Rabbi Elliott Tepperman of Bnai Keshet, a Reconstructionist congregation in Montclair, first discovered the writings of Rabbi Arthur Waskow, the Jewish Renewal author and environmental activist, in the early 1990s, when he was a college student at the University of California Santa Cruz.
“I had been reading a lot of Christian liberation theology and was just thrilled to find somebody who was writing Jewish liberation theology, arguing for the need for us to be engaged in social justice work rooted in Judaism,” Rabbi Tepperman said.
Before too long, Rabbi Waskow came to the campus, and young Elliott Tepperman got a chance to meet him.
“I was thrilled,” he said.
The meeting helped push Mr. Tepperman toward the rabbinate.
Two weeks ago, on Tuesday, October 12, Rabbi Waskow celebrated his 88th birthday — and spent part of it protesting in front of the White House in a call for the Biden administration to take more action on stopping global warming. He was arrested in an act of civil disobedience. And Rabbi Tepperman was standing next to him, on both the protest line and the police booking line.
“To be standing side-by-side with Rabbi Arthur Waskow was extraordinarily powerful,” Rabbi Tepperman said.
It was also powerful to be joined in the protest by a minyan of activists from his congregation that included his 19-year-old son, Akiva, he added.
“Climate change is an issue that resonates with a lot of members at Bnai Keshet,” Stephanie Greenwood of Bloomfield said. Ms. Greenwood was one of the Bnai Keshet congregants at the protest; she is taking a lead role in climate activism at Bnai Keshet, something she said is a priority at the congregation. She added that Rabbi Tepperman gave a sermon on Yom Kippur that was “a real powerful call for the congregation to make this the year that we all dive in on it.
“We’re planning to take a closer look at what climate activism looks like in New Jersey,” she said. “We’re looking to continue to build inside our congregation and also in an interfaith way with other organizations.”
Within the congregation, Shabbat services on November 20 are being dedicated to reflecting on climate change — one of a number of themed Shabbat programs being organized by the synagogue’s tikkun olam committee. Reverend Fletch Harper, an Episcopalian priest and the executive director of GreenFaith, the interfaith environmental group that organized the Washington protest, will be the guest speaker. Details haven’t been finalized, but Ms. Greenwood expects there to be some text-based discussion as well as chance for “for people who have been involved in climate action to reflect on those actions, and some conversation on where we go next.”
Ms. Greenwood said the Washington protest was the first time she had been arrested at a political protest.
“It was a real honor to stand next to Rabbi Waskow while we all did this together,” she said.
She said the protest began with two hours of speakers.
“We heard directly from people who are fighting pipeline projects,” she said. “Being witness to these front-line groups was very powerful and motivating.”
Ms. Greenwood described her arrest as “actually very calm.”
She and the other protesters went where the police told them not to go, and then were arrested. They were processed in a nearby tent and given a ticket.
“The wait to pay the ticket was about six hours,” she said. “We had to wait in an extremely long line to pay it.
“We ended up having a lot of very interesting conversations with the other people standing around. It led to some interesting community-building opportunities. There was an impromptu teach-in from someone from South Carolina who works on raising awareness of the problems of industrial agriculture. There were people playing guitars.”
Back in New Jersey, Ms. Greenwood is organizing a Dayenu chapter for her congregation. She said the group seems to be accomplishing its goal of helping Jews organize to fight climate change.
“The support you get from Dayenu seems very significant,” she said. “I have a full-time job. I am not a full-time organizer. I am really encouraged to participate because Dayenu’s national apparatus provides calls for action and scripts to use when calling legislators.”
With the national office guiding the action, “what’s left for our local circle to do is to generate interest and turnout for the events, and to continue to deepen the work the congregation wants to do on climate,” she said.
Ms. Greenwood said that Dayenu’s Jewish lens on fighting global warming appeals to her.
“There is something powerful about organizing from a Jewish perspective,” she said. “There are so many moral questions about how we’re going to get to climate safety in an equitable way. So much of what we need to do runs counter to business as usual. It’s important to have a moral voice saying that we have to change what we’re doing.”
Meanwhile, Dayenu has recruited Jewish activists who live in the fifth congressional district, which includes parts of Bergen County, to sign a letter calling on their representative, Josh Gottheimer, to “pledge your support for President Biden’s full Build Back Better agenda with big and bold investments in Jewish communal priorities.”
Mr. Gottheimer, a centrist Democrat, has been the lead voice in the House of Representatives seeking to pass a bipartisan infrastructure bill separately from a bill including President Biden’s more expansive agenda.
“We believe that for our district, our state, and our country to thrive, we must not only invest in roads and bridges, but in people: good jobs, affordable housing, healthcare, childcare, education, and more,” the letter drafted by Dayenu says. “And as the devastating impacts of Hurricane Ida on the Fifth District showed, the time is now to address the climate crisis.”
Ina Miller Silverstein of Teaneck, co-president of the Bergen County chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women, was among the letter’s 70 signatories.
She heard about the letter from the national office of the National Council of Jewish Women.
“I had never heard of Dayenu,” she said. “I had to look up who they are.”
But signing the letter was easy.
“Certainly climate change is a huge issue for me,” she said. “I have grandchildren.”
Hurricane Ida made the issue feel even more personal for her. “It was so devastating in Englewood,” she said. “People who I know were resettled into hotels and motels.
“To see this devastation was terrible. You see pictures of New Orleans and it’s terrible, but when you know the faces of the people who are moved into motels, you feel so connected.”
Is Dayenu’s activism having an impact on Mr. Gottheimer’s policies?
“It’s hard to say whether this letter alone is having an impact,” Phil Aroneanu, Dayenu’s chief strategy officer, said. “We do know that over the past month or so, the volume of statements he has made on climate has gone up, and his commitment to passing the Build Back Better agenda has come on strong in a way it wasn’t before.
“A month ago he said we should pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill first. He’s not saying that anymore.”