Jewish Climate Activist Makes a Run For City Council


At a hearing last week, Jessica Haller testified before the City Council’s Committee on Health in favor of a bill that would ban the use of pesticides in city parks. In 2022, she hopes to bring her expertise on environmental issues to the other side of the table as a member of the council.

Haller, who has worked for and served on the board of the Jewish environmental organization Hazon, announced her run for the 11th District council seat earlier this month. The district covers the heavily Jewish neighborhood of Riverdale as well as Bedford Park, Kingsbridge, Van Cortland Village and several other Bronx neighborhoods. With more than a year to go until the primary and three other candidates already in the race, Haller is making a focused pitch to voters worried about climate change.

In 2021, 35 out of the 51 members of the City Council will reach the end of their term limits, making it a year of unusually high turnover for the legislative body. In a city that has seen a series of competitive primary elections and formidable challenges to local Democratic machines in state and federal elections, Haller is hoping to capture some of that momentum in her local race in Riverdale. And after the council made New York City the largest in the world to declare a climate crisis last year, she’s hoping that climate change and the three words that serve as her campaign motto — “sustainability, resilience, and equity” — will set her campaign apart.

To Haller, every issue facing the city can be viewed through the lens of these three values. She has spoken out in support of bus lanes, which she views as critical to decreasing dependence on private vehicles, lowering air pollution caused by idling vehicles, and shortening commute times.

“Whether its bus lanes and bike lanes or safety or idling cars or how we collect our garbage, what we need to think about is are the systems we’re putting in place going to last,” said Haller. “Are we building strong communities such that we can withstand any pressures that come their way? Are we teaching our children in schools what they need to know about other cultures so that we’re united and not divided?”

When asked if she had planned her run for office for a long time, Haller laughed. “If I thought that either of my competition could think about sustainability, resilience and equity in their decision making, I would not have run,” she said.

Haller is running against Dan Padernacht, Dionel Then and Eric Dinowitz, son of state assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz. Dinowitz and Padernacht announced their candidacies back in 2018 when it was widely believed that Andrew Cohen, the current city councilman, would be appointed to a judgeship, triggering a special election. Cohen was not appointed to the judgeship but is reaching his term limit in 2021.

Haller has been critical of her opponents for their opposition to proposed bus lanes in the district. In an op-ed on Streetsblog, she wrote that as progressives, they “should realize that progress means siding with the transit systems that serve the many, not with the automobiles that carry the few.” Bus lanes have been a source of controversy all over the city, though an experiment in which 14th Street, a major crosstown artery, was recently made car-free has largely been well received.

Long before she considered running for office, Haller worked in the corporate world, including as a consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers and MasterCard. In 2007, she joined former vice president Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project, speaking to hundreds of people at schools, religious institutions, and community groups about climate change. In 2008, she completed a master’s degree in environmental science and policy at Columbia University and in 2009, she became the chief information officer at Hazon, the Jewish environmental organization. Since then, she has worked in a variety of consulting and volunteer capacities, including at Hazon.

Haller sees her Jewish identity as deeply connected to her interest in climate and sustainability. She summed up the connections between her Jewish identity and her work on sustainability with a line from Hazon’s strategic plan, the result of a planning process that she led last year. “We are in a global environmental crisis, Jewish tradition compels us to respond,” she quoted.

As an Orthodox Jew and a mother of four, Haller also draws on Jewish texts to talk about climate change and sustainability. “If I had a superpower it would be the ability to come up with a climate change related dvar Torah [sermon] for any parsha [Torah portion],” she said. And as a member of two liberal Orthodox synagogues in Riverdale, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and the Kehillah of Riverdale, and a former member of Orthodox synagogue boards that would not allow a female synagogue president, Haller also hopes to model strong female leadership on the city council. “The joke is I can run for city council but you won’t let me be president of the board,” she said.

Evan Stavisky, a Democratic consultant with Parkside Group, said Dinowitz is likely to receive the support of local Democratic Party activists. But an endorsement from a prominent progressive like State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, who unseated Democratic incumbent and leader of the Independent Democratic Caucus Jeff Klein in 2018, could make a difference. “The big question is where will Senator Biaggi go, her endorsement will probably be hugely influential,” said Stavisky. According to the Riverdale Press, Haller wrote Biaggi’s environmental policies. Biaggi has not announced an endorsement in the race yet.

Nigel Savage, CEO and president of Hazon, said he was personally “thrilled” to see Haller running for office. “She’s been at the forefront of Jewish leaders thinking seriously about environmental sustainability — and the urgent needs of this era,” he said. “I’ve seen firsthand how solid she is, how grounded, how smart, how much she cares.”