In a reflection of the Jewish community’s increasing commitment to caring for the planet, 50 Jewish leaders from across denominations signed the Jewish Energy Covenant Campaign to protect the environment in a ceremony in Manhattan on February 6.
“Out of concern for the wellbeing of all nations, and with a particular concern for the poorest among them as well as for future generations, our support for more sources of clean, renewable energy and for energy efficiency is a matter of justice” reads the campaign’s declaration titled the “Jewish Environment and Energy Imperative.” It continues, “Enlightened stewardship is not only a religious and moral imperative; it is a strategy for security and survival.”
The Covenant Campaign sets a bold vision for the Jewish environmental community. To support their commitment to cutting greenhouse-gas emissions by 14 percent in 2014, signatories pledge to support clean-technology innovation, encourage investment in Jewish environmental organizations, conduct energy audits, promote sustainability in their own communities, and advocate for the reduction by 83 percent of 2005 emission levels by 2050.
Led by the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, or COEJL, a network of nearly 30 national organizations and over 100 community groups, the campaign has brought together leaders from the Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Reconstructionist movements in a unified effort to protect the environment.
"There’s a growing ecological consciousness in the Jewish community—a lot of concern about global warming, our energy policy, and energy security," says Sybil Sanchez, COEJL’s director.
The declaration came on the eve of Tu Bishvat, the Jewish festival of trees. The holiday, this year falling on February 7 and 8, traditionally involves a celebration of fruit trees and the coming of spring. Many communities observe the day by planting trees.
Over the years, environmental groups have elevated Tu Bishvat to something of a Jewish Earth Day, moving beyond planting trees to actions and advocacy that support the environment as a whole.
“Recently people are talking more and more not only about trees but about nature and the environment in connection with Tu Bishvat,” says Evonne Marzouk, founder of Canfei Nesharim, an Orthodox environmental-education organization. “‘What does it mean to appreciate trees today?’ The Jewish environmental community has both caused and responded to that.”
Though Tu Bishvat is the most overtly “green” festival, most Jewish holy days have an ecological undercurrent. “Each holiday is tied to the seasons; but [with Tu Bishvat] you can’t get more environmentally connected than trees and the land,” says Sanchez.
Tu Bishvat seders, or feasts, use symbols, through various fruits and wines, to represent the planet’s complex system that requires careful stewardship to maintain ecological balance and support life. A verse spoken at seders reads, “Look at My works! See how beautiful they are, how excellent! See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world, for if you do, there will be no one after you to repair it.” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13)
Jewish environmental groups are redoubling efforts to put this charge into action as addressing climate change and carbon emissions becomes more urgent. Tu Bishvat, the springtime holiday, is seen as a symbolic season of renewal. This week Jewish leaders in New York and around the country called for renewal of the planet as well as the soul.
Catherine Woodiwiss is a Special Assistant with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. For more on this initiative, please see its project page.