As I slogged uphill through the mud at Schmitz Preserve Park with members of West Seattle’s Kol HaNeshamah congregation on a Sunday in February, I felt a sense of self-satisfaction that I was doing my part for the environment. Naturalist Clif Edwards pointed out indigenous and invasive plant and animal species along the way, while Rabbi Zari Weiss punctuated the peace with prayers, poetry, and readings.
Usually I’m content to let Mother Nature go her way while I go mine, but I was excited to participate in part of The Urgency of Now: Seattle’s Jewish Climate Festival. As long as I didn’t injure myself. Or see a bug.
A trio of Kavana Cooperative partners, Rabbinic Fellow Josh Weisman, Ingrid Elliott, and Lisa Narodick Colton, were inspired by a Torah study last fall on the environmental aspects of the Noah story in Genesis. Noah was building this massive thing. What were people thinking? Did Noah engage with them? The partners decided the time was right to inspire Jewish Seattle to action on climate change.
What began as a modest collaboration among a few organizations quickly attracted enthusiasm from other community groups. Before the organizers knew it, 16 synagogues and groups ultimately participated in the festival built around Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish New Year for Trees, by hosting experiences including seders, tree plantings, and learning sessions.
But aren’t Seattleites sufficiently smug about our city’s proactive stance on environmental issues? We already compost and recycle and ride bikes and eschew plastic bags.
According to Weisman, it’s not enough. “While Seattle has the best intentions about addressing climate change, the city as a whole is not yet doing its part to curb emissions. We have very little time to act. Tu B’Shvat this year felt like it was an urgent opportunity not to be missed to increase awareness not just about environmental issues, but specifically about climate change and possible solutions to it.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. first used the phrase “the fierce urgency of now” in his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. King was calling for action, for an end to complacency. The Kavana partners borrowed the concept of Dr. King’s insistence on confronting a weighty issue.
The objectives of the festival included putting climate action at the top of the Jewish communal agenda in Seattle at whatever level any given organization feels comfortable, from increasing composting to supporting the Seattle Green New Deal, a new City Council initiative that demands the city eliminate climate pollution by 2030, create thousands of union jobs, and generally overhaul the city’s transit system and infrastructure, among other things.
Given that the world’s cities emit an estimated 70 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide, the organizers want to create momentum in support of local political and social action on climate in Seattle. They believe that the City of Seattle can take the lead in demonstrating how cities can make local change that has global impact.
“Making change at the city level is a strategic place where we, as a local Jewish community, can focus and have real impact,” says Colton. “Cities are a place where important policy change can happen, and we wanted to do something to help move the needle on this issue. Seattle is uniquely positioned to lead the way for other cities to follow, which has global reach.”
To that end, the central event featured a forum around climate policy solutions. Jewish Seattle City Council members Tammy J. Morales and Dan Strauss spoke, along with keynote speaker Nigel Savage, president and CEO of Hazon, the Jewish environmental organization that happens to be the largest faith-based environmental organization in the United States.
“It was an honor for me to participate in the Seattle Jewish Climate Festival,” Morales says. “My 11-year-old son told me he worried he would not live to the age of 25 because of our climate crisis. This festival reminded me that while there are many others who share his same worry, we’re working together, in an urgent movement, to protect our environment.”
The organizers hope to increase participation next year from an even more diverse cross-section of the community.
“We were thrilled to see so much collaboration across organizational lines,” Weisman says. “With communities from every denomination, plus pluralistic organizations participating, we saw that concern about climate change is something that unites the Jewish community. At the same time, each community did their own unique Tu B’Shvat observance as part of the festival, giving the festival a beautiful unity in diversity.”