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What Would Moses Drive? And Other Questions about Jews and Climate Change

What would Moses drive? This was the title of a session on climate change at the Hazon Food Conference, held December 24 to 27 in Pacific Grove, Calif. Indeed, this is a question for the ages. Or for right now. The conference came just a few days after the close of the United Nations’ climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark. The conference also marked the end of a journey by a very wacky school bus, which cruised across the country on used vegetable oil to raise awareness about the Jewish Climate Change Campaign. So it made sense for Jewish educator and environmental visionary Adam Berman to ask the question. As it turns out, it didn’t really matter when this conference on a Jewish food movement that emphasizes sustainability took place. Really, Jews should be asking themselves what the quintessential member of the Tribe would do about climate change every day, and modeling solutions themselves. Luckily, Jewish practices translate beautifully into concrete tactics.

Or so says Berman.

He also says every Jew should be able to stand on one foot and tell your uncle at your Passover Seder what’s what with climate change-and why he should put down his gefilte fish and take action. This presented a twist on that old story about Rebbe Hillel summing up the Torah in that flamingo-like stance. Intrigued with this idea, I decided to sit down with Berman and find out more about his views on the Jewish response to climate change. You’ve been active with sustainability issues for many years. What has made you so passionate about the issue of climate change?
We can eat organic, and reduce the amount of pollution that goes into rivers, but if climate change continues, it would make life inhospitable to the majority of the life on the planet. If we don’t focus on climate change, then success in all other issues will become irrelevant. How does the "What Would Moses Drive?" session fit into a Jewish food conference? It’s clear that what we eat has climate implications. The tagline of the worst thing someone in the developing world can do is drive an SUV to the steakhouse. What WOULD Moses drive? A camel. Although they might not have had those in Egypt at the time, but we don’t have to get into that. In that session, you said something about standing on one foot and talking to your uncle. What was that all about? I think it’s every Jew’s responsibility to be able to stand on one foot and tell their Fox News-watching uncle at their family Seder how climate change works, why it’s important, and what we can do about it. I think it’s the responsibility of all human beings in the 21st century to articulate what we can do about this issue. What are stabilization wedges? It’s this idea [developed at Princeton and reported here] that there are a number of policies and practices we could adopt given the technology we already have to help hold back climate change. Adopting seven of these technologies and policies would bring our carbon emissions to 450 parts per million by 2021 and it would go down from there. Even with existing technologies, we can radically change the projectile. What are some steps people can take immediately to combat global climate change? No one should have an incandescent light bulb in their house, and everyone should eat less meat. And know that the next time you make a big purchase, you can make a big impact by buying consciously. Even if you don’t do any of those things, don’t be afraid of politics, because if you don’t step into politics, the arena will be filled with people who disagree with your values. Why should Jewish people be interested in fighting climate change? Are we uniquely qualified to do this work? The Jewish imperative is no different than the human imperative to fight climate change. But we have built in mechanisms to create shifts. Like Shabbat–what would happen if one day a week we didn’t emit carbon?

How great would it be if we expanded our idea of kashrut to expand our awareness of the foods we consume? Or tzedakah. How great would it be if we gave 10 percent of our income to solve climate change? Then there’s brachot, which connect us to the things in our world that we’re grateful for. They remind us that we have enough and we are enough, and that alone is as important as any technology. Adam Berman served as executive director of the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center from 2002 to 2008, during which time he became the founding director of ADAMAH: The Jewish Environmental Fellowship. He currently serves on the board of Hazon, and also plays music and practices and teaches qi gong, a Chinese self-healing art. If you want to know more, feel free to email him.

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