Drawing On Jewish Wisdom To Face Climate Anxiety


Rabbi Laura Bellows


Whether from extreme weather, rising sea levels or threats to the Chesapeake’s economy and ecosystems, for many in Baltimore’s Jewish communities, living in a time of climate crisis can cause extreme anxiety. The implications for our future generations are as real as the rising rates of asthma in our cities, and for many, so are feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and disconnection when it comes to confronting climate change.

Climate change is not only a matter of justice, it’s not only an ecological and economic challenge, it is also a spiritual crisis — one that raises major moral and ethical questions about our society, our way of living and what life will be like for those we love in generations to come. Some of the questions I hear regularly from young activists and climate-concerned Jews across the country are: “What is the world my children and grandchildren will inherit?” “Why didn’t past generations do more to prevent this crisis?” and “What can I do to help my family, community and those on the frontlines of climate change?”

It can be hard to see a path forward on climate when we’re feeling overwhelmed or powerless, angry or anxious. The good news is that it’s not too late. We have what we need to face this crisis and ensure a just, life-giving future. We have a wealth of Jewish rituals, narratives and holidays that can help us hold eco-grief side by side with the joy of collective action and advocating for what we love, with — as it says in the Shema (in Deuteronomy. 6:5) — all of our heart, our soul and our might.

At Dayenu, we call this spiritual adaptation work — an emerging body of music, art, Jewish climate teachings, rituals and workshop spaces aimed at supporting American Jews to process eco-grief, cultivate hope, envision a life-sustaining path forward and — from that place — take bold and sustained climate action. Based on a methodology developed by activist and scholar Joanna Macy, Dayenu’s Spiritual Adaptation workshops use Jewish language, learning and spirited music to guide participants in confronting climate change, cultivating courage and connecting across communities.

We are offering an open-to-the-public spiritual adaptation workshop on March 19, in partnership with Hinenu: The Baltimore Justice Shtiebl, Chevrei Tzedek Congregation and Interfaith Power & Light (DC.MD.NoVA), at Homewood Friends Meeting.

Spiritual adaptation can help us develop the radical imagination we need to build a sustainable future. Our Jewish ancestors were movement leaders, artists, organizers and innovators, whose wisdom we can draw on for times like these. And we have 2,000 years’ worth of Jewish textual tradition to teach us.

The ancient Israelites needed to muster the courage to navigate upheaval and adapt in times of transformation. When preparing to leave the prosperous empire of Egypt to journey through an unknown wilderness, they were sustained by the hope of redemption.

The journey of the Exodus was not just a physical trek, but also a passage during which they had to reimagine their practices, their customs and their very identity. As we face the uncertainties of our pivotal moment, we look to the wisdom of these Biblical ancestors to imagine the thriving future we wish to see.

It can be easy to feel overwhelmed by the scope of the task, but time is of the essence and we can and must find a way forward. Psalm 126 distills this ability to envision a hopeful future in a bleak present: “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy.” Taking the time to honor grief, frustration, fear and anxiety about the climate crisis can open a path forward, allowing us to engage joyously in the collective work of building a more whole world.

As eco-anxiety has become a pressing topic of conversation in secular mental health spaces, communities of faith have turned to religious and moral teachings to address the mixed emotions that come when we face the climate crisis. One of our most famous Jewish rituals — breaking a glass at a wedding — reminds us of this ability to hold sorrow and joy at the same time. In the words of Rabbi Dr. Julia Watts Belser, “joy is a close friend to sorrow. To feel joy is also, always, to be in touch with grief.”

To face a challenge as multifaceted and existential as the climate crisis, we need to resource our communities with Jewish wisdom and spiritual technologies (from holidays to Shabbat’s counter-cultural mandate to rest, to drawing on the resourcefulness of Jewish ancestors). Spiritual adaptation can help us recognize the complex reality of the climate crisis, face the unknown together and cultivate the spirit and agency to make a difference.

Rabbi Laura Bellows is Dayenu’s director of spiritual activism and education. She works to build climate-resilient, spiritually-rooted, justice-seeking communities centered in Jewish wisdom.

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