Union for Reform Judaism pledges to divest millions from fossil fuel industry


(JTA) — The organization representing the largest American Jewish denomination is pledging to divest from the fossil fuel industry as a response to the climate crisis.

Citing the biblical teaching of “till and tend the earth,” the Union for Reform Judaism announced on Wednesday that it has committed to ensuring its investment and pension plans, as well as mutual funds, are free of direct ties to oil, gas, and coal companies. It has also pledged to redirect investments toward renewable energy. 

“Climate change’s impacts are being felt in communities worldwide,” Jennifer Brodkey Kaufman, chair of URJ’s North American board, said in a statement. “We have the ability and responsibility to use our dollars to make a positive difference on climate, rather than to continue funding investment in damaging fossil fuels.”

A spokesperson for the URJ said that up to 9% of the organization’s financial portfolio is currently invested in the fossil fuel industry but did not provide a dollar figure to quantify the planned divestment. The URJ reported about $83 million in investment assets in 2022, the most recent year for which it has released financial statements.

More than a third of American Jews identify with the Reform movement, making the URJ’s pledge one of the highest-profile actions ever taken within the Jewish community to help reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet and causing natural disasters. About 850 congregations are part of the Reform movement in North America; they take guidance from the URJ but make their financial decisions independently. 

While many individual Jews have been active in the climate movement for decades, the URJ pledge is emblematic of the increased attention communal organizations are paying to the climate issue in recent years. It comes less than two weeks after Oregon’s two Jewish federations announced fossil fuel divestment plans, the first to do so across the 146-chapter federation system.

The apparent trend suggests that the Jewish community could eventually catch up to other faith-based groups that have long expressed their values through their investment strategies, whether on climate, tobacco or guns. 

The Jewish divestment push is being led by the climate advocacy group Dayenu, whose founder and CEO, Jennie Rosenn, is a Reform rabbi.

“I commend the Reform Movement for drawing a clear ethical line, ensuring our investments are not furthering climate destruction,” Rosenn said in a statement. “It is time for all Jewish institutions to follow the Reform movement’s leadership and make their own public commitments to move their investments out of fossil fuels and instead invest toward a just and livable clean energy future.”

URJ’s decision was swayed not only by its interpretation of Jewish wisdom but also by evidence that climate-friendly investing is financially sound, according to Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.

“When we act together, we can help care for the earth as Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden,” Pesner said in a statement. “And we can care for our financial health, recognizing that fossil-free portfolios over time perform equal to or slightly better than those holding fossil fuels.”

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