In its founding mission statement – a resounding call to action – members of Shomrei Breishit declare that “The world is on fire and God is calling upon us to act.”
“The crisis of climate change is not primarily a crisis of technology, political or economic policy. It is a moral crisis that demands that we respond,” say the signatories, including more than 90 cantors and rabbis.
Rabbi Lawrence Troster of Teaneck is the group’s founder. “The moral crisis arises from inequities between those who have benefited most from carbon-based energy – and have the most abundant resources to deal with the consequences – versus those who benefited the least, are least responsible, will suffer the most, and have the most meager resources to deal with it,” Rabbi Troster said.
Although rabbis and cantors have not been absent from the environmental debate, Shomrei Breishit will focus its efforts specifically on the issue of climate change.
“I’ve been thinking about it for quite a while,” Rabbi Troster said. “Most Jewish environmental organizations have not been getting involved in this issue directly. There is great work being done, but not much around climate change.”
He said that many Jewish groups participated in the People’s Climate March, which drew some 400,000 people to Manhattan in September. Indeed, he said, more than 12,000 people marched under the banner of a religious group. There was also a contingent of concerned grandparents.
Rabbi Troster, who describes himself as an “eco-theologian, environmental organizer, and activist,” has been rabbinic scholar-in-residence at GreenFaith since 2003. GreenFaith, according to its website, greenfaith.org, “works to inspire, educate, and mobilize people of diverse religious backgrounds for environmental leadership.” Rabbi Troster helped to create the organization’s fellowship program, which educates and trains clergy to become environmental leaders.
Rabbi Troster subsequently encouraged GreenFaith and Aytzim (formerly the Green Zionist Alliance) “to co-sponsor a group made up specifically of rabbis, cantors, and seminary students interested in supporting action on climate change and environmental justice.” They did – that group is Shomrei Breishit.
Most of the Jewish environmental groups are secular, run by laypeople, Rabbi Troster said, and outreach to rabbis and cantors “really was not consistent. I’m trying to create a religious voice, a Jewish religious voice, on climate change and environmental justice. It’s a moral issue.
“We can use this group now to go to various interfaith environmental [forums] and have a religious voice there,” he added. “We can say we represent hundreds of rabbis. That’s never been done before.”
GreenFaith is international in scope, Rabbi Troster said. Clergy who have signed on with Shomrei Breishit represent four different countries – the United States, England, Poland, and Israel – as well as various denominations, “from Jewish Renewal to Orthodox.” More than 100 rabbis and cantors have become members, with more than 90 signing the group’s initial statement, in which they pledge to become carbon neutral in their own lives.
“I wanted an initial group of about 50 who were interested in the project,” he said. “I created a list of rabbis I knew who were involved with GreenFaith and Aytzim or with the environment. I sent out an initial proposal and got more than fifty rabbis, nine of them from New Jersey, several from the local area. We created a small group to become the coordinating body, which created the statement.”
Once the statement was framed, “we put it out to people who said they were interested. Some didn’t sign it. They felt in sync” with it, but were unable to make the requisite commitment. The statement requires both the individual signers and the organizations with which they are affiliated to reduce their carbon footprint within the next two years.
Most, however, did sign it.
“We’re not looking for perfection,” Rabbi Troster said. “We’re trying to create a process personally and within the community they’re part of to reach for the goal of being carbon neutral in practice and in their investments.”
Barry Schwartz, rabbi of Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia, signed on to the statement.
“Genesis makes clear that as God’s partners, we are here to help take care of creation,” Rabbi Schwartz said in an email. “The environment concerns us as global citizens, as Americans, and as Jews…we’re all in this together.”
Pointing out that he was part of the first Jewish environmental group, Shomrei Adamah, and has been involved in COEJL (Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life), the Central Conference of American Rabbis Environment Committee, and GreenFaith, Rabbi Schwartz said “Think globally; act locally.
“I’ve worked with my congregations to understand the connection of Judaism and ecology, and diet and the environment; to conduct energy audits to become more energy efficient; and to conserve and recycle. I’ve even tried to enhance appreciation of the environment by leading nature trips, including an exciting hiking/scuba diving trip off-the-beaten-track to Israel and Jordan.”
Neal Borovitz, rabbi emeritus of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge, said that “Shomrei Breishit will offer environmental education and training opportunities for Jewish leaders, and will represent a Jewish leadership presence within larger environmental campaigns.”
“My reasons for signing on to this initiative are twofold,” Rabbi Borovitz said. “First, I believe that the issue of climate change is a real challenge facing humanity, and it is the responsibility of religious leaders to speak out on these issues. As Jews we are responsible for the care and protection of this planet Earth that, according to Genesis, God has placed in our custodial care.”
“The second reason I signed on to this effort … is that it affords us a vehicle as rabbis and cantors to work together with religious leaders of other faiths. Therefore, in addition to the focus on environmental challenges, I am hopeful that Shomrei Breishit will offer another opportunity for cooperative work that in and of itself will help us in our goal of better interfaith understanding.”
Shomrei Breishit went public a few weeks ago through Facebook and Twitter and hopes to get several hundred additional members and statement-signers by the spring.
Rabbi Troster said he has been “driven to do this” for almost three decades, since identifying environmental concerns as a moral issue. “The most affected are the least responsible for it and have the fewest resources to deal with it,” he said. “It resonates with Jewish ideas about justice.
“I knew about climate change 30 years ago but I didn’t think anything would happen in my lifetime,” he continued. “Now I know that things are happening a lot quicker and the impact is already being felt.”
Rabbi Troster said that despite the inaction of the U.S. Congress, “a lot is going on at the local and state level.” He hopes that President Obama’s recent agreement with China will have a positive affect on negotiations for a new climate treaty, to be signed in Paris in 2015. Initial negotiations will take place in Lima, Peru, this month. His group will partner with other organizations to “express the desire that a significant treaty emerge.”
He also hopes that climate change will become a major issue during the next presidential campaign.
“People do care,” he said, urging that presidential candidates state their positions on this issue. “If you ask people, they’re really worried.” In addition, “there’s deep concern around the world.” His own understanding of the issue was greatly enhanced when he attended a conference at the U.N. “where a former ambassador of a South Sea island said the island might soon disappear. ‘What will we do?’ he asked.”
“It will have an impact on us as well,” he said. “We won’t escape because we’re so powerful. Look at [Superstorm] Sandy, forest fires, droughts in California. It’s happening now and having a big impact.”
Rabbi Troster said members of Shomrei Breishit will function as advocates, linking up with local advocacy efforts in their districts, and having religious leaders sit down with members of Congress.
“That kind of advocacy has long-term results,” he said.