Climate Action in the Footsteps of Rabbis Heschel and Eisendrath

This is a guest post by Lawrence MacDonald and Geri Maskell, co-chairs of the Green Team at Temple Rodef Shalom, the largest Jewish congregation in Virginia. The authors can be contacted at lawrencemacdonald at gmail.
We are two members of Temple Rodef Shalom, a Reform synagogue in northern Virginia, who are exploring with fellow congregants what it means to be a “green” congregation as the world teeters on the brink of rapid, catastrophic climate change. This is our unfinished story.
For the past four years, we have been working with our clergy and lay leaders to increase attention to the climate change threat. We invited speakers and organized events, helped to reduce energy use within the synagogue, promoted home energy conservation, organized temple members to write letters and make phone calls in an effort to block construction of a new coal-fired power plant in southwestern Virginia, and visited Richmond as participants in a Jewish Advocacy day to lobby for clean energy.
Meanwhile, nearly every year has set a new record high average global temperature. The Arctic ice is shrinking much faster than experts predicted. Extreme weather events are claiming lives and dislocating millions of people: fires in Russia, floods in Pakistan and Australia, and just this month drought-fueled wildfires in Texas and an unprecedented spate of killer tornadoes across the southeastern U.S.
Scientists are alarmed but much of the American public, confused by coal and oil industry propaganda, is complacent. Climate legislation stalled in the Senate, then died after the mid-term elections. President Obama, who had spoken passionately about the climate threat, has stopped saying “climate,” preferring to talk about “clean energy.” The U.S. failure to act has torpedoed international negotiations.
The technology exists to substantially cut the emission of heat-trapping gasses, slowing climate change. But there is a failure of political will. Could our tiny efforts in Temple Rodef Shalom make a difference in the face of this impending catastrophe? Is there something more that we and other Jews could do to help sound the alarm?

We Jews are a tiny minority of Americans and an even tinier minority of the world’s seven billion people. But we have a powerful prophetic tradition and the immense moral authority of our leaders means that when we take a stand we are heard.
Jews have made a difference on issues that extend well beyond the synagogue walls in the past. Starting in 1970, vigils outside the Soviet embassy helped to win Russian Jews the freedom to emigrate. More recently, American Jewish leaders were crucial in launching the “Save Darfur” movement, which helped to stop genocide in western Sudan. And of course, Jewish views are a powerful factor in U.S. policies toward Israel.

The example that inspires us most today is role of American Jewish leaders in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. This is evident in the famous photographs of theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, the first president of what we now call the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), standing shoulder to shoulder with Martin Luther King, Jr.
And at the center of those photographs, startling the viewer each time with its immense power, is our most sacred object, the Torah. Rabbis Heschel and Eisendrath felt compelled by Jewish faith and teachings not only to speak and write, but literally to take a stand, carrying the Torah into the front lines in the struggle for racial equality.
Today we face a challenge that is even more urgent and dire. And the young climate activists trying to jolt America from its slumber are invoking the great, non-violent struggle for U.S. racial equality, singing “We Shall Overcome” at their rallies. Is it too much to ask that Jewish leaders today take up the Torah and stand together with these brave young activists, as Rabbis Heschel and Eisendrath stood with Dr. King?
Opportunity knocks. On the banks of the Potomac River, just a few miles from the venues for the Religious Action Center’s 50th Anniversary Consultation on Conscience next month and the URJ Biennial in December, sits a dirty, Eisenhower-era coal fired power plant targeted by the local community, Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light, and national environmental organizations for on overdue retirement.
The Potomac River GenOn plant symbolizes all that is wrong with U.S. energy policy. Fueled with mountaintop removal coal, each year it produces 145 pounds of mercury pollution, a potent neurotoxin linked to autism, while particulate matter from the plant is responsible for 37 deaths in the Washington region. And the power from the plant is not even needed, serving as a back up for peak loads that could be easily managed with minimal smart grid investments.
Suppose that a handful of Jewish clergy and lay leaders attending the URJ Biennial in December joined with climate activists and representatives of other faith traditions and local congregations in a peaceful vigil outside the GenOn plant, with the Torah front and center, sounding shofars. The photographs and videos would be seen around the world, powerful testimony to the Jewish commitment to Tikkun Olam and the urgency of switching rapidly from creation-destroying fossil fuels to renewable energy.
Closing the GenOn plant won’t solve the climate problem any more than integrating a single lunch counter or bus line would have meant victory in the struggle for equal rights for African Americans. But in the realm of policy and politics, symbols are powerful. Perhaps a climate vigil on the banks of the Potomac would become the first of many, inspiring Jewish communities across the country to take up their own Torahs and shofars and push for the closure of other coal plants.
Is such a thing possible? Should Jews who understand the terrible urgency of the climate threat be contemplating anything less?
That’s why we and other members of the Temple Rodef Shalom Green Team will be attending the RAC’s 50th Anniversary Consultation on Conscience in early May, seeking other Jewish climate activists who share our vision of a Jewish prophetic voice that can make a difference in the greatest social justice struggle to ever confront our species. We will be wearing our Temple Rodef Shalom T-shirts and hope to meet you there.

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