global Jewish community call to action is being organized by Hazon, an environmental organization in the U.S. This year they are partnering with EarthX for a special Earth Day event that calls on Jewish community members to raise their voices on climate change by making a commitment to help the environment.

“Whether we like it or not, climate change is a Jewish issue,” says Anne Read, Jewish Federation of Ottawa’s Director of Community Collaboration, who holds a PhD in Sociology of Religion and has taught on the intersection of religion and ecology.

“Historically Jews are a land-based people, vacillating between homeland and exile. Judaism holds there is a causal link between ethical human action and the well-being of our planet. From our original task to till and protect the land, to the prayers for rain in its season, to the Rambam’s detailed understanding of how to graft plants, Jewish tradition offers relevant guidelines for a more sustainable and equitable relationship with land. It’s all there, we just need to dig in.”

While mitigating climate change will require government and industry-wide systemic shifts, it also requires us, as individuals, to make conscious choices about what we do, eat, and buy. Some of these changes are difficult and uncomfortable.

“Organizations like Hazon, Shoresh, or the Jewish Farmers Network, are teaching individuals and Jewish communities how to make these changes now so that our children – our builders, will have a future…The reality is change is hard – yet, if there’s one thing that COVID-19 has shown us, it’s that we can do hard things,” says Read, who is starting a four-session book discussion group on We are the Weather, by Jewish author Jonathon Safran Foer.

In it, Foer describes the connection between our food choices and the current climate crisis and reveals how we can mitigate climate change from the comfort of our kitchens. To participate in the book club, you can register here.

For those who are interested in the global call to action, visit the sign up here and also check out these ideas we can all consider to help the environment:

  • Plant a tree in your yard or neighborhood
  • Compost your food waste
  • Upcycle your recycling into arts and crafts
  • Start a Green Earth Keepers club at school
  • Use reusable shopping bags
  • When you buy things, buy things that will last
  • Say “no thanks!” to plastic bags
  • Use both sides of your drawings or school paper
  • Buy recycled paper products
  • Grow a vegetable garden in your yard or neighbourhood
  • Turn off the lights when you’re not using them
  • Buy less plastic, and recycle what you buy
  • Ask your school or office to put compost bins in the lunch room