Your Daily Phil: JFNA readies for GA in Tel Aviv + Easing climate anxiety with Judaism
Good Friday morning!
In today’s edition of Your Daily Phil, we report on efforts by Jewish environmental groups to build resilience against climate anxiety. We also feature an op-ed from Erica Brown. We will start with an interview with Jewish Federations of North America President and CEO Eric Fingerhut ahead of the organization’s General Assembly.
The Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly kicks off in Tel Aviv on Sunday evening for an event that’s relatively short on content but long on personal, visceral experiences as the organization looks to deepen the connections between the delegates and the State of Israel, JFNA President and CEO Eric Fingerhut told eJewishPhilanthropy‘s Judah Ari Gross.
Unlike most General Assemblies, this year’s gathering is being held not in the fall but in the spring to overlap with Israel’s Memorial Day, Yom Hazikaron, and its 75th Independence Day, Yom Ha’atzmaut. The assembly also comes during a tumultuous period in Israel, with large numbers of Israelis taking to the streets on a weekly basis to protest the government’s proposed judicial overhaul. Protest groups are organizing demonstrations outside the JFNA gathering for Sunday night when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is due to address the event.
The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Judah Ari Gross: Welcome to Israel! How are the final preparations going?
Eric Fingerhut: They’re going well. First of all, we’ve been planning this for a year because of the 75th anniversary and just to recognize the deep history and connection that Jewish federations have to the creation and development of the State of Israel. We’ve been part of this historic story every step of the way, helping create the infrastructure of the Jewish state, caring for the vulnerable, supporting aliyah, bringing people to the Jewish state, and advocating for the inclusive society that it is. So we wanted to be a part of this celebration.
JAG: Is there a concern that, at least to a certain extent, the event will be overshadowed and swept up in this current political moment in Israel?
EF: I know that that will be part of the conversation. It’s not a concern. It’s important for me to remind people what the reasons are for being here and what the goals are for this conference. And to also respect that one of our roles is to be the bridge between the State of Israel and the Diaspora, especially the Jews of North America, which are the largest Diaspora community. And so that’s part of our role is to be a platform for that dialogue to take place. right now, that’s what that dialogue is focused on. So we understand that.
JAG: What are your goals for this General Assembly? What are you hoping that people get out of it, beyond just celebrating the 75th Independence Day?
EF: Really there are two things.
One is that I really do think it’s important that we appreciate and highlight the role of the Jewish federation system in the creation and the establishment of the State of Israel. There’s not a block of this country that hasn’t been touched in some way by the Jewish federation system, which so loves and cares for this Jewish state. And of all people, we Jews know that we must teach our history and build our memory. We know that not everybody who’s coming knows all that history. So that’s one.
And secondly, this is the 75th anniversary and, be’ezrat Hashem (with the help of God), we will be here at 100. So it’s time to start to look forward and to hear from thinkers about what we envision an Israel at 100 looks like.
Weathering the storm
Jewish environmental organizations help Jews cope with climate anxiety
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 Ruben Abrahams Brosbe for eJewishPhilanthropy.
Rising tides, rising heart rates: 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, Hazon 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.
Look to the past: 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.
Wells of wisdom: 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.”
Thriving in adversity: 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.”
The Torah of leadership
Taking the lead: Thoughts on Parshat Tazria/Metzora
“This double Torah reading of Tazria and Metzora is among the most challenging in the Torah. It is about a spiritual skin affliction that we erroneously call leprosy, its many variations and the places it can reach: one’s body, one’s clothing and even one’s house,” writes Erica Brown, vice provost for values and leadership at Yeshiva University, in her weekly column for eJewishPhilanthropy, “The Torah of Leadership.”
Proper notification: “Instead of going to the ancient equivalent of a dermatologist, the person infected notifies the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest. If the illness is spiritual with a physical manifestation, then the doctor, too, must be a spiritual one. Who better than the High Priest to diagnose the rash?”
Leaders lead: “When it comes to this diagnosis, we might expect three people to weigh in on the problem because in most cases of Jewish law, a person presents his or her case before a beit din, a Jewish court of three… The priest, by modeling these difficult activities, also helped others reintegrate the sufferer. After all, if the holiest person in the community declares a person afflicted safe to return to normal life, then that declaration must be good enough for everyone. The leader sets the standard of care and concern for others.”
Who’s Pitching In?: Volunteering in America declined precipitously in recent years, but some groups are finding new strategies to attract volunteers, reports Glenn Gamboa for the Associated Press. “For decades, volunteerism in America has been declining. But according to a recent U.S. Census Bureau and AmeriCorps survey, it dropped another 7 percentage points between 2019 and 2021. The survey found about 23% of Americans volunteered with a formal nonprofit – including churches, schools, and food banks – at least once in the previous year… Americans are on the move more than ever before, and that ripples out into volunteering as well. If people don’t live in one place for very long, they tend not to volunteer as much — especially if they are surrounded by other newcomers, says Mark Snyder, director of the Center for the Study of the Individual and Society at the University of Minnesota… American nonprofits will face big consequences if they don’t take immediate steps to attract younger volunteers, says Carl Nassib, an NFL linebacker and volunteerism advocate.” [AssociatedPress]
What’s an Ivy League Education Worth?: The proportion of Jews studying on Ivy League campuses has declined in recent years as the universities focus more on increasing diversity rather than previous benchmarks for matriculation, laments Armin Rosen in Tablet Magazine. “For Jews, an Ivy League degree was both a status symbol and a crucial element in a functioning and merit-based system of social mobility… Today, it has become a perceivable reality that Jews are no longer being admitted to Ivy League schools in their former numbers… The notion of Jews as one of many ethnic constituencies competing for the attention of the people who run the country’s prestige dispensaries is hardly an encouraging one. But a principled rejection of the post-meritocratic system may not be practical, and it is not too late for Jews to carve out a space within the new and bewildering vacuum that is consuming the American elite, the Ivy League included.” [Tablet]
Around the Web
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Pic of the Day
Plans were unveiled Wednesday in Ellenville, N.Y., for The Borscht Belt Museum, scheduled for a summer opening in the Catskill Mountains. The museum will celebrate the birthplace of modern stand-up comedy and showcase artifacts, photographs and memorabilia of the era and its legendary resorts.
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