Jewish institutions awaken to climate crisis, with hundreds pledging action


(JTA) — For a decade starting in 2002, Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi devoted herself to pro-Israel advocacy. After that, the Jewish philanthropist and activist from Annapolis, Maryland, went all in to fight for disability rights, working in the field for the next decade. Now, Mizrahi is focused on climate change. 

“Let me put it this way: In 2021, we donated to one climate organization, and in 2022, we donated to 17 of them,” Mizrahi said, referring to the small charity fund she runs with her husband, tech entrepreneur Victor Mizrahi. This year, the couple made their largest climate-related donation yet, sending a group of 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. 

“I was hoping other people would solve it,” she said. “But the pace of the change is not nearly meeting the demand at the moment. I felt that even though I don’t know the subject, I’m just going to have to do it because I have kids and I don’t want this world to fall apart.”

Climate change has long ranked at or near the top of a list of issues concerning Jews in the United States, according to multiple surveys, and Jews have been heavily involved in the wider climate movement. But until recently, the issue had a marginal place on the agendas of Jewish communal organizations, which neglected climate even as the subject took on importance in the activism and policies of other religious communities and in the larger philanthropic world.

Mizrahi’s newfound emphasis on climate is an early example of a larger shift that is underway in Jewish philanthropy, a multibillion-dollar world made up of thousands of individual donors, charitable foundations and nonprofit organizations. 

“It’s the beginning of what will become a more widespread focus among Jewish groups,” said Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, the founder and CEO of the Jewish climate group Dayenu. “We’re seeing an awakening to this as a profoundly Jewish issue, and awakening to the role that the Jewish community has to play in addressing the climate crisis.”

Scientists say that decisions regarding carbon emissions made in the next few years will affect life on Earth for thousands of years to come. The most recent warning came in March, when leading global experts with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a new 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 United States 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. Meanwhile, Israel is experiencing a slew of impacts from drought and floods to security threats tied regional climate-related instability. 

A flooded road after heavy rainfall in the central Israeli city of Lod, Jan. 16, 2022. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Israeli officials visit the site where a road collapsed into a large sinkhole at Mineral Beach in the Dead Sea on December 7, 2017. Many facilities and beaches have been closed or shut down in recent years following the increase in sinkholes caused by ever-declining sea levels, as climate change strains the country’s water resources. (Mark Neyman/GPO)

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

In December, for example, 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 to the tune of at least $3 billion. The report launched an ongoing campaign called All Our Might that urges Jewish leaders to withdraw these investments and put the money toward clean energy instead.

Meanwhile, many of the most prominent Jewish organizations in the country — representing local federations, Hillel chapters, summer camps, community centers, day schools and nearly every religious denomination — had already joined a new green coalition organized by another Jewish environmental group and were preparing to unveil pledges to do more in the fight against climate change. 

The unveiling of the climate pledges happened in March, under the leadership of Adamah, a nonprofit created through the merger of two stalwarts of Jewish environmentalism, Hazon and the Pearlstone Center. 

“Climate and sustainability have not been on the list of priorities for the vast majority of Jewish organizations; this coalition and these climate action plans reflect a deep paradigm shift and culture change moving forward,” Adamah CEO Jakir Manela said at the time. 

The 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. 

If any single event can be said to mark the debut of the climate issue as a top Jewish communal priority, it is probably the recent annual conference of the Jewish Funders Network, which took place in March in Phoenix, bringing together thousands of donors and charity executives. 

For the gathering’s first event, before the formal opening of the conference, a group of participants went on a field trip to downtown Phoenix to learn about the local effects of the climate crisis. Far more people signed up than organizers anticipated, and with about 55 passengers, the tour bus chartered for the occasion reached capacity. Mizrahi, who was among the participants, said the trip was helpful as a networking opportunity for like-minded philanthropists.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, the founder of the activist group Arizona Jews for Justice, took the group to a local church where immigration officers drop off asylum seekers, so that conference attendees could hear about how environmental disasters drive cross-border migration. The trip continued with a visit to a downtown homeless encampment known as the Zone, where participants were invited to imagine the challenge of spending the summer season outside, with temperatures sometimes reaching 120 degrees. The conversation eventually turned to the issue of water scarcity across the state.

“We wanted to expose them to how the existential threats posed by climate change are not long term, but are already here,” Yanklowitz said. “People down in the Zone are dying every summer from heat exhaustion and dehydration.”

Based on his debrief with the group afterward, Yanklowitz feels the trip left an impact on participants. 

“I didn’t hear anyone say, ‘Oh, I’m changing my commitments.’ But I did get the sense that climate change was kind of abstract for many people, and that now it really hit home,” Yanklowitz said.

The rest of the conference featured multiple talks and gatherings dedicated to climate, including on the main stage, and an announcement that Birthright, which offers free trips to Israel for young Jews, was increasing its own climate activism with the help of a new donation. 

In an interview, Ellen Bronfman Hauptman and Stephen Bronfman, children of Birthright founder Charles Bronfman, said their $9 million gift is meant to honor their father on the occasion of his 90th birthday, while also 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, potentially by switching to electric buses or adding more vegetarian meals. 

The Bronfmans hope that Birthright’s significant purchasing power in Israeli tourism will nudge the industry toward more ecologically sustainable practices. 

“To me, Birthright is like Walmart — everyone wants to do business with them,” Stephen Bronfman said. “They have the power to dictate terms to their service providers and affect the supply chain.” 

The widespread interest in climate mobilization among Jewish groups comes after years in which the issue languished outside the mainstream. Rosenn, the head of Dayenu, who has attended about 15 conferences of the Jewish Funder Network, noticed a change this year. 

“There used to be half a dozen people at a breakfast before the program talking about climate. And it wasn’t even climate, necessarily — it was the environment writ large,” she said. 

The Jewish world is, in many ways, still 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 Park Slope, Brooklyn; the Reform movement’s pension system; and the American Jewish World Service, a global justice group. 

Rabbi Laura Bellows, now Dayenu’s director of spiritual activism and education, waves matzah as she encourages major financial organizations to divest from fossil fuels at a rally in Washington, D.C., April 20, 2022. (Bora Chung | Survival Media Agency / Courtesy of Dayenu)

Adamah’s own 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, the 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.

She 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, she said, 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. 

Such a shift would mark not only a milestone for Jewish climate activism but also a departure from how the Jewish community has historically done philanthropy, said Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, executive vice president of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility. 

She said wielding financial holdings for social impact has been a hallmark of advocacy by Christian groups. Last year, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) opted to divest from fossil fuels in light of the climate crisis.

The Jewish community, meanwhile, 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 relatively less impactful. 

“Adamah had done some really important work to change individual behavior and grow people’s connections to the environment, but the bigger piece of bold collective action to fight the climate crisis was missing,” Kahn-Troster said. “The overall community is late to respond to the urgency of the problem. But I do think that the work of these organizations is very significant, so I’m excited to see it.”

Kahn-Troster’s historical view is informed by the legacy of her father, Rabbi Lawrence Troster, an environmental activist who had pushed for communal Jewish action on climate, and by the passion for climate justice displayed by her 15-year-old, 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,” Kahn-Troster said. 

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