Posts Tagged ‘Rabbi Avi Weiss’

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

On my recent trip to the US I encountered a lot of inspiring people, Christians, Jews, Buddhists and Muslims working at the frontier of religion and climate change. They are creating new ecological vision rooted in ancient traditions, and mobilizing their communities as forces for change.

Two of the most impressive Jewish activist leaders whom I met were Rabbi Arthur Waskow and Rabbi Avi Weiss. They have been engaged with ecological issues for sixty years and for a few months respectively. In different ways, the very length and briefness of their involvement is inspiring.

Rabbi Waskow

Rabbi Waskow

Rabbi Waskow, a Jewish Renewal teacher, is a volcano of sixties activist passion. He was imprisoned for anti-Vietnam war demonstrations, and claims the honor of being the first to be arrested demonstrating for Soviet Jewry. He describes Martin Luther King’s assassination a few days before Pesach in 1968 as a key moment in his return to Judaism. Over the door way of his home in suburban Philadelphia is a sign that reads “you are now entering a nuclear-free zone.”

Rabbi Waskow founded the Shalom center, which speaks out on climate change, in 1982. It was primarily a Jewish voice of protest against the nuclear-arms race. Back then, Waskow said, he saw potential atomic warfare as an ecological issue. “Nuclear winter threatened to make life impossible over large swathes of the earth’s surface.”

His involvement with the issue goes back four decades earlier. “My Bar Mitzva fell almost a year to the day after the first bomb was dropped at Hiroshima. Even then I knew it changed everything. I gave a speech about how this awesome human power to destroy needed to be a new reverence for the world and for all its people, if we were not to end up annihilating ourselves.” In different ways, Rabbi Waskow has been teaching the same message ever since. Over recent years, climate change has become the focus of that warning.

Rabbi Avi Weiss, an Open Orthodox Rabbi from the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in New York, is one of the Jewish world’s most courageous and indefatigable Jewish activist leaders. Over the past forty years he has stood at the forefront of countless campaigns: for Soviet Jewry, against the siting of a convent at Auschwitz, against Former Mayor of New York David Dinkins for his indifference to the murder of a Chabad student and many more. In 2002 he was instrumental in putting together a mass rally for Israeli victims of Terror when the organized American Jewish community was largely silent on the issue. He has incurred plenty of establishment anger over his career, but Rabbi Weiss’s principle is to speak out when it is right to do so, not when it’s popular.

Rabbi Weiss

Rabbi Weiss

I asked Rabbi Weiss whether global climate change was an issue for Jewish concern and activism.
“Absolutely,” he replied. “This is an issue of great moral importance. I have been slow in getting on to the issue myself, but my students (at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah) have taught me a lot, and now I see its great significance. It’s an obligation on us from the Torah to nurture and protect the beautiful world that Hashem made.”

When I asked Rabbi Weiss why this wasn’t a more prominent concern for him earlier, he answered:

“I grew up in a different time. It was after the Holocaust. It seemed as if only Jews had suffered. The most important thing was to safeguard Jewish lives and rights, because the world hadn’t done so during the Shoah. But over the years, although Jews are still the main focus of my activism I have seen that we need to extend concern to other peoples and now to the planet itself.”

Rabbi Weiss demonstrated this commitment by agreeing to serve on the advisory Board of Jewish Climate Initiative!

Two powerful, but very different moral voices in the Jewish world: One shows the importance of ecological issues by his commitment to them over decades; the other by arriving at a conviction about their vital significance after a long journey.

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