Voices | ‘Who by fire?’ isn’t just a metaphor this year

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By Rabbi Jennie Rosenn | JTA

As the founder of a new organization building a Jewish movement to confront the climate crisis, the lead-up to the High Holidays this year was painfully resonant.


“Who by fire?” the Unetaneh Tokef prayer asks. “Who by water?”

This year, we recited the prayer amid unprecedented fires, destruction and toxic smoke in the West and flooding in the South, where a series of slow-moving storms have left communities underwater.

The Bobcat Fire continues to burn through the Angeles National Forest in Los Angeles County, north of Azusa, California, September 17, 2020. – California faces more devastation from wildfires that have ravaged the West Coast, authorities have warned, with strong winds and dry heat expected to whip up flames from dozens of blazes raging across the state. Governor Gavin Newsom said although firefighters had made progress in their battle to contain more than two dozen major wildfires, so-called Santa Ana winds could fuel the relentless blazes. (Photo by Kyle Grillot / AFP) (Photo by KYLE GRILLOT/AFP via Getty Images)

Both of these disasters are fueled by climate change and the policies and inaction that continue to make it worse. Most years, the shofar blasts awaken us. This year, we are already painfully awake.

Millions of Americans are living through the unimaginable. Those of us in other parts of the country are pierced by daily images of destruction and surreal statistics. We talk with family, friends and colleagues out West who tell us it is “apocalyptic.” We catch a glimpse of what will soon be our reality — if not by fire then by water, or heat, or drought. The devastation of climate change is not a distant future. It is now.

During the month of Elul leading up to Rosh Hashanah, we read in the Torah that God gives us the choice of blessing or curse, and enjoins us to choose the path of blessing.

This is the painful question before us: Now that we are awake, will we choose blessing? Will we put our nation and world on a path of blessing, or will we continue to stand by and watch the curses unfurl?

Scientists explain that what is happening right now with our climate is the cascade effect, in which a series of quickening trends overlap, triggering and amplifying each other.

And there is another cascade effect: the painful convergence of the climate-fueled fires, racial justice and COVID-19. The climate crisis does not affect everyone equally. Communities of color and economically marginalized people are overburdened with toxic air and water, heat and lack of access to health care. These challenges are compounded by the fires, disproportionately sickening Black, Brown, Indigenous and low-income people and further increasing their risk of contracting the respiratory virus COVID-19.

We are awake. Half of Americans now rank climate as a top political priority, up from roughly one-third in 2016, and three out of four now describe climate change as either “a crisis” or “a major problem.” The numbers are even higher for Jewish Americans, with 80% saying they are “concerned” or “very concerned” about the climate crisis.

This year, the sounds of the shofar ask what we will do now that we are awake. How will we commit our lives — our time, our skills, our resources — to the work of redeeming our world? This year, how will we contribute to the creation of a more just, livable and sustainable world for all people for generations to come?

There is no question that changing our personal behaviors and greening our institutions is necessary. But even if every Jew and Jewish organization reduces its carbon footprint, we will not avert the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. To do this, we must make change on a systemic level.

We can do this in four ways:

First, we can advocate for common sense policies at the federal, state and local levels that sharply cut demand for energy for coal, oil and gas, mandate aggressive timelines to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions and protect communities most impacted by climate change and other historical inequities.

Second, we can move our money. We must leverage the power of Jewish institutional investments and pressure banks and other firms that are financing the drilling, mining and burning of fossil fuels. To avoid more climate disasters like mega fires and supercharged storms, we must keep coal, oil and gas underground, where it belongs.

Third, we can build a movement to confront the climate crisis and change the political landscape. By joining together and showing up when it counts, the Jewish community can bolster broad-based efforts to drastically reduce emissions, create millions of living-wage clean energy jobs and ensure a just transition for workers in polluting industries.

Finally, we must vote with climate at the front of our minds. The new Jewish climate organization Dayenu recently launched Chutzpah2020, mobilizing Jews across the nation to call on elected leaders to have the chutzpah to take big, bold, urgent action to confront the climate crisis and educating and mobilizing voters across the country ahead of Election Day.

These High Holidays, we are wide awake, and now must each ask ourselves what we will do to put us on a collective path of blessing — one where our actions can begin to avert the evil decree so clearly facing our Earth and everyone on it.

This year, when we hear the plaintive notes — tekiah, shevarim, teruah — how will we heed the shofar’s call?

Rabbi Jennie Rosenn is the founder and CEO of Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action.

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