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By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

Sukkot has a special connection to rain. The Talmud (Rosh Hoshanah 16a) says that on Sukkot, we are judged for the rainfall we will receive in the coming year. On Shemini Atzeret, the final day of the holiday, we begin to say Mashiv Ha’Ruach u’morid Hagashem, in the Amidah prayer, invoking God as the One who brings rainfall, at the start of the wet season in the Land of Israel.

It can seem strange to be saying these words outside Israel, in climates where we are not so aware of the shift into a rainy season. In many regions it rains year round. Why do we connect ourselves to the climate rhythms of the Land of Israel thousands of miles away?

There are many places in the world today that do not have the luxury of being able to debate whether climate change is a mere theory or a proven fact. For Inuit Eskimos, subsistence farmers in Mali, or peasants in the Himalayas, climate change is not a scientific hypothesis but their everyday lived experience. They see their habitats disappearing, experience longer and more severe droughts and see with their own eyes how much the glaciers have receded.

To these groups we should now add inhabitants of the Land of Israel. In Israel people have always been acutely aware of rainfall. It is a necessity of life. Over each of the past five years rainfall in Israel has been significantly below average. In the past two years it was 30-35% below average, resulting in a severe and worsening water crisis. It is becoming clear that this is not a blip but a trend. It is a trend in line with climate change scientific predictions for the Middle East.

Sukkot is a holiday of trust in the seasons. We live outside in booths, in celebration of the fall harvest and in touch with the beauty of the natural world. The sukkah is a temporary dwelling, exposed to the elements. It is fragile—at any moment the natural world could turn on us and knock our it down. But this is also a source of joy. The very fragility of the Sukkah causes us to turn to God in gratitude for the embracing protection of the regular, natural order of things.

It is on Sukkot, as we leave our homes and put our trust the weather, that we are likely to see the effects of climate change around us. Are there plants growing in your neighborhood that you have never seen before? Did you get more rain than you expected, or none at all?  When you compliment the unseasonably warm weather, does it click in the back of your mind that perhaps it should have started to turn to fall now?

For most of our lives we are not sufficiently tuned in to our surroundings to notice these subtle changes.  Our solid suburban homes shield us from much awareness of the nuances of nature.  But on Sukkot, we may be able to notice the signs that are pointing to a changing planet and arouse ourselves to play our role in addressing the problem. ((with thanks to Rachel Kahn Troster for her formulation of this thought.)

In America the most of the urban and suburban Jewish community are not yet feeling the effects of climate change. Our brothers and sisters in Israel probably are. When we say Mashiv Haruach, we align our existence with their’s. We acknowledge the critical importance of rain for life there. We sensitize ourselves to the life-threatening consequences of upsetting the planet’s delicate climate balance. And we may be aroused to joy, love and action to help protect this fragile miracle.

Hag Sameakh!

Sign the Pledge: The Jewish Climate Campaign

Sign the Pledge: The Jewish Climate Campaign

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By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

Recently I was asked an interesting question by an Israel environmental leader.

“I was a bit surprised and somewhat dismayed,” he began, “to find out that the date chosen for the Copenhagen Planning Seminar was also Tisha B’Av.”

A bit of background for the uninitiated:

1.    The Copenhagen Summit in December is a gathering of world leaders that aims to bash out a successor agreement to the Kyoto protocol that will limit CO2 emissions going forward. It is widely seen as a critical moment in the global effort to address climate change.

2.    The particular Seminar spoken about here is a gathering of Israeli environmental NGO’s that will propose an Israeli position

Gilad Erdan, Israels Minister of Environmental Protection

Gilad Erdan, Israel's Minister of Environmental Protection

for the Copenhagen Summit. Israel has not so far taken an official line on global warming. That is probably about to change. The new environment minister, Gilad Erdan, is one of the very few in recent years not to see the appointment as a consolation prize for not receiving a “real” ministerial job.” Erdan gets it. He understands that the environment really matters. The Tisha B’Av seminar includes a meeting with him.

3.    Tisha B’Av is the saddest date of the Jewish year. It is a fast day marked by deep mourning for the destruction of both Temples, the massacres and dispersions that followed and the ensuing 1800 years of exile from our country.
My environmental leader friend (who is himself Jewishly observant) was troubled by the choice of date for this meeting. While he knew that the decision was made in good faith, with good will, and certainly without any intention to inconvenience observant Jews, he wondered whether it might not be “singularly inappropriate to have the meeting on that day?” Or possibly, he continued, there was a “meaningful connection that could be made between Tisha B’Av and climate change?”

“It’s an interesting one”, I wrote back to him.

“On the one hand, holding the event on Tisha B’av certainly makes it hard for anyone who is halakhically observant to come, at least in the morning. It’s prohibited to do work until noon on Tisha B’Av and even to greet anyone as a sign of our utter desolation on that day (which would pose problems for how to behave in a meeting). There’s a strong custom of spending the whole morning in synagogue. That’s before you even start thinking about the effects of not eating and drinking all day in the middle of summer in Tel Aviv. So, on grounds of inclusiveness it’s not exactly an ideal choice of date.”

“On the other hand”, I mused, “maybe there was something singularly appropriate about the choice of date…” Talking with people about this since, I realize that it might in fact be true in more ways than I thought.

Firstly, some have drawn an analogy between the burning of the Temple and the ecological threats of today. As Rabbi Arthur Waskow writes,

“This memory of the burning of the Temple comes when scorching winds blow across the Middle East, when forest fires blaze, when grassy savannahs shrivel in the drought brought on — in our generation —  by global heating.  It is as if the burning of the Temple is a miniature version of the scorching of our planet.”

Waskow calls for people to fast on Tisha B’Av this year, or at least to fast from consuming gasoline and beef, (two of the biggest causes of greenhouse gas emissions)– a call we strongly endorse.

Secondly, as Dr. Michael Kagan of Jewish Climate Initiative pointed out, Tisha B’Av is the day on which it was decreed that the Jews would wander in the desert for 40 years of exile as a punishment for the sin of the spies, who shunned the goodness of the Land of Israel. In the terrible words of the Talmud:

“Rabbi Yochanan said that day (when the decree was made) was the eve of Tisha B’Av. The Holy One said, “you have wept for no reason. I will fix on this day weeping throughout the generations.” (Talmud 29a).

According to Rabbi Yochanan, the people’s acceptance of the spies’ slanders and their groundless weeping about the problems they anticipated in the Land of Israel was a kind of original sin. Because that generation refused the challenge of entering the land and implicitly preferred exile, Tisha B’Av was marked out forever as a day of weeping for exile from our land.

Only now are we starting to repair the effects of our longest exile. We in Israel are painstakingly learning how to live here once again. We have made many mistakes, in water use, forestry and city planning, but through the remarkable efforts of Israel’s environmental movement we are relearning how to bear responsibility for our natural environment.  How uncannily appropriate that a meeting at which the reborn State of Israel’s Minister of the Environment will be asked to rise and take some responsibility for the earth’s greatest environmental challenge should be inadvertently scheduled for Tisha B’Av.

And there is another level to this too. To appreciate it, let’s first note that Tisha B’av is one of several fast days in the Jewish calendar. In their purpose, these days fall on a spectrum between Teshuva repentance, and mourning. These purposes are not the same. Teshuva is about examining our lives individually and communally asking ourselves what needs to change and resolving to be better from now on.

Mourning is about experiencing and grieving for a loss. These purposes may overlap but they are not the same. Yom Kippur is a fast of Teshuvah but not a day of mourning. On the other hand if someone close to us dies, our main response is one of mourning, not of Teshuva.

As Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik points out, Tisha B’Av itself is a fast of mourning and not of repentance. We don’t try to fix anything on Tisha Bav, but to experience the magnitude of the catastrophe that befell us. We sit on the floor and read tragic elergies for Jewish suffering. We weep, cry out and come face to face with the horrors of the destruction and everything that followed from it; the blood running knee deep in the streets of Jerusalem, the massacres of the exiles, the expulsions, the inquisitions, the pogroms and the gas chambers. We remember that we are a people that has seen the worst; we have been in the deepest pits of hell and on Tisha B’av we revisit those places.

And we’ve also come out of the deepest pits of hell, with a fierce commitment to love and to cherish life. On Tisha B’Av, the Midrash says, the Messiah will be born.

This Tisha B’Av, it is to be hoped, the State of Israel will be take a significant step towards loving and cherishing all of life on earth.

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By Yannai Kranzler

Today I booked a flight from home in Israel, to visit my family in New York. I’ll probably be one of tens of thousands of Jews flying to and from Israel this summer and holiday season.

As a nation, we really fly a lot. Proportionally, I’d bet there are more Jewish environmental organizations and eco-oriented people than in most ethnic groups. But our constant Israel flights, from family visits, to vacations, to Birthright trips, leave over an astronomically high carbon footprint, and render us at least as much of the problem as the solution to climate change. And that’s a hard thing to recognize, given that so many of us care deeply about and try very hard to be sensitive to our environment.

Enter Solar Impulse. Solar Impulse is a Swiss initiative to fly a solar-powered airplane around the world- with no fuel, no pollution, no contribution to global warming. Solar Impulse’s HB-SIA gathers sunlight by day, and coasts on what’s been stored by night. There have been solar flights before, but Solar Impulse is by far the most efficient and ambitious yet.

Could it be, then, that Solar Impulse promises us a way to sustainably maintain our Diaspora-Israel connections?

Well, not right now, at least. The HB-SIA flies at an average speed of 70 kilometers per hour- It would take 130 hours to get from Israel to New York (My wife and I are flying this year with an infant, for the first time. Twelve hours of conventional flight sound like a nightmare as it is). In addition, the plane can only carry one passenger- the pilot. And it will only be ready to fly the world in 2012.

For now then, we’ll have to suffice with more mediocre solutions: Offsetting is one option-  At JCI we’re big fans of the Good Energy Initiative. Cutting down on non-Israel related flights is another. As is slashing everyday carbon emissions, from driving less to conserving more, from making conscientious food choices to reusing and recycling household goodies.

Perhaps the most Jewish approach is to recognize our imperfection, and then supplement what we can do with a prayer. Rav Kook, in his “Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace,” concluded that while eating meat is permitted according to Jewish Law, it is only legitimate if we feel the weight of taking an animal’s life, and pray for the day when we will no longer feel the need to do so. He even says that Smicha, when we place our hands on an animal as we pass it off for slaughter in a temple offering, exists for this very purpose.

So, to the Solar Impulse team in Zurich, my prayers are with you. That you complete your mission of flying around the world safely and smoothly, and that you then go home, visit a bit with family, and get right to work at making a solar plane that fits two people. And then three. And that y’all speed the darned thing up a bit! We’ll be rooting for you from the ground.

Click here to download JCI’s free Guide to Offsetting Carbon Emissions, full of the why’s, how’s and with whom’s of offsetting, as well as a special addition on how you and/or your community can develop your own offsetting project.

For more on Solar Impulse, visit www.solarimpulse.com.


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By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

This was one of the most exciting and original talks at JCI‘s April conference. In it, Rabbi Dov Berkovitz asks what the 3000 years of Jewish tradition, “one of the most remarkable human creations on the planet”, can contribute to helping humanity grapple with global climate change (video of Rabbi Berkowitz’s speech below).

Among other points, Rabbi Berkovitz suggested that today, the whole world finds itself in the basic situation that has always characterized the Land of Israel. “Israel in 2009 is a microcosm of the planet.” The country is perched on the border between a temperate Mediterranean climate and the desert, ” as an existential reality.” It is poised between desert and the availability of water.

The Bible pointedly declares that Eretz Yisrael is “not like the Land of Egypt,” (Devarim, 11:10) where the Nile guarantees continuous fertility to the surrounding region; Israel, in contrast is dependent for its livability on the continuous blessing of rainfall.

Today, increasing areas of the world are experiencing stressed water supplies. More and more people are aware of the fragile conditions that keep their climate livable. This consciousness, which was intrinsic to the spiritual worldview of the Jewish people in Israel, is now shared by most of humanity.

Elie Wiesel has a line that these days everyone in the world is Jewish. He means, (according to Rabbi Michael Melchior who quoted it to me) that many people today experience the precariousness and vulnerability which has always marked Jewish life. In the vein of Rabbi Berkovitz’s talk, you could say that today the whole world is the Land of Israel.

This gives an interesting twist to Alon Tal’s environmental history of Israel that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. Tal shows how the tragic-comic environmental history of Israel with all of its good intentions, big mistakes and heroic efforts to learn from them, is also the history of Zionism. It’s the story of the Jewish people learning once again to live in the physical and ecological reality of this land.

Following Rabbi Berkovitz, the opportunity we have been given to do this is very timely.  If, with God’s help, we can use our technology, wisdom and ingenuity to create a good life in this hot and crowded strip of land, it will be a blessing not just for Israel but for many other peoples.

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If you can’t watch the video from this page, click here.

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By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

Here in Israel we celebrated Yom Ha’atzma’ut, Independence Day, last week; fireworks, barbecues, mutual congratulations on how much we’ve achieved in 61 years (absorbing millions of immigrants, sustaining a vibrant democracy, building a dynamic economy, etc.), and a certain amount of soul-searching about how much we still haven’t: (peace, intra-Jewish harmony, a national soccer team that qualifies for the World Cup finals etc etc.).

In honor of Yom Haatzmaut, I read a brilliant 500 page book; (rather sad, I know, but that’s the kind of kid I’ve always been…). Professor Alon Tal‘s “Pollution in a Promised Land: an Environmental History of Israel” is the definitive work on the subject. In retrospect it was also the perfect read for the day.

Tal’s book does much more than its subtitle claims. As you would expect it tells the story of how Israel’s rapid economic development has come at a high environmental price; it traces the roots of Israel’s current water crisis to bad planning and short sightedness in the early years of the State; one chapter relates the staggering success, or disastrous stupidity (depending on your perspective) of the JNF’s forestry policies. (The JNF planted over 200 million trees in Israel making it the only country in the world with a net positive tree balance over the last century; the only problem was that the fir trees that were mostly planted while perfect for Northern Europe, were inappropriate to the local environment and have caused great damage to local ecosystems.)

Tal recounts the haphazardness of Israel’s urban growth, the lack of coherent transport policies and the adoption of car-based suburban development models which, today, people see are wrong for the United States, and all the more wrong for Israel, a country the size of New Jersey. And he tells the inspiring story of the Israeli Environmental movement

Professor Alon Tal, author of Pollution in a Promised Land

Professor Alon Tal, author of Pollution in a Promised Land

(in which he has played a key role), which has worked with growing success over the past two decades to set the country on more sustainable paths.

But even more than chronicling Israel’s environmental journey, PIAPL is a history of Zionism – the dream of the Jewish people’s return to its ancient homeland – told from an unusual but critically important standpoint. For Tal brings out how the early Zionist pioneers were in love with the romance of the Land of Israel, but largely clueless as to its physical reality. Intoxicated by biblical accounts of the landscape, the actual mountains, rivers, flora, fauna and diarrhoea -inducing diet were initially strange and alien to the early pioneers. Among many literary testimonies, Tal quotes Amos Oz’s description of his grandfather:

My grandfather lived in the land of Israel forty-five years and never was in the Galilee or went south to the Negev. … But the land of Israel he loved with all his soul, and he wrote love poems in her honor (in Russian).”

In this framing, the history of Zionism has been a tragic-comic epic of the Jewish people re-learning how to live in the topographical and ecological reality of the homeland that it barely knew for nearly two millennia. The drive for economic growth successfully added six million to the population rolls over the course of a century and catapulted living standards into the ranks of the world’s richest nations. But it was accomplished with scant regard to the carrying capacity of the country. Today, environmental awareness in Israel is flowering. There are still immense and urgent problems yet there are also signs of hope that the country is learning to live with the actual rivers, deserts, verdant planes, crowded cities and diminishing open spaces that constitute its physical heritage.

It all strikes me as a little bit like inheriting your grandparents’ house. All your life you’ve heard about this wonderful home, the beautiful gardens, the rolling views, the high ceilings. You’ve heard stories about it. You’ve dreamed of living there, but you’ve never actually set foot in the place. And then, one day, you find yourself living there. It’s just like everything you were always told and at the same time you have no idea how anything actually works. The toilets flood, the garden becomes overgrown and you accidentally ruin half of the appliances. Yet gradually after a few decades of living there, you begin to figure things out.

Tal is optimistic that we’ll figure it out in time. As he concludes his book:

The same Zionist zeal that allowed an ancient nation to defy all odds for an entire century can be harnessed to confront the newest national challenge. More than any of their ancestors, the present generation stands at an ecological crossroads—offered the choice of life and good, or death and evil. This “last chance” to preserve a healthy Promised Land for posterity is a weighty privilege indeed. Surely as it writes the next chapters in its environmental history, Israel will once again choose life.

What’s your experience of Israel and the environment? What are the key issues? How do you think we should be solving them? Click Here to leave your thoughts.

And Click Here to order a copy of Pollution in a Promised Land from Amazon.com.

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In the following video, from the Vayehi Or Workshop, Nigel Savage, founder of Hazon, discusses Hazon, Jews, food and Climate Change. Nigel and Hazon have been working with JCI on the Seven Year Plan for the Jewish People on Climate Change and Sustainability, and in this piece, Nigel offers some hopeful and practical tips towards how the Seven Year Plan can be most effective. Enjoy! (And feel welcome, as always, to leave your comments and feedback).

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By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

Two things were clear from attending the International Renewable Energy Conference that took place in Eilat this week.

The first is that Israel is now a world leader in clean energy.

The second is that there is a small but growing group of players in the field who see this not just as a huge business opportunity, (though it certainly is that), but also as an ethical, or spiritual mission.

Israeli leadership in the field was manifested by a list of “firsts”, “biggest evers,” and breakthrough technologies that were heralded immediately before and during the conference. Brightsource-Luz2 announced that it had signed a contract with Southern California Edison to build the largest ever solar thermal generating field, which will produce 1.3 gigawatts in California. (more…)

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