Peoplehood With Purpose: A Renewable Light Unto the Nations

Israel's first giant solar field
Israel’s first giant solar field

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 14 – Sustainability and Jewish Peoplehood – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Yosef Israel Abramowitz

The convenient truth about the Jewish people is that when we put our minds and capital to work, we can make miracles happen. There is no more noble cause than saving humanity itself, ensuring that God’s covenant not to wipe out the planet with rising waters will be – in some small measure – because of our actions. It is for this purpose that we have been created, that we have survived, that we have flourished. There is no higher fulfillment of Jewish mission than to save the majesty of God’s creation and to do so as individuals as part of a global Jewish collective with a national platform called the State of Israel.

Saving the earth itself from climate change, and the billions of people and animals on it, is not just environmentalism and sustainability. It is ethical global survival. Of the trillions of cosmic opportunities for life to flourish, this third rock from the sun may be the only expression, the only experiment, to grace the universe with the possibility of collective moral choice.

As Jews, we must transform ourselves from the misunderstood Light Unto the Nations, as Isaiah beckoned, to a Renewable Light Unto the Nations.

Our first fundamental challenge is to ensure that the Jewish state, which is home to eight million plus people, becomes carbon neutral. Unfortunately, the government’s stated goal is for only 10 percent of Israel’s energy by 2020 to be generated by renewables, primarily solar. This is unacceptable. The European Union, most of whose member countries have half the sunshine of Israel, has set a goal of 20 percent renewables by 2020 and they are going to reach it.

If Israel sets a goal of 40 percent renewables by 2025, it would capture the imagination of our youth, entrepreneurs, scientists, philanthropists, and financiers in Israel and around the world. It would cast Israel not only as a responsible nation but also as a shining example of what can be accomplished by coordinated global action. Israel, as Saul Singer teaches, can be a platform for solving global problems. With new systems for energy storage, Israel could be the first economy to transform from burning carbon to solar for 100 percent of her energy needs.

There is plenty of sunshine and land in the Negev and Arava deserts to power this revolution. But world Jewry has failed to weigh in on Israel going solar beyond today’s measly 2 percent of its current energy. A true expression of sustainability and peoplehood would be for world Jewry to demand of Israel to accelerate her green energy program and to do so in the interests of the good name of the Jewish people.

But to have the moral authority to demand that of our Jewish state, each family and community must put its own house in green order. Every Tu Bishvat can be the time when every family and community calculates its carbon footprint and does its annual carbon offset – either by planting trees in Israel, impact investing in solar fields in Israel and worldwide, or thru programs like TerraPass or Nigel Savage of Hazon challenges us to be the first carbon-neutral people on the planet. And because climate change is a global problem, world Jewry can focus our offsets in Israel and this can be a shining example that all peoples and all countries can go carbon neutral.

This year we happen to be celebrating shmita, the environmental sabbatical that occurs every seven years in the Land of Israel. This is the last shmita before climate change becomes irreversible, so the imperative for the Jewish people to act now is historic.

I believe that all of our religious leaders of every stripe and color need to declare carbon a sin, since it leads to death and destruction. Just ask the two million displaced people in the Philippines from the typhoon last year that was super-charged by the warming waters of the Indian ocean and the higher sea levels due to the melting of our ice caps. Just ask the families of the 6,300 people who perished in the same storm. With business continuing as usual, next time it can be 20 million displaced and 63,000 drowned.

The Jewish community and the State of Israel need to go electric in our vehicles. Buying a conventional car during shmita should be sin. (At least get a plug-in hybrid!) And as with all sins, they should be avoided or compensated for, hence the carbon-offsets.

Every synagogue, JCC, school, and institution should figure out its footprint, put solar panels on its own roof – with great new naming opportunities – and also set aside funds to invest in Israeli renewable science centers or companies. Furthermore, Partnership 2000 communities (created between Israeli and world Jewish communities) could adopt mirror strategies. When the solar panels are named in Boston, a similar array can be named in Haifa, Boston’s sister city. Jewish buildings worldwide and Israeli homes and buildings should adopt green building codes, for which they can have the privilege of hanging on their doorpost a green mezuzah that certifies to the world that the building complies with best environmental practices.

Israel, as a public face of world Jewry and Jewish values, must not only declare herself a responsible member of the world community when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions but also provide leadership on this front. We are a small people who have historically played critical and catalytic roles to advance morality in civilization. Nothing would be more Jewish and would affirm the power of peoplehood than to lead by example to save the planet from desecrating God’s great name by ruining Creation.

Yosef Abramowitz was named the 21st most influential Jewish person on the planet by the Jerusalem Post in 2014 and currently heads Energiya Global Capital, an impact investment platform that provides healthy returns to investors while advancing the environmental and humanitarian goals of providing affordable green power to underserved populations. Yossi is also winner of the Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education, a Wexner Fellow, and founder or co-founder of many Jewish on-line initiatives. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife Rabbi Susan Silverman and their five children and can be followed on Twitter @KaptainSunshine and blogs at