This month we celebrate Tu b’Shvat, the Jewish new year for trees. Building on this ancient celebration of nature, American Jews are, increasingly, expanding their observance by honoring our entire planet. Tu b’Shvat has become a time to reflect on Earth’s fragility, its dwindling resources and humankind’s impact on water, air and land, as well as on the people, animals and plants that dwell here.
However, we cannot just sit and revel in God’s creation and moan about the damage we are causing. We must do something. In Talmudic times, Tu b’Shvat served as the date for levying a tax associated with collecting the tithe to support the Levites. Over time the holiday has come to symbolize the spiritual connection between God, the land, and the Jewish people.
Today we connect that thinking to other parts of our tradition, such as Leviticus 19:23-25, which reminds us that trees take a long time to bear fruit and are easily destroyed, and that sustainable resources, such as food, are essential to the healthy growth and security of a nation.
As the 21st Century unfolds, we must embrace the lesson this represents: that sustainable resources — food, energy, and the environment — are essential to the healthy growth and security of a nation. This week, we take an important communal step in this direction. On Monday, two days before Tu b’Shvat, we joined leaders from across the Jewish spectrum — Conservative, Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal movements, along with other national organizations and leaders within the community — to announce a call to action for the entire Jewish community. Through the Jewish Energy Covenant Campaign, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) are bringing these leaders together to officially sign “The Jewish Environmental and Energy Imperative” declaration.
The declaration is clear: “The need to transform the world’s energy economy while addressing global climate change is not only a religious and moral imperative, it is a strategy for security and survival.”
We have set the goal of significantly lowering our greenhouse gas emissions, advocating for and educating about energy independence and security, and reducing the Jewish community’s energy consumption 14 percent by 2014. This is a personal, communal and institutional effort.
Appropriately, we convened to sign the declaration at Manhattan’s 14th Street Y, which has already taken great strides to adopt sustainable practices, decreasing its greenhouse gas emissions and raising environmental awareness in its community. Our own organizations — the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism — have committed to this effort through personal and institutional sustainability programs as well as by spearheading this campaign with COEJL.
The year 2014 was purposely selected to coincide with the next shmittah, or sabbatical year, during which we are called to refrain from sowing or harvesting our fields. Leviticus 25, which describes the ecological mandates of the shmittah year, holds out the economic and social ideal of a world in which the land should rest. Without letting the land go fallow from time to time, we will deplete the soil until nothing can grow at all.
Through this declaration we join the American government in seeking ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 83 percent below 2005 levels by 2050. We ask you to join us in this important endeavor, the most fundamental form of tikkun olam, repair of the world. Make the commitment to protect our natural world, build awareness for sustainable environmental responsibility, and, join us in setting the personal goal of reducing your energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions 14 percent by 2014.
For more information about our efforts we urge you to visit COEJL’s website at www.coejl.org.
Rabbi Steve Gutow, president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, is co-chair of COEJL. Rabbi David Saperstein, director and counsel of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, is a member of COEJL’s governance committee.