Jewish institutions awaken to climate crisis, with hundreds pledging action

by | May 18, 2023 | Other News

(JTA) — For a decade starting in 2002, Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi devoted herself to pro-Israel advocacy. After that, the Jewish philanthropist and activist from Annapolis, Maryland, went all in to fight for disability rights, working in the field for the next decade. Now, Mizrahi is focused on climate change.

“Let me put it this way: In 2021, we donated to one climate organization, and in 2022, we donated to 17 of them,” Mizrahi says, referring to the small charity fund she runs with her husband, tech entrepreneur Victor Mizrahi. This year, the couple made their largest climate-related donation yet, sending a group of nine climate reporters to Israel to meet tech startups working on ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Mizrahi and her husband have also begun commercially investing in such startups.

“I was hoping other people would solve it,” she says. “But the pace of the change is not nearly meeting the demand at the moment. I felt that even though I don’t know the subject, I’m just going to have to do it because I have kids and I don’t want this world to fall apart.”

Climate change has long ranked at or near the top of a list of issues concerning Jews in the United States, according to multiple surveys, and Jews have been heavily involved in the wider climate movement. But until recently, the issue had a marginal place on the agendas of Jewish communal organizations, which neglected climate even as the subject took on importance in the activism and policies of other religious communities and in the larger philanthropic world.

Mizrahi’s newfound emphasis on climate is an early example of a larger shift that is underway in Jewish philanthropy, a multibillion-dollar world made up of thousands of individual donors, charitable foundations, and nonprofit organizations.

“It’s the beginning of what will become a more widespread focus among Jewish groups,” says Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, the founder and CEO of the Jewish climate group Dayenu. “We’re seeing an awakening to this as a profoundly Jewish issue and awakening to the role that the Jewish community has to play in addressing the climate crisis.”

Scientists say that decisions regarding carbon emissions made in the next few years will affect life on Earth for thousands of years to come. The most recent warning came in March, when leading global experts with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a new report, stating that “there is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all.”

The large Jewish populations living in the coastal United States are vulnerable to extreme storms, sea-level rise, severe heat, and other weather disruptions — a situation dramatized in the recent Apple television series Extrapolations, in which a rabbi contends with rising sea waters infiltrating his Florida synagogue. Meanwhile, Israel is experiencing a slew of impacts from drought and floods to security threats tied regional climate-related instability.

The last few months have seen a flurry of new initiatives aimed at both greening Jewish institutions and directing collective action on climate.

In December, for example, Rosenn’s group published a report calculating that endowments of Jewish organizations, from family foundations to local federations, are invested in the fossil fuel industry to the tune of at least $3 billion. The report launched an ongoing campaign called All Our Might that urges Jewish leaders to withdraw these investments and put the money toward clean energy instead.

Meanwhile, many of the most prominent Jewish organizations in the country — representing local federations, Hillel chapters, summer camps, community centers, day schools and nearly every religious denomination — had already joined a new green coalition organized by another Jewish environmental group and were preparing to unveil pledges to do more in the fight against climate change.

The unveiling of the climate pledges happened in March, under the leadership of Adamah, a nonprofit created through the merger of two stalwarts of Jewish environmentalism, Hazon and the Pearlstone Center.

“Climate and sustainability have not been on the list of priorities for the vast majority of Jewish organizations; this coalition and these climate action plans reflect a deep paradigm shift and culture change moving forward,” Adamah CEO Jakir Manela said at the time.

The commitments made by members of Adamah’s Jewish Climate Leadership Coalition include sending youth leaders to global climate summits, reducing emissions of buildings and vehicles, and lobbying the federal government to pass climate policies.

More than 300 congregations and nonprofits have joined. For Earth Day, Adamah announced a million-dollar fund offering interest-free loans and matching grants to Jewish groups for projects to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

In an interview, Ellen Bronfman Hauptman and Stephen Bronfman, children of Birthright founder Charles Bronfman, said their $9 million gift is meant to honor their father on the occasion of his 90th birthday, while also bringing Birthright more in line with the values of a new generation that is environmentally-minded.

Birthright organizers will use the funding to develop programming focused on climate that could, for example, expose participants to Israel’s clean tech scene. The money is also intended to help Birthright lower its own carbon footprint, potentially by switching to electric buses or adding more vegetarian meals.

The Jewish world is, in many ways, still lagging behind the larger climate movement. Divesting endowment funds from the fossil fuel industry, for example, is seen as a bold step among Jewish groups even though at least 1,590 institutions representing nearly $41 trillion in assets have already publicly committed to doing so, according to a website tracking such pledges. About a third of the groups on the list are defined as faith-based organizations, but only three are Jewish: Kolot Chayeinu, a congregation in Park Slope, Brooklyn; the Reform movement’s pension system; and the American Jewish World Service, a global justice group.

Adamah’s own climate plan doesn’t include a pledge to divest but only a promise that it will investigate the option of doing so for its endowment and employee retirement funds. Instead, the plan touts the group’s education and advocacy efforts, and focuses on reducing emissions at its retreat centers.

Risa Cooper, chief climate officer, says the Jewish community hit a milestone when 12 of the 20 founding members of Adamah’s climate coalition said in their climate plans that they would consider amending their financial practices. That was significant, she says, in light of the organizations’ complex and deliberate governing structures, which can make executing such changes onerous.

The Jewish community, meanwhile, has tended to act primarily through charitable donations. One of the reasons for the difference, she says, is that the Jewish community is much less centralized with communal assets spread across many endowments, making the actions of any single group relatively less impactful.

-Asaf Elia-Shalev