When 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg gave a damning speech at the United Nations in September accusing world leaders of failing to take meaningful action to halt the climate crisis, her words resonated worldwide. Coming a week before the High Holidays, Thunberg’s warning, “If you choose to fail us, we will never forgive you,” landed particularly hard with University of Washington professor emerita Sandra Silberstein, a lay leader at Seattle’s Kadima synagogue.
“Greta tells us that climate inaction, destruction of the planet, is unforgivable,” Silberstein shared in a Yom Kippur speech. “This might be the yardstick for the unforgivable.”
Greater Seattle’s Jewish community has been coming to terms with its own carbon footprint.
Kol Ami, a Reform congregation in Kirkland, decided that no more disposable products would be used starting in the Jewish year of 5780. “My Rosh Hashanah sermon was on treating disposable plastic like we have pork for the past 2,000-plus years: We just do not touch the stuff,” Rabbi Yohanna Kinberg says. “If there is nothing but plastic available, then use your hands, or do not eat.”
To help her congregants walk the walk, Kinberg gave out Kol Ami-branded sporks to congregants, which she suggested could be passed down from generation to generation like a sacred heirloom.
At Congregation Beth Shalom, which embarked on a year of environmental teshuvah (repentance) for 5780, plasticware is verboten unless the person who brings it plans to wash and recycle or reuse it. The North Seattle Conservative synagogue installed a rain garden and cisterns in line with the Seattle and King County program RainWise to a limit stormwater runoff.
“Everyone wants their actions to align with their values,” says the congregation’s social action committee chair Deirdre Gabbay. “We believe our tradition compels us to heal the earth.”
Shoshanah Haberman, a landscape designer who attends Modern Orthodox Minyan Ohr Chadash in Seward Park, came to the same conclusion when she started a
sustainability-focused hevruta (study partnership) with a friend. “What stood out to both of us was the entrenched and inherent values of sustainability within Jewish law,” she says. “Most of our holidays and laws stem from an agricultural setting, where there is a huge emphasis on stewardship and not wasting. That now gets forgotten because we’re mostly an urban people at this point.”
Haberman believes Orthodox Jews by their nature are “well equipped to lead more sustainable lives.” She explains, “You have to think about every single thing you do. Is this kosher? Is it Shabbat? That’s something we can take from our day-to-day practice.”
In fact, just before the High Holidays this year, 30 Israeli religious Zionist rabbis signed a letter urging Israelis to cut down on single-use plastic items, citing the concept of “baal tashchit,” or the prevention of needless waste. Israel is a leader in plastic waste, with the Tel Aviv coastline ranked the third most polluted in the Mediterranean.
Averting environmental disaster means individual adjustments as well as big-picture changes. When 19 Kol Haneshamah members traveled to Israel in July, they generated 4.54 metric tons of carbon each, according to a calculation by Gary Lichtenstein, who runs a local carbon offset consultancy. They opted to offset their Israel trip’s carbon emissions by investing in a carbon sequestration project in Malawi that conserves forests and finances sustainable agricultural practices.
“Right now, we are beyond the safe level of carbon in the atmosphere, so anything we can do to offset or reduce our carbon output will help us get the planet back on track,” says Kol Haneshamah member Marty Westerman, who taught green business at University of Washington and co-directs the Seattle Green Spaces Coalition. “This is an easy, cheap way to do that.”
Addressing the climate crisis is undeniably political, which some congregations have embraced. Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue and First Baptist Church, who share a space, started Interfaith Climate Action and have endorsed ballot measures like the (failed) 2016 carbon tax initiative. Members have prayed inside a Chase Bank branch in opposition to that financial institution’s support of the Keystone XL Pipeline, a direct action that got four of them arrested.
While not every community is ready to put bodies on the line, due diligence is underway. Back in Kirkland, Kinberg is eager to tackle a new challenge to make Kol Ami a zero-waste community. “How do we do text study without making a ton of copies? Can we go digital?” she asks. “Paper is next.”