Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is fighting climate change one vegan meal at a time.
Veganism transforms an individual and the whole family unit, Yanklowitz said, because it makes people more thoughtful about what they are eating and why. It also heightens their awareness of the impact they are having on the environment.
“I'm very grateful for those working on political revolutions, but I want to be on the side of a spiritual revolution that starts person by person, home by home,” he said.
From changing an individual’s diet to garnering community support for legislative changes, Jewish leaders across the country gathered to discuss the best ways to take on climate change.. Yanklowitz was one of five activists who addressed the relationship between Judaism and environmental activism during the Judaism, Science and Medicine Group’s annual conference hosted by Arizona State University via Zoom on Feb. 28, 2021.
In 2014, a Public Religion Research Institute survey found 78% of American Jews consider climate change either “a crisis” or “a major problem” — the highest proportion of any religious group in America.
But that sentiment doesn’t necessarily translate to action.
“There was amazing work happening, there continues to be great work happening and we need more — for the Jewish community to fully show up in all of our people and power and play a critical role in the larger national climate movement, and in turn, the global climate movement,” said Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, founder and CEO of Dayenu. She launched the organization last April to mobilize the American Jewish community to confront the climate crisis.
Rosenn is working to spur legislative change to combat the climate crisis. Leading up to the 2020 election, Dayenu and 43 other Jewish organizations mobilized 800 Jews across the country and together reached out to more than 750,000 American Jewish voters concerned about climate change, calling on them to elect leaders who have the “chutzpah” to take “bold action.”
The PPRI survey also found nearly 70% of American Jews are supportive of tougher laws and regulations to protect the environment, even if it raises prices or costs jobs. However, that differs by political affiliation, with 26% of Jewish Republicans in favor compared to 68% Jewish Independents and 81% of Jewish Democrats.
Mirele Goldsmith, co-chair of the Jewish Earth Alliance, is working to change laws by participating in climate marches and contacting elected officials to advocate for pro-climate policy changes.
“We really need action on all three levels — the individual level, the community level and the systemic level,” she said, but community is the “key” and change starts with an individual.
“People change because of the people around them. It’s all about changing social norms. And I think that’s where the Jewish community can really make such a huge difference,” she said. “If we can change the norms in our communities, we can change the way people behave and the way they get involved.”
Yanklowitz said legislative change is crucial, but it also leaves society in a very “tenuous” and “flimsy” situation because policy changes can be reversed.
“We need a spiritual evolution to save the planet,” he said. He emphasized individual behavioral changes can be better sustained and more reliable in the long term. Again he brought it back to diet. “This starts with each morally responsible food bite we take.”
Yanklowitz has been vegan for more than a decade. Abstaining from eating meat and dairy products can reduce a person’s carbon footprint by up to 73%, according to a 2019 study by University of Oxford researchers.
“My work here is very unpopular,” he said. “I have found that few things are more threatening to people than going after after the food they love.”
No matter the vehicle somebody chooses to take action, immediate action is necessary, the panelists agreed.
There is no larger-than-life hero coming to save humanity, Yanklowitz said.
Rabbi Ruhi Sophia Rubenstien of Temple Beth Israel in Eugene, Oregon, noted it’s already too late to save everything. “Some things are already lost,” she said, including some cultures and species. “And yet we have to love and save what can yet be saved.”
Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb, rabbi at Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Maryland, said climate action now will still have a “small but measurable difference for those in the future.”
Phoenix-based Daniel Stein Kokin, a Jewish studies scholar, was one of 173 people who tuned into the Feb. 28 conference. He watched the panel on activism and came away with the conclusion that changes at an individual and societal level are both necessary to address climate change.
“Shmuly is definitely right that you can pass all the legislation in the world, but if you haven't really changed people's attitudes, then you give rise to potential difficulties down the road,” he said. “On the other hand, there's no question that the overall structures of society have a huge impact.”
Stein Kokin credits Yanklowitz for his own reduced consumption of animal products, and beef in particular.
“I see the research that really points to the production of beef as really the leading contributor to greenhouse gasses in the food production system,” he said.
Less than a week after the conference, ASU’s Center For Jewish Studies hosted Stein Kokin to perform his original prayer for the monsoon and discuss the intersection of Jewish thought, liturgy, localism and environmentalism.
“Writing this prayer was an opportunity for me to grapple with the concerns I have about the current drought in Arizona, and to create a kind of public communal consciousness about that situation,” he said. JN