Shofars sounded in downtown Newark last Tuesday afternoon, as Jewish climate activists gathered near Penn Station, and near the offices of Senator Cory Booker, to call on the senator to “hear the clarion call for climate action and act now to ensure a swift transition to a clean energy future.”
“I hate seeing beautiful sunsets that are caused by fires on the other side of the country,” Rabbi Elliot Tepperman of Montclair’s Congregation B’nai Keshet said. “I hate that teenagers think they will not have a world that is safe to live in.
“Senator Booker, we are here to make sure you hear our call,” he said, and then he blew his shofar.
Among those joining Rabbi Tepperman as speakers and shofar blowers at the demonstration were Rabbi David Vaisberg of Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, Rabbi Marc Kline of Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, and Rabbi Laurence Malinger of Temple Shalom in Aberdeen.
The event was organized by Margo Wolfson of Manalapan Township. Ms. Wolfson teaches biology at Brookdale Community College, and she is a rabbinical student with Aleph: Alliance for Jewish Renewal.
It was the first New Jersey activity of Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action. Dayenu launched in 2020 to build “a multi-generational Jewish movement that confronts the climate crisis with spiritual audacity and bold political action,” according to its website.
“I joined Dayenu a little more than a year ago,” Ms. Wolfson said. She took part in a Dayenu national meeting held on Zoom, which split into breakout rooms for participants from different states. She was the only one on the meeting from New Jersey. So she turned to friends from a long-standing Rosh Chodesh group and found a couple able to help her organize.
“I was hoping for a minyan,” she said of the turnout at Newark. “We got 20.”
The idea for demonstrating in front of Cory Booker’s office came from Dayenu leadership, as did the idea of centering it around shofar blowing.
“The strategy of these shofar actions is to hold the lawmakers who have been champions on climate — people like Senator Booker — to hold them close, and say that the Jewish community and their values align with what you want to do,” Phil Aroneanu said. Mr. Aroneanu, who grew up in Ridgewood as a member of Temple Israel & Jewish Community Center, is Dayenu’s chief strategy officer.
“Most people are starting to see the urgency of climate change, but think can’t do anything about it,” Ms. Wolfson said. “Our senators have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do something about it.”
Ms. Wolfson explained the symbolism of blowing the shofar, noting that the ram’s horn is traditionally blown every day of Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah. She said its message, both in its traditional place at the end of the morning service and at Ms. Wolfson’s Newark rally, is to call us to wake up. “It’s our job to awaken to what our task is and what we are deployed to do,” she said.
“We want to be inscribed in the book of life. We’re urged to choose life, yet we see the fabric that supports our children and grandchildren unraveling. The second paragraph of the Sh’ma reminds us that we have a covenant not just between God and the Israelites, but between God and Israelites and the land. If we’re not ethical, if we don’t follow the commandments, the land won’t support us. It’s absolutely imperative to be caretakers of the land.”
The rally began with the song “Dayenu.”
Ms. Wolfson explained: “Dayenu means ‘it would have been enough,’ but the organization is using it like, ‘we’ve had enough.’ In the Passover song, we sing that it would have been enough to be freed from slavery even if God hadn’t led us across the sea. But obviously, it wouldn’t have been enough.” She compared that to the situation in addressing climate change: “We’ve been doing halfway measures and political compromises, and now it’s time to act. We don’t want to stop short.”
During the gathering, seven people — among them Ms. Wolfson and the four rabbis —spoke about what drew them to this fight and then blew the shofar.
The gathering ended with the song “This Land is Your Land,” for which Ms. Wolfson wrote new, environmental-themed verse. “It’s patriotic to push our country this way, but it’s a spiritual move as well,” she said.
Ms. Wolfson was very pleased with the rally. “To see the rabbis and other folk respond in the way was just so hopeful and gives me heart that we can do something about it. I know we can do something — we need the passion and will to do it, and for the truth to get out.”
Ms. Wolfson said that she is a member of several environmental groups. She joined her first, the World Wildlife Fund, when she was 16. But Dayenu adds something different, she said. “We do it Jewishly so we can put our whole neshama — our whole soul — together.”
Mr. Aroneanu, the Dayenu strategy officer, has been a climate activist since he was a student at Ridgewood High School; he graduated in 2002. “I started Students for Environmental Action with friends from Temple Israel Hebrew school,” he said. That’s Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood, where his family belonged.
He went to Middlebury College in Vermont. That’s where he met Bill McKibben, whose 1989 book “The End of Nature” was one of the first to warn of the dangers of global warming. Shortly after Mr. Aroneanu graduated in 2006, he and some friends started an organization with Mr. McKibben, which organized more than 1400 climate change demonstrations across the United States, and which became 350.org. (The organization got its name from the safe concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere: 350 parts per million, a level last seen in 1988. That number is now 412 parts per million.) Among 350.org’s accomplishments was launching the campaign to block the Keystone Pipeline, and leading the 2014 climate march in New York City that turned out hundreds of thousands of people.
After graduating, Mr. Aroneanu worked for 350.org for several years, before leaving to work first on Bernie Sanders 2016 campaign and then other advocacy organizations.
He said his activism was always driven by “the Jewish values I grew up with, and which I learned in Hebrew school and through the Temple Israel community. This sense of justice, the tikkun olam, the sense that we had a responsibility to future generations, l’dor v’dor.”
Then, a couple of years ago, he met with Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, who had worked at HIAS and other Jewish social justice organizations, and who was starting Dayenu.
“She had come up with the name of the organization, and was figuring out what it would look like. Something clicked for me as we were talking” and he was on board as the second ranking staff member. “It’s really been an incredible partnership to launch this thing.”
Dayenu’s advocacy accepts “that we’re at a point where we can’t stop climate change. It’s happening. There’s a lot of climate change baked into the system, and we’re seeing the results. This week, with Hurricane Ida and its flooding, we saw the result of a degree of Fahrenheit of warming of our planet and our oceans.
“That doesn’t mean we thrown up our hands. Every fraction of a degree that our planet warms means more suffering for future generations. We’re racing against time. Carbon and methane emissions from 30 years ago are driving the impact we’re seeing now. But we can protect future generations from even worse impacts of climate change.
“We want to mobilize the entire Jewish community to really confront this crisis in both a systematic and a spiritual way.
“It’s one thing to green your lifestyle, to eat locally, to put solar panels on your shul. To recycle.
“All that stuff is important, but it’s different to see it as a systemic failure of our global economy. There are choices we don’t have the opportunity to make because they’re baked into our economy
“That means that at Dayenu we focus on things like advocating for this massive $3.5 trillion investment on infrastructure and jobs that President Biden has proposed as a down payment on the kind of investments we need to transition rapidly from oil and coal and gas to clean energy while protecting those most vulnerable to climate change and those massive economic transitions.
“We’re also doing what we’re calling ‘spiritual adaptation.’ The climate crisis is an existential crisis. As Jews, we’ve faced existential crises before. We have a lot to learn about how to make our communities more resilient, and also to face the fear and anxiety of the climate crisis, and to metabolize that fear and anxiety through a Jewish lens for the kind of action that’s need,” he said.
For the action, Dayenu is encouraging the creation of local groups, such as the one Ms. Wolfson put together that organized the Newark rally.
“Dayenu circles are popping up in various places,” Mr. Aroneanu said. “We love really localized neighborhood groups. There’s one in my neighborhood in Washington Heights.”
There are also groups, such as at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, “where they have their own Dayenu circle which doubles as their green group. They’re doing both synagogue-based work where they’re trying to green the synagogue, and ensuring the synagogue is involved in activism and connected with the national work.
“We feel local face-to-face work is just as important on the community level as the policy work.”
Instructions on starting a Dayenu circle are on Dayenu.org’s website — as is an easy way to call your congressional representatives and senators. (You enter your information into a form at dayenu.org/call and your phone will ring; when you pick up you will be connected to the appropriate congressional office.)
“We will be calling every day until the bill gets over the finish line, which is expected by the end of September,” Mr. Aroneanu said.
“If you’re living in Ridgewood you have a very easy target: Representative Josh Gottheimer has fancied himself as a kingmaker for any kind of bills in the House, and for whatever reason, he’s trying to pass a skinny bipartisan infrastructure bill which falls well short of what is needed to address our failing infrastructure and our failing approach to climate,” he said. Most of the Biden administration’s goals for boosting clean energy were rejected by the Republicans who approved the bipartisan plan and are therefore slated for the proposed reconciliation bill, which Congressman Gottheimer has not yet supported.
In Ridgewood, meanwhile, “the reports I’ve heard from my parents and my grandmother are that trees are down everywhere, there was flooding in the streets. I don’t know how you can face your constituents after that kind of disaster in your district and say, ‘I’m sorry, we just don’t have the funds to do it,’ when it’s very clear that we need this investment to harden our infrastructure and build our clean energy future. People in the Fifth District should call him every day and ask him, ‘What are you doing to get this package across the finish line?’
“The most important thing is to get off the couch and gather with others. We’ve spent a lot of time in the past decades thinking that climate change is an individual problem. What is really needed is for people to think less like individuals and more about what we can collectively do.
“When you start thinking collectively there’s a lot that can be done. There’s municipal legislation that’s happening. There’s state-level legislation to ensure that New Jersey is at the forefront.”
Looking back, “the values I got from the community at Temple Israel and the Hebrew school have really driven my activism in a big way. I don’t think I appreciated it at the time,” Mr. Aroneanu said.
“As synagogues and congregations across New Jersey think about how they want to engage young people, we know that climate is the number one issue for Jewish voters across the country and young people are driving that. This is one of the ways to get people engaged Jewishly and do it in a very meaningful way.”