Each year in NFTY, the General Board resolves to focus on one social action theme. NFTYites in past years have tackled issues ranging from hate crimes to hunger and from literacy to modern day slavery. Of the NFTY 2005-2006 Action Theme R’fuah Sh’leima: The Renewal of Mind, Body, and Spirit, Jordyn Jacobs said “[Just as] important than this responsibility we have to tikkun olam (repairing the world) and too often overlooked is the Jewish concept of tikkun midot (repairing oneself).” The emphasis on tikkun midot made last year’s action theme unique.
While eco-consciousness is at the heart of this year’s theme, the authors have kept in mind the power of the same kind of personal connection to social action that opened up so many opportunities with last year’s theme. At its most elementary level, the environment is simply one’s surroundings. Our surroundings make up an enormous part of ourselves, our personality, health, and well-being. By improving our immediate surroundings we are taking responsibility for tikkun midot as well as tikkun olam. That is the genius of this year’s social action theme Shooftei Adamah: Partners of the Earth.
The action theme Shooftei Adamah: Partners of the Earth, centers on water issues, pollution, energy issues, and conservation from a social justice perspective. At first glance, the wide range of issues may seem staggering - but do not think our efforts here are futile. The theme’s broad scope does not insist that everyone in NFTY act on each of these issues. Instead, we must do as Maimonides suggests and meditate on nature. This not only brings us closer to G-d, it allows us to see our own surroundings and find out how each of us can improve our environment. The issues vary because the environment varies and thus each of us must act according to our own varied skills. Where water conservation might be an issue in the southwest, runoff pollution might be of more importance in the northeast, and energy conservation might concern someone of the west coast. That is why the theme cites Pirkei Avot, which says “the work is not yours to complete, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
As people it is difficult for us to disregard the human condition. Action themes in recent years have sought to improve this condition by acting on hunger, illiteracy, slavery, and healthcare. It would have been difficult to disagree that these were problems worthy of solving. Yet when it comes to the environment, it is often easier to have a “me first” attitude. Giving someone their freedom, expanding healthcare coverage, teaching someone to read, feeding the hungry, all of these actions have visible tangible results. You have directly influenced someone’s life. But so what if I do not recycle this soda can? Maybe these trees should be cut down to provide some much needed jobs? There are no easy answers, and the theme this year does call for progress that is “based upon extensive study of problems and their possible solutions, as well as be weighed against the possible negative effects on the human population in that area.” In a way, this captures a prevailing idea that the authors had in writing the theme. Originally, the theme was titled “Bal Tashchit: Do Not Destroy.” Later it was changed to “Shomrei Adamah: Guardians of the Earth.” We liked the current title best however; as Shooftei Adamah implies something that neither of the previous titles could: partnership. Partnership implies a sense of kavod, respect. There are no easy answers, but in the end, if you can teach someone to respect the environment, then you have truly performed a great mitzvah.
Aaron Arbiter, 2006-2007 NFTY Social Action Vice President
September 23, 2006 – 1 Tishrei 5766 Woodlands Community Temple Rabbi Billy Dreskin
Times are a-changin’, though. Gasoline prices, elevated to such an enormous degree by money-hungry oil companies and the OPEC countries themselves, may finally have become the catalyst for us to begin buying small again. In other environmental areas, curbside recycling is a success, admittedly because someone figured how to make it profitable, which is probably why our towns finally figured out how to add it to scheduled garbage pick-ups. I’m okay with that. I mean, McDonald’s no longer wraps their sandwiches in styrofoam, and they even serve a healthy salad – not because they care about our health or our environment, but because caring about health and environment became profitable for them.
So the question in my mind is: Do we lend our active support to sensible projects that aid our communities but are not backed by local or national government? On the one hand, if it takes effort or too much money, how many of us will really do them? I mean, who recycled garbage back when you had to take it to a recycling center yourself? It wasn’t until it got easy that it really became important to us. On the other hand, in order for these programs to become public institutions, doesn’t someone have to lead the charge?
On July 31st of this year, a conference call took place that involved hundreds of leaders of Jewish organizations across North America. These included the American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, B’nai B’rith, Hadassah, Hillel, the Jewish National Fund, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, the Union for Reform Judaism, and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. The call was sponsored by COEJL, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life. The purpose of the call was to kick-off a project called, “A Light Among the Nations,” affectionately subtitled, “How Many Jews Does It Take to Change a Light Bulb?”
“A Light Among the Nations” is founded on the premise that North American Jews are ready to do something about the environment. Nicholas Kristof and Al Gore have stressed that global climate change is the issue of the 21st century. And the reason that so many Jewish organizations signed onto that call is that, like the genocide in Darfur, Jewish teaching couldn’t be any clearer that global climate change is a Jewish issue. Our ancestors were victims of attempted genocide in ancient Egypt, of nearly successful genocide in 20th century Europe, and there’s no way we can stand idly by and watch Darfur be buried. On the environment, we have been taught in the Psalms that the earth and everything in it belongs to God, in the Talmud that in our attempts to subdue the earth we mustn’t prevent others from accessing its gifts, and in Pirke Avot that we are not free to do at least some of the work to rectify this problem.
But even though we may be ready, we may not be willing. Change is hard. At Al Gore’s website for his film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” we’re told that “the average American generates about 15,000 pounds of carbon dioxide every year from personal transportation, home energy use and from the energy used to produce all of the products and services we consume.” He encourages us to become “carbon neutral,” to live our lives in such a way that no carbon dioxide is released into the air because of the way we live. Ways we can do this include watching where we set the thermostat, keeping a/c and furnace filters clean, unplugging electronics from the wall when not using them, running the dishwasher only when it’s full, keeping our car tires properly inflated, driving a more fuel-efficient car, carpooling, flying less, buying locally grown food, avoiding heavy packaging, eating less meat. These are not onerous tasks. Everyone of us can do them. And if we do, we can each be responsible every year for tons of carbon dioxide that don’t get released into the atmosphere.
Just the same, we’d be asking ourselves to do things differently than the way we’re used to. And that could be very hard for many of us. So COEJL is asking us to do just one thing. Recognizing that change may be hard, they’re suggesting that changing a light bulb isn’t. “A Light Among the Nations” is asking us to just change our light bulbs. They want us to stop using incandescent bulbs and replace them with environmentally-friendly compact fluorescent light bulbs. CFL bulbs, for short. Why CFL? Because they’re energy-efficient and cost-effective. “CFLs use up to 75% less energy than regular incandescent light bulbs. And they last seven to ten times longer. This means less production of greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, and toxic waste. The average CFL will save its owner at least $25 in energy costs over the lifetime of the bulb! Your CFL will pay for itself in energy savings within two to three months. If every U.S. household replaced one bulb with a CFL, it would have the same impact as removing one million cars from the road.”
In 1982, Jonathan Schell wrote a frightening portrayal of what would happen were nuclear war to actually occur. In Fate of the Earth, he wrote of “the death of death” – nuclear armageddon would not only end lives, it would end life. “We have always been able to send people to their death,” Schell wrote, “but only now has it become possible to prevent all birth and so doom all future human beings to un-creation. [...] Death is only death. Extinction is the death of death.”2 In 2006, Al Gore has articulated a similar fate should global warming be allowed to continue unchecked. We have so much work to do if we desire not to sacrifice our children on an altar of our own selfishness, egocentricity, foolishness and waste. All that COEJL wants us to do is start with a light bulb. Come this Hanukkah, while we’re lighting the ancient lights of the menorah, we can light new lights as well – lights of knowledge and of wisdom, of understanding and cooperation. This Hanukkah, let us kindle lights of conservation, of clean energy, of responsible consumption.
How many Jews and the people they love does it take to change a light bulb? Hopefully, every one of them. Every one of us – willing to implement one small step in what is, admittedly, an enormous list of things we’ll have to get done if we want our children and our grandchildren to grow up on an earth that can still sustain them. Eventually, we’ll need to get to the entire, enormous list. But for now, a light bulb is a very good place to start. You can also visit coejl.org online to learn more… During the conference call in July, Carl Pope, who’s been the Executive Director of Sierra Club since 1992, spoke about global warming and its consequences that go beyond what it’s going to do to us in the United States. He talked about 160 million people in Africa who will die there in the next two decades if global warming continues unchecked. This is not usually the way we think about global warming – as a problem we’ve created that can devastate lives on the other side of the planet – but, he insisted, it’s the way we need to think. We need to stop behaving as if we own the climates of Bangladesh and Africa. We need to stop accepting that, in exchange for gasoline being cheap here, sea levels will be higher there. Precisely because the consequences are not immediate or local, but they’re delayed and distant, a moral response is required. We don’t need morality to keep us from hurting ourselves today, Pope said. We need morality to stop us from hurting other people tomorrow. And it is our Jewish tradition, this devoted Christian told us, that has a unique moral voice and a particular role to play on this issue. “Wait a minute,” the Jewish voice calls out. “Let’s look at this for a moment. There’s something wrong here. And we’re responsible for doing something about it!”
Global warming is real, my friends. Despite what we might hear from elected officials, there is consensus in the scientific community that this is not a drill. Overwhelming evidence is present in atmospheric and sea surface temperature readings, atmospheric composition measurements, ice cores, lake sediments, sea level changes, and glacier changes. It wasn’t inevitable, but we caused it. And we’re the ones who have to fix it…
Avinu Malkeynu... four thousand years ago, when the air was clear and the water was pure, you spoke to our ancestor, Abraham, and you put him to a test. Ultimately, Abraham withdrew his hand from slaying his child. Now, in our own time, it’s not so clear that we will withdraw ours. The time has come. You are now putting us to the test. May we be clear in our thoughts and pure in our hearts as we walk side-by-side with the ones we love. When we reach the top of that mountain, will we consign them to sacrifice and death, all because we believed we should be permitted to have whatever comforts we desire? Or will we too hear an angel’s voice instructing us how not to harm the ones we love? Will we lower the knife that is poised to pierce the heart of all life on earth? Will we see the ram in the thicket – that there are other choices we can make, choices that will sustain rather than diminish life – will we see that ram before it’s too late?
Ken yehee ratzon ... may we find answers that are worthy of coming true.