Weathering the storm

Jewish environmental organizations help Jews cope with ‘climate anxiety’

Drawing on Jewish history and tradition, groups look to build emotional resilience against growing phenomenon of excessive fears over climate change

For Rabbi Zelig Golden, climate change is a very real and present crisis. It’s also personal. Golden, the executive director of Wilderness Torah, lives in Northern California, which recently experienced historic flooding. And the future home for Wilderness Torah, the Center for Earth-Based Judaism, will be at Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, Calif., which was devastated by wildfires in the 2017 Tubbs Fire. 

“In the moment when you’re evacuated, or the moment when you’re threatened, or in the moment you hear that your friend’s land has been burned down or your neighbor’s summer camp has burned down, it is scary. It is traumatizing. It is real,” Golden told eJewishPhilanthropy.

As climate change exacerbates natural disasters like blizzards, floods, hurricanes and wildfires, climate anxiety is on the rise. Climate anxiety, also called eco-anxiety, is a growing phenomenon of people experiencing excessive fear, grief or worry about the global environmental crisis caused by climate change. Though it is not yet a specifically defined medical diagnosis, there is a growing body of research into this condition. As this mental health crisis grows alongside the climate crisis, there is a growing number of climate anxiety systems of support for individuals and groups. Within the Jewish community, funders such as the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation, the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, and others are supporting organizations such as Dayenu, Adamah and Wilderness Torah. Collectively these organizations and others offer Jews ways to cope with climate anxiety — directly and indirectly — through community, Jewish tradition and action.

“I think there’s a real hunger for climate work, because this climate crisis is not only a political, ecological, social justice issue. It’s an issue of the soul.” Andrew Schneiderman, director of impact investing at the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation told eJP.

For Golden, a key to building what Wilderness Torah calls climate resilience is through reconnecting with other people, the land and God. 

“The foundation of anxiety is disconnection, the foundation of anxiety is not knowing who we are, the foundation of anxiety is being afraid of a world that’s collapsing,” Golden said. “But it’s because we don’t have a place in it. I think that’s the core issue. It’s not just this external anxiety of, ‘Oh, climate change is happening, and I might become a climate refugee…’ I deeply feel and understand and have witnessed that when we do the deep connection work, that’s when anxiety reduces. That’s when healing happens.” 

Madeline Canfield, a student at Brown University, is the organizing coordinator for the Jewish Youth Climate Movement, a project of Adamah. According to Canfield, one goal of JYCM is “to create a home for Jewish Gen Z teens during this really fraught political era and moment of climate anxiety.” While JYCM’s mission is oriented toward creating systemic change via advocacy and action, Canfield explains, “we make sure that our activities, our meeting rhythms, our communication rhythms, the way that we start every meeting and the way that we build relationships is based on creating a sense of community and connection internally. So that anxiety about the outside world is counteracted through a sense of strengthening inside [the] community.”

As various Jewish organizations work to educate, organize and mobilize Jews, they look to Jewish tradition as a vital resource. “Judaism is one of the most powerful cultural vehicles in the world,” Golden said. “We have this massive gift. And I think that, by and large, Jewish tradition as it is practiced today misses some of those opportunities.” Using Jewish tradition for climate action includes teachings on Jewish studies, text studies, celebrating Jewish holidays, and in some cases integrating Jewish holidays into protests.

Last year, JYCM organized a protest linked to Tisha B’Av outside the White House to raise awareness about climate change. Through the connection to the holiday that marks the destruction of the Temple, JYCM created a “grief space, this mourning space, and that was how people were mourning for what is being lost for the climate crisis and expressing their anxiety,” Canfield told eJP.

For Canfield, Jewish history serves as a major guide for dealing with the existential threat of climate change today. “Let’s look towards historic Jewish grief and apply it to our grief in this moment. We have extreme anxiety that we will continue to lose the things that we have already begun to learn to lose, and that when we lose them in the environmental sense, they will remind us of our traumas in the Jewish collective sense.”

For Wilderness Torah, Jewish rituals offer a powerful opportunity to connect people back to nature in a way that promotes healing as well as action. Wilderness Torah designs programming for Shabbat as well as festivals, including Passover and Sukkot.

“This past year, we had the Hoshana Rabbah rain dance. We had close to 300 people dancing and praying. We danced for four hours, the seven hakafot, the seven circles of dancing with the willow branches,” Golden said. “And just by doing the dance, and being in that deep connection, and getting into the state of prayer and connection with each other, and the earth, and spirit and God to make that prayer, people felt a deep sense of presence, peace, embodiment, like, oh, we are, we are fully here, and we are connected.” 

Rabbi Laura Bellows is the director of spiritual activism and education for Dayenu, which runs a variety of programs, including what they call climate batei midrash, climate learning spaces. Bellows told eJP that Dayneu’s programs are “as much about learning and grounding ourselves in Jewish wisdom and Jewish tradition and community as they are about making some space to talk about the feelings that come up for people.” She explained that Jewish music, history, text and rituals all shape Dayenu’s spiritual education.

“We talk a lot about the Israelites in [the] context of these moments before the exodus from Egypt,” Bellows said. “And what do you do when you’re faced with the uncertainty of where you’re going? What practices do we have as part of Jewish tradition and lineage and broadly defined ancestry? What practices do we have that we get to carry with us?”

Dayenu received a two-year grant from the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah to support their spiritual adaptation work. Daniel Spiro, a program manager at Lippman Kanfer, told eJP, “Our main thrust as a funder is to look for organizations that are in some way applying Jewish wisdom to some question of contemporary human significance. What really stuck out to us and what’s really exciting about Dayenu’s work [is] that they really are pulling from Jewish wisdom.”

According to Spiro, cultivating these types of connections to Judaism in response to climate anxiety is one of the features that sets Dayenu’s climate work apart. “They’re making these really important connections saying that Jewish wisdom actually has a lot of resilience to the unknown built in,” Spiro said. 

According to Canfield, for JYCM, Jewish tradition and holidays are a source of resilience as well as a reminder of the urgency of climate change. “We have these deep environmental traditions which guide our work,” Canfield said. “We talk about how climate change could impact the ability to perform these rituals… How do you have a spring-based Pesach and a fall-based Sukkot if all of our seasons are out of whack?” Canfield asked.

Dayenu was one of a number of Jewish organizations that was featured in the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund’s climate and environment giving guide. According to Schneiderman, something that sets Dayenu apart is the way it covers a “range between grassroots political action on climate change, and the connection between Jewish traditions and spirituality.” He added, “I think they’re able to bring people along who maybe aren’t spiritual, but are in the climate change or climate justice movement, as well as bringing in people who maybe aren’t connected to that movement, but who are connected to a set of Jewish values or Jewish spirituality.”

While Jewish climate-focused organizations use Jewish tradition to create spaces for mourning, they also emphasize the Jewish tradition of joy. “Part of our work at Dayenu is to draw on the resources, texts, rituals that can help us to remember that we get to do this work in joy, and that it’s not too late,” Bellows said. In many cases in Jewish tradition, these two coexist simultaneously. She gave the example of breaking a glass at a wedding or removing drops of wine at the Passover seder as powerful examples of cultivating joy and grief together.

Ultimately, if climate anxiety stems from the fear of disaster, then Jewish climate justice organizations argue that Jews are uniquely adapted to face it. The Jewish people have a long history of surviving disasters. 

“Judaism has this deep history of facing climate catastrophe, of facing drought and of having deep traditions on how to walk into that and through that as a community. And there’s faith when we practice those traditions; there’s a deep faith that comes [with it],” Wilderness Torah’s Golden said. “This, I think, is where climate anxiety can be most deeply addressed by deeply rooted in our deepest and most ancient traditions and practicing them in a relevant and powerful way today.”