Reform movement becomes first denomination to drop investments in fossil fuel firms

Union for Reform Judaism cites divine order to 'till and tend' the Earth as reason for removing oil and gas companies from its portfolio

The Union for Reform Judaism on Tuesday became the first Jewish denomination to pass a resolution divesting its investment portfolio from fossil fuel companies. 

The move, backed by the Dayenu environmental nonprofit, comes on the heels of two Jewish federations in Oregon — one in Portland and the other in Eugene — making the same commitment, a first for federations.  

In making the decision, which URJ leaders said was years in the making, they cited Genesis 2:15, which says that God settled man in the Garden of Eden to “till and tend it,” noting that fossil fuels are the main drivers of climate change. 

“When we act together, we can help care for the earth as Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden. And we can care for our financial health, recognizing that fossil-free portfolios over time perform equal to or slightly better than those holding fossil fuels,” Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said in a statement. 

Jennifer Brodkey Kaufman, URJ North American board chair, added: “Climate change’s impacts are being felt in communities worldwide. We have the ability and responsibility to use our dollars to make a positive difference on climate, rather than to continue funding investment in damaging fossil fuels. Through this resolution, which was crafted by the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism before being adopted by the URJ, we can build on decades of past action and advocacy on climate and socially responsible investing.” 

As greenhouse gas emissions choke the Earth’s atmosphere, they trap the sun’s heat, resulting in global warming and climate change. Last year was the warmest year on record. In addition to harming the environment, fossil fuels pose a risk to health. Research published in 2021 from Harvard University, the University of Birmingham, the University of Leicester and University College London found that more than 8 million people died in 2018 from fossil fuel pollution — meaning that air pollution from burning fossil fuels was responsible for about 1 in 5 deaths worldwide.

Climate activism has been a cause at the forefront of the Reform movement for several decades. In a 1991 resolution, titled The Environment, URJ called for the U.S. and Canadian governments to provide “significant resources for the study of mitigation of global warming and destructive environment change.”

A 2009 resolution, Climate Change and Energy, stated: “We now face the unprecedented challenge of climate change due to greenhouse gas emissions, and the need for serious and urgent action on this issue has never been clearer.” In 2017, the Resolution on Addressing the Impacts of Climate Change stated: “What has changed since our prior statements? The urgency.” 

In a December 2022 report, Dayenu, a group that mobilizes Jewish support for climate crisis action, analyzed tax filings and financial statements from the URJ as well as the leading bodies of Judaism’s three other major denominations — United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Orthodox Union and Reconstructing Judaism. (It also looked at data from federations and large private Jewish foundations). 

The group estimated that while Jewish institutional investment on its own would not significantly help the environment, the organizations’ investments made up one third of the $100 billion in total U.S. Jewish institutional investment. According to the report, Dayenu estimated that Jewish institutional investment in the fossil fuel industry totaled $3.3 billion. 

Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, CEO and founder of Dayenu, cited the Jewish value of considering the next generation as a reason for additional Jewish groups to remove fossil fuel companies from their investment portfolios.

“We have an ever-shortening window in which to address the climate crisis, avert the worst of climate devastation, and build a just and sustainable world so that we may live – l’dor v’dor – from generation to generation,” Rosenn said in a statement. She called on “all Jewish institutions to follow the Reform movement’s leadership and make their own public commitments to move their investments out of fossil fuels and instead invest toward a just and livable clean energy future.”