Rabbis Now Warming To Climate Change
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Rabbis Now Warming To Climate Change

Spiritual leaders sounding alarm from High Holiday pulpit as issue gains national attention.

Massapequa Rabbi Janise Poticha blowing the shofar at recent Climate March in Washington. Courtesy of Rabbi Janise Poticha
Massapequa Rabbi Janise Poticha blowing the shofar at recent Climate March in Washington. Courtesy of Rabbi Janise Poticha

The bima is heating up this High Holiday season — with talk of climate change.

With the issue at the center of the national conversation, some rabbis are increasingly framing it as a moral, and specifically Jewish, issue. One spiritual leader is even adding climate change to the Yom Kippur Al Chet prayer, in which worshippers ask forgiveness for sins they have committed during the year.

So when worshippers enter the sanctuary of Temple Sinai in Massapequa for High Holy Days services in the coming weeks, they will find a stack of papers alongside the machzorim, the congregation’s Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur prayerbooks. The sheets will contain kavanot, short meditative readings that will guide congregants’ attention to the days’ themes (traditionally repentance and forgiveness), and a series of contemporary confessions of sins to be read along with the traditional list that constitutes a highlight of the Yom Kippur liturgy.

Rabbi Janise Poticha, who has served at the South Shore Long Island synagogue for two decades, wrote the kavanot and Al Chets in recent weeks. Their common theme is climate change, an issue that has animated the Democratic presidential debates and led Pope Francis earlier this month to call for governments to take “drastic measures” to cut down on greenhouse gases in what the Religion News Service termed “a new theology of climate change.”

Rabbi Poticha’s Al Chets include pleas for Divine forgiveness for “the sins [of] forgetting that preserving the environment is a religious and moral issue … filling the sea and land with garbage … not reducing our greenhouse gas emissions.”

In addition to the creative liturgical readings, Rabbi Poticha will devote a Rosh HaShanah sermon to the subject.

In drawing attention to the environment during the Days of Awe period, when worshippers’ thoughts usually turn to such traditional matters as introspection and self-betterment, Rabbi Poticha will not be alone. Many rabbis in the Greater New York area say they plan to sermonize about climate change in the coming weeks, when their congregations’ pews are more filled than during the rest of the year, and some rabbis will incorporate the topic into their holiday observances in other ways.

While the content of High Holy Day sermons is an annual subject of debate among rabbis — stick to theology, or bring in current events topics? — the number of rabbis who have chosen to discuss climate change during the Tishrei period appears to be increasing this year. Their decision is spurred by several prominent Jewish organizations, including a cohort of newly formed Jewish environmental alliances and established Jewish ones, that are asking spiritual leaders to address what they call a growing threat to the environment.

Declaring that “we are in the midst of an emergency,” the grassroots Jewish Climate Action Network NYC (JCAN-NYC), which lobbies with city and state elected officials in support of pro-environment legislation, this summer sent a packet of readings that reflect the connection between “Judaism and the earth” to hundreds of local rabbis, urging them to incorporate the material in “planning for the High Holidays.”

It is too early to say how many rabbis will speak about the environment in the coming days, but many have indicated an interest, according to JCAN leaders.

Jewish Climate Action Network (JCAN) members rally in Washington, D.C. Photos courtesy of JCAN

Other signs of a heightened Jewish awareness of climate change this year: The Jewish Climate Coalition is urging members of the Jewish community to participate in the Sept. 20 student-led Global Climate Strike, in advance of the Sept. 23 United Nations Climate Summit talks here. And expanding on what it calls “Climate Week” in the Jewish community, Sept. 20-29 (Rosh HaShanah begins on the evening of Sept. 29), Hazon sponsored four video billboards in Times Square this summer that declare 5780, the upcoming year on the Jewish calendar, “The Year of Environmental Teshuva.” (Teshuvah is Hebrew for repentance.)

Hazon also sent copies of Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book, “We Are the Weather: Saving the World begins at Breakfast” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), an environmental pitch with a Jewish angle, to a few hundred rabbis around the country, and prepared a study guide to the book in time for Rosh HaShanah.

In addition, Rabbi Marc Cohn of Temple Emanuel in Winston-Salem, N.C., prepared his own six-page illustrated study guide for Foer’s book, with the intention that it be used during text study on Rosh HaShanah. “The climate disaster … is already underway and at best we can stem the more brutal impacts, which will be inevitable if we do not make significant changes to our lifestyles,” Rabbi Cohn says in an email interview.

The Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan will sponsor a pre-rally Global Climate Strike gathering on Sept. 20, as well as a “Community Wide Musical Havdalah for Planet Earth” on Sept. 21. Such progressive organizations as American Jewish World Service and the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center have also prepared High Holiday readings, and the Jewish Theological Seminary is supporting many of these efforts.

“The Jewish community is more and more involved,” energized by the growing signs of global warming and the Trump administration’s effort to weaken or abrogate legislation that protects the environment, said Adriane “Ace” Leveen, senior lecturer in Hebrew Bible at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a JCAN co-founder. “We’re at a pivotal point in terms of how much time is left” before such effects of climate change as the rising level of oceans and increasing forest fires become irreversible.

Mirele Goldsmith, a consultant to Jewish environmental organizations, at an off-shore wind farm.

In recent weeks, local environmental activists have taken to the op-ed pages of newspapers to make a Jewish pitch about climate change. “Too many of us do not understand the urgency of the threat,” Bob Horenstein, director of community relations and public affairs at the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, wrote in the Jerusalem Post. “It baffles me that many Jews — and Jewish organizations — still don’t consider climate change to be a ‘Jewish issue’ … as long as Jews live on this planet, combatting global warming will be a Jewish responsibility.”

Writing on the same theme, Jackie Garcia Mann, an active member of the Interfaith Climate Action Network in California’s Contra Costa County, wrote in San Francisco’s jweekly Jewish newspaper that, “Within our congregations and communities, we must educate people and make a moral case to focus on the climate crisis.”

“A Jewish emergency,” said Mirele Goldsmith, an environmental psychologist and consultant to Jewish environmental organizations. Discussing the topic of climate change over the High Holidays is a “part of [communal] teshuvah,” she said. “Many Jews want to be involved as Jews.”

Answering people who would claim that climate change is a matter of science, not a Jewish subject to be discussed from the pulpit at the High Holy Days, Rabbi Poticha called climate change a Jewish subject — if addressed in a Jewish way. “Our job [as Jewish leaders] is to look at any subject with a Jewish lens,” said the rabbi, who, as an active member of JCAN and the New York Board of Rabbis, has encouraged her rabbinic colleagues to offer sermons on the topic.

“This [the earth] is God’s property,” she said. “Judaism is a religion that cares about the environment.” She and like-minded Jewish environmentalists cite several statements in the Torah, Talmud and other Jewish texts that call on Jews to act as “good stewards of the earth.”

“This is not a once-a-year thing,” Rabbi Poticha said.

The rabbi, who says her background as a landscape architect informs her passion about environmental issues, speaks to students about the environment during the classes she teaches at her synagogue’s religious school. She has instituted strict recycling measures at Temple Sinai, has had energy-efficient light bulbs installed, banned Styrofoam cups at shul events, and introduced biodegradable containers for Mishloach Manot food packages distributed to friends on Purim.

Rabbi Poticha, who was a co-signer of a “Rabbinic Letter on Climate Change” circulated four years ago by the Philadelphia-based Shalom Center, said she plans to also give High Holiday sermons on Israel and on the growing threat of anti-Semitism, subjects she calls dear to her heart. And she will discuss some hands-on environmentally conscious steps people can take during a community-wide worship service her synagogue sponsors on Rosh HaShanah.

After the holidays, she said, the kavanot and Al Chets she wrote will be collected. Those that contain God’s name, which cannot be thrown out, will go into a genizah container, to eventually be buried. And the other sheets “will be recycled.”

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