Environmental Activism: Good For The Jews?
by Kara A. Kaufman
As we feel the heat this summer–the unpleasant, sweaty results of global warming– we wondered: How are Jewish organizations working on issues like climate change?
As part of a series on faith and the environment, Moment interviewed Sybil Sanchez, the director of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life. COEJL, which is part of the larger Jewish Council for Public Affairs, strategically partners with a host of organizations to conserve energy and support policies that encourage sustainability. In the process, it helps to expand notions of Jewish values such as tikkun olam (repairing the world), g’milut hasadim (deeds of loving kindness) and tzedek (justice).
Read lightly edited excerpts below, or listen to the full interview.
What got you interested in this work?
I’ve been working in the Jewish community on issues and advocacy and social-justice-related human rights stuff since 1999, and so I’ve always had a passion for social justice and human rights and universal issues and the Jewish connection to that. Before working in the Jewish community, I worked in the Balkans on conflict issues, and learned a lot there about community and how people connect to their community while also asking some very deep kind of personal theological questions about the nature of humanity. And so these various components in my life really brought me to care much more deeply about the environment and about God’s creation and our connection and role with it as stewards of creation and as Jews.
How do you see Judaism and the environment speaking to and interacting with one another?
There are actually many answers to that question. COEJL has been around for 20 years as of next year, and since that time, we’ve been delving into the question, “What’s Jewish about the environment?” But now we’ve really covered some ground in terms of looking at our texts, looking at the Torah, looking at our history as an agrarian society and how Judaism developed as a religion, looking at our holidays, which all bear with them inherent environmental messages because they are all based on the agricultural cycle in Israel. Even our calendar—the lunar calendar—is based on the way the planet functions.
What are the programs that COEJL has been most involved in over the past few years? What have those programs succeeded in doing? What are the next steps?
We have three or four specific areas of programs that we work on. We have a campaign called the Jewish Energy Covenant Campaign. The most basic part of that campaign is a declaration that 53 national leaders have signed on to. It’s a commitment they’ve made to reduce their energy use 14 percent by the fall of 2014 as a matter of justice and as a matter of protecting the environment.
What’s the significance of those 14 and 2014 numbers?
2014 in the fall starts the year of our next shmita cycle or sabbatical year. Traditionally, that is when in Israel you would let the land lay fallow, and it’s based on a whole biblical cycle of sevens. So we chose that symbolically.
We’re also developing a new network called the Jewish Energy Network to engage interested individuals who want to receive training around energy issues and bring that training back to their home community or to their affiliated organization.
Given the fact that climate change and species extinctions—a lot of these environmental issues—can seem daunting to all of us, what message would you leave us with to inspire us with some hope?
Well, I really find guidance in the quote by Rabbi Tarfon that says, “Ours is not to complete the task, nor is it ours to desist from it.” I think that’s important to remember. Another sort of catch phrase I use in my own personal work is that “the perfect is the enemy of the good enough.” It’s important for me, because I tend to be a perfectionist, and I think that when people look at climate change or look at the environment, they can be very harsh on themselves about what they’re doing. On the one hand, we need to have standards and have a sense of what’s right, but on the other hand, I think we need to do that compassionately and that we have to have compassion for ourselves in order to have it for others. It’s important to remember that we’re not alone.