A Jewish Response to Climate Change

By: Hannah Taylor Serve the Moment Corps Member

Just three days after Earth Day, the Jewish Climate Action Network-Massachusetts convened for their third annual climate conference. The conference, held entirely virtually, ran tracks on Decarbonizing, Advocacy, Soil Carbon, Resilience, and Youth Advocacy, and was attended by over 500 people from across the United States. I was fortunate to attend the conference, as well as speak with one of the conference organizers, and Jewish Volunteer Gardening Brigade mentor, Louise Quigley.

As a conference organizer, Louise said she had been working on it from the start, as a member of the soil committee. She had initially heard of the Jewish Climate Action Network (JCAN) when attending a climate demonstration and saw, “people from JCAN with shofars.” Louise shared that she found it so fun, she “looked up JCAN and got involved with the JCAN soil group and helped plan the conference.” As an organizer and also a participant in the conference, she was able to see the conference from both angles, and spoke highly of the sessions she attended. 

I have been volunteering with Beantown Jewish Gardens as a Serve the Moment Corps Member and was excited to attend the conference as part of my learning with the organization. Some of my highlights included Our Planet is a Farm: Climate Change, Food, and You! led by Becky O’Brien, Director of Food and Climate at Hazon and Melissa Hoffman, Director of the Jewish Initiative for Animal (JIFA), and the session Jewish Gardening and Gardening Jewishly led by Leora Mallach, Co-Founder and Director of Beantown Jewish Gardens and Rabbi Michael Birnholz of Temple Beth Shalom in Vero Beach.  

Our Planet is a Farm: Climate Change, Food, and You! focused on the effect that individual’s actions have on the climate crisis. I was surprised to learn the extent to which individuals, as opposed to corporations, negatively impacted the earth . O’Brien explained that without changes to individuals’ consumption of animal products, we will not be able to fully counteract the impacts of climate change.  Put another way, changes in diet cannot counteract the full impact humans are having on the planet, and that even if we were to make every other adjustment toward reducing climate change, it will not be enough without also changes in food consumption—only through a combination of individual efforts and large-scale change can we adequately reduce harm to our planet. 

At Jewish Gardening and Gardening Jewishly, Leora Mallach and Rabbi Michael Birnholz spoke about gardening through the lens of Jewish values, aligning different aspects of gardening within the values they shared, such as Hiddur Mitzvah and Refu’at Hagoof, and Tzedek, Tzedek Tifdof. They explained that, “Jewish gardening, gardening Jewishly does not only happen in certain prescribed areas.” They both spoke about the upcoming year, 5782, of shmita (Hebrew for release) in which stewards of the land allow it to lie fallow for a year, drawing comparisons to Shabbat. Leora also brought in connection to the divine, explaining how God plays a role in her garden, “I like to say that as a Jewish gardener God is my co-gardener, because sometimes God waters the garden for me.”  Louise, who also attended the session shared that she, “had always wondered: I garden, I’m Jewish, but is there a connection? That was cool the way they talked about different Jewish values and how that relates.” 

For Louise some of her conference highlights included sessions on soil care and wind turbines. The soil session, It’s all connected: Biological pathways to Carbon Rich Soil, was led by Christine Jones of Amazing Carbon, and Rabbi Alison Adler of Temple B’nai Abraham. Louise shared that, “as a gardener, I was really excited by the one about soil conditioning, from soil scientists.” In the session, the leaders explained that soil is healthiest when many different species are present in the same area.  Louise shared that this was different from her usual approach to gardening in which she separated the different kinds of species into separate areas, but now after learning the success of mixing different species in soil, she says, “I’m changing the way I’m gardening…it turns out it’s good for my tomatoes.” 

Another session that stood out for Louise was the Offshore Wind Power: How and Why to Seize America’s Largest Untapped Clean Energy Solution led by Jon Ballam, retired MA DOER Mngr Engineering & CHP Program at the Commonwealth of MA, Amber Hewett, Campaigns Director of Offshore Wind Energy at the National Wildlife Federation, and David Lederer, Civil Engineer and former team leader for the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Louise heard from the speakers that the Northeast, “is perfect for offshore wind turbines.” Louise shared that the discussion was particularly exciting as “the national wildlife federation is helping guide it which means they’re taking care to site wind generation where it won’t interfere with whales, and where it won’t kill birds, to make it really ecologically benign as well as renewable power.” 

The conference wrapped up with a closing ceremony in which participants had time for reflection, and each made calls to their senators. The calls were coordinated alongside Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action, and participants asked their senators to vote in favor of legislation that invests in clean energy, upgrades the power grid to run on renewable energy, targets funding toward communities on the frontlines of poverty, racism, and pollution, and invests in healthcare, childcare, and other resources that support people’s return to the workforce. Finishing the conference with an action dedicated toward protecting the planet was a constructive way to end the evening. I left the conference feeling inspired by the ways climate action and Jewish values can live together. Louise also was pleased, sharing she had an excellent time at the conference and enjoyed all the sessions she attended.