We were 20 young Jewish leaders from around the world gathered in a Jerusalem hotel. Debates raged about all the hot issues: assimilation, Israel-diaspora relations, Zionism, anti-Semitism, day-school tuition. The conversation was full of optimism, new ideas and the requisite Jewish angst about the future.
But the Israelis in the group spoke with urgency about an entirely different subject. They were focused on a larger threat unlike any we have ever faced. After showing us the recent report from Israel’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, an Israeli participant who works full time on expanding religious practice in secular communities said, “It’s not about millions of hostile neighbors or a deadly virus. This is about billions of people and trillions of small choices that will make the Middle East largely uninhabitable by the end of this century.”
That grabbed everyone’s attention. A future with less food, a damaged economy, threatened infrastructure, energy insecurity, more respiratory illnesses and increased geopolitical instability seemed to eclipse the other Jewish topics we had been discussing.
As other Israelis expounded on the government’s climate report, the conversation we had been having suddenly felt irrelevant. In the face of such existential threat, did any of this “Jewish stuff” we were debating really matter? What difference does it make if we can reduce day-school tuition or tackle the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement when the future of Zionism may be doomed by factors we generally ignore?
Of course, many of us were quick to express denial or impotence. “Yeah, that’s a real problem,” one participant said, “but governments need to solve it.” Another pushed back, “That sounds important, but I need to stay focused on the mission of my organization — and how I am going to pay my employees next year.”
I’ll admit that I would rather have been talking about almost anything else. After all, what can we actually do about something as large as climate change? I’m also resistant to mission creep. I run a Hillel at a large university that touches the lives of thousands of young people every year. Isn’t that good enough? Let somebody else fix the environment.
Unfortunately, I’ve come to realize that it’s just not that simple. As an organization that claims to value Israel, Hillel cannot ignore the fact that Zionism could fold if the whole Middle East goes to war over water and resources. Or simply can’t produce food. And as an organization informed by Jewish values that seeks to ensure a better future for our students, we can no longer pretend that other pressing issues are somehow separate from the incontrovertible reality they face. In fact, climate is among the top concerns to our students.
As an organization that claims to value Israel, Hillel cannot ignore the fact that Zionism could fold if the whole Middle East goes to war over water and resources.
So I find myself asking again and again: In the world we’re creating, what will the Jewish future look like in 100 years? Or 500 years? Or 1,000? Am I doing everything I can to make sure that my grandchildren inherit a world more verdant than the one did?
It’s now clear that my actions, those of my organization, and all of our collective consumption and resource-burning will damage humanity and disproportionately imperil Israel because of its location in one of the hottest zones on Earth, the Middle East. Can I still do my day-to-day work at Hillel while also thinking about the long-term sustainability of the entire planet?
Absolutely, yes. Jews have 3,000 years of evolving wisdom that provides systems for healthy families, culture, governance and climate. We already have the wisdom to deal with this challenge. We are already commanded to attend to our role as caretakers of God’s creation now entrusted to us. And we have a pretty good track record of planting ideas that have now spread to billions of people around the world.
Historically, Jewish organizations have joined in collective action on issues such as assimilation, Israel and diversity, equity and inclusion. It’s time for us to also address the fact that the cascading environmental degradation caused by 7,900,000,000 humans rapidly consuming everything in sight imperils us all. If there is no sustainable planet, there is no sustainable Jewish future.
Hillels seek to protect the Jewish future in Israel and the Diaspora. When we respond to our students’ concerns and engage in efforts to address climate change, we aren’t diverting from our mission; we’re carrying it out!
As we celebrate Earth Day and the abundance our planet provides for us every day, we must redouble our efforts and work together to protect our only home.
Rabbi Aaron Lerner is the executive director of UCLA Hillel.