With snow piled high in drifts all around us, Tu B’Shevat in Connecticut seemed a far cry from what is celebrated as Arbor Day in Israel. You couldn’t have planted a tree in our frozen tundra if you’d wanted to.
And yet, being out of sync with the Israeli seasons is a useful reminder. As distant as most of our daily lives are from the agricultural cycle that shapes so much of the Jewish calendar, we are nonetheless embedded in it, dependent on it. And we need to recognize the gathering threat that climate change posed to it.
In recent years, climate change has become an increasingly important issue in the American Jewish community, as it has for other religious communities in the U.S. and around the world. Five years ago, The Jewish Climate Change Campaign was inaugurated at the request of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, an NGO based in England. The extent of climate change activism across all streams of American Judaism can be found in a fine survey published by the Yale Center for Environmental Communication.
The challenge of climate change is its urgency compared with the political resistance to doing anything about it. Nationally, the most the U.S. Senate could manage last month was a vote acknowledging that climate change exists. That human behavior might be playing some role in it was a bridge too far.
On the eve of the 1963 March on Washington, James Reston of the New York Times wrote that its “first significant test…will come in the churches and synagogues of the country this weekend….as moral principles preceded and inspired political principles in this country, as the church preceded the Congress, so there will have to be a moral revulsion to the humiliation of the Negro before there can be significant political relief.”
Increasingly it is apparent that political action to deal with climate change will require the same kind of religious inspiration. Pope Francis has made it clear that he’s on the case, and is preparing an encyclical to present at the next big international gathering on the issue next summer in Paris.
In the Jewish calendar, this is a shmita year, a sabbatical year of rest for the land. It should be a year of common dedication to preserve the planet for the coming generations.