By Cantor Jill Abramson
Climates shape identity.
The harsh Minnesota winters and high-altitude Colorado summers of my youth, the heat of my college semester in West Africa, and the transitions from season to season in my current home in Westchester each played a role forming my identity. I am a confident driver in snowy conditions, a lover of hiking above the tree line, and a person aware of scarcity who cannot tolerate the water running while brushing my teeth. And just as I am aware that each climate I’ve experienced has informed my identity, I also see how each ecosystem I’ve lived in is now being threatened by the effects of climate change.
Last month, concerned citizens assembled in Washington, D.C., for the People’s Climate March. An organization close to my heart, American Jewish World Service (AJWS), was there with many of its supporters to march for the more than 100 indigenous communities that AJWS supports in 13 countries. As one of AJWS’s Global Justice Fellows, I have seen firsthand how these groups are facing the devastating effects of climate change, including rising seas, more frequent storms; and policies that threaten to destroy homes and foods supplies.
These issues threaten the relationship between people and their lands throughout the world. As Jews, a people whose religious life was born in the agrarian experiences of celebrating harvests, praying for rains and dew, and practicing rituals of water drawing, we ought to be especially attuned to this truth.
Our concern is rooted in the Book of Genesis, in which human beings are placed in the Garden of Eden to be stewards of the earth. That is, we are meant to be responsible for the land and its inhabitants. We are instructed l’vadah ul’shamrah (“to till and to tend”) and to become our planet’s keepers.
Are we living up to the demands of stewardship when our emissions contribute to global climate change? Are we tending to the earth when our industries displace indigenous peoples from their land and deprive them of their water rights? How should we respond when each of the last three decades has been successively warmer than any preceding decade since 1850, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the leading international body for the assessment of climate change?
AJWS seeks to respond to these critical questions by supporting grantee organizations in Burma, Nicaragua, Kenya, Mexico and other countries to combat the effects of climate change. By partnering with local organizations in-country, AJWS supports those most closely touched by the effects of climate change and empowers them to respond in ways that benefit local communities.
We can also respond by making sure our homes and buildings are constructed with practices that minimize impact to the climate. I am proud to serve a synagogue in Scarsdale, whose main building is LEED-certified—the highest endorsement of environmental responsibility. As a small practical gesture with great symbolic significance, the ner tamid (eternal light) above our ark is powered by solar energy collected outside our sanctuary.
I am further proud to note that this past year, we became a zero-waste facility. This means we minimize landfill waste and work closely with families, caterers and staff to use exclusively compostable serving-ware and funnel all food waste into compositing programs. While these steps are just a “small drop in the bucket,” they raise awareness in our congregation of our values—and the ways in which they may be implemented in practice.
My early experiences on snow, atop mountains and in the tropics shaped my worldview. That’s why I know what a valuable opportunity we have at our synagogue in Scarsdale. By articulating our environmental values and raising consciousness about use and waste of resources, we raise awareness around climate change and instill into the next generation the Jewish commitment to being stewards of the earth.
Jill Abramson is Senior Cantor of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale. She is also a Global Justice Fellow of American Jewish World Service.