My Journey into the Climate Movement
Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman
When I was in third grade, I sat in morning circle on the rug of my classroom. I think we must have been going around, taking turns saying what we wanted to be when we grew up. I remember I said, "environmental activist," I think they were two of the longest words I knew at the time.
As I grew up, I kept feeling that calling. But it was more and more laced with overwhelm and despair. The news about the world around me was getting worse and worse. I lost faith that the grown ups knew what they were doing. And I didn't believe that I could fix it, either. I started to tune out news stories about environmental issues, debates, disasters - even good stories about smart policies and conservation. It all hurt too much to think about. And when I tried to take some kind of public action, I got stuck in doubt. What if it wasn't the right action to take? What if it wasn't effective? What if I failed? What if I made things worse?
Still, that call wouldn't go away, and in 2001 I enrolled at Oberlin College and declared an Environmental Studies major. I found a vibrant community of young idealists, and I got some hope and a lot of skills.
After a few years of post-college jobs, I applied to graduate schools in natural resource management and policy. But something was missing. I hadn't reckoned with the well of pain inside me. My pull to environmental work came from a strong sense of empathy with the world around me - with people, animals, plants and the land itself. And it hurt a lot to empathize because there was a lot of suffering from human decisions and habits that were destroying water, air, soil, and habitat and living things. I felt alone in the empathy, and alone in my own pain.
A few months later, while journaling, I realized that policy was not the right career path for me. I loved teaching, writing, speaking, singing, praying, and working in teams. I loved being present for people in important moments. I loved Judaism. I don't think I could have articulated it then, but I couldn't do social change work secularly. The suffering and despair were too big. I needed religious community, my own Jewish tradition, and an inner orientation of service and faith. So I went to rabbinical school.
One October in the middle of my six years of study, I brought the old pain up during a spiritual direction session. I still felt stuck around environmental work and what I felt to be a central piece of my calling. I still got hung up on doubts, and nothing I tried gathered momentum or felt joyful.
Using a tool of Jewish tradition, I assembled a beit din, a rabbinic court, of three of my most trusted teachers. I asked my teachers to perform hatarat nedarim for me - a Jewish ritual for the nullification of a vow. It was a tremendously powerful experience. With this recitation of liturgy, I felt clear of a strong, old energy that had been keeping me stuck.
My teachers said they didn't know how or when this story would unfold for me. But they had total faith that it would.
A year later, Harvard Divinity School was looking for a rabbi to join a panel on faith and and climate change, they asked me. It felt like complete chutzpah for me to accept that invitation. As far as I could tell, I hadn't done anything to earn being on a panel with religious leaders active in the climate movement. All I knew was that I cared about it. But I hadn't done anything yet.
I took a breath, and accepted.
At that panel, clergy from other religious traditions explained that they do climate work not because they know they will succeed, or that they trust their efforts to be the most effective. They do it because working for climate justice is what it looks like for them to witness God's love for the world. It's what it looks like for them to show up with love for God and the world at this time in history - in the first generation to feel the effects of climate change and the last to be able to do anything about it.
That was it. It was all about love.
Here I had been, all these years, suffering in empathy for all the life forms hurting from degradation and feeling nothing but blocked and overwhelmed. Here I had been, wanting to take action but getting stuck over and over with fear of failure. And here were people, wise people, elders in the movement and a young man who had served 2 years in Federal prison for non violent civil disobedience, all explaining passionately that it wasn't about success. It wasn't about tactics. Of course those were important, but they were not the actual ground beneath our feet.
The only ground beneath us was the love we feel for the world, our desire to be in service to God, or to Love, or to Life itself.
This opened my heart and radically changed my life. Climate justice became a devotional practice for me. My organizing and activism became a form of prayer. Over the last year and a half since that panel, the hours I have spent in relational meetings and in marches, on email and on conference calls, crafting campaigns and speaking and singing at events -- these hours have been hours of sacred service. They are my response to the suffering and to the crisis, and my response to being alive and grateful for my life. They are a way for me to serve God.
Yet there is an intense paradox here. On the one hand, there is no way to fail at prayer - so as long as I have an intention of doing activism as a form of prayer, I don't need to be worried about failure on a spiritual level. On the other hand, the stakes in this fight are huge and failure on the level of physics is very very possible. We are warming up the earth the equivalent of 400,000 Hiroshima bombs every day. The new fracking boom is releasing tons of methane into the atmosphere, which, on a ten year horizon, is 100 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2. We are facing droughts, tropical diseases, superstorms, food shortages, refugees crises, massive coastal flooding, island inundation, and the 6th wave of mass extinction in the earth's history. The poor and marginalized suffer first, but we are all impacted, and all called to awaken to our love and our strength.
For many in the climate movement, myself included, this fight has become about our humanity. What does it look like for me to live up to my own ideals at this hinge point in history? How can I help to grow a movement of people commited to compassion and justice, that will be ever stronger and present as living conditions get harsher in the world over the course of our lifetimes? These are the questions that animate my activism.
As much as each of us need to discern how we, individually, are called to serve at this moment of crisis, this is not a time to focus on personal actions. We need outward facing, bold climate work in the public sphere. We need big momentum-building actions to shift public opinion and decision makers in industry and government.
All this requires trust and love between us and the people we work with. I'm proud and grateful that congregants at my congregation, Temple Sinai, are working on climate justice as part of our Tzedek@Sinai justice group. And I'm proud be on the leadership team of a new group called the Mass Interfaith Coalition for Climate Action, or MAICCA. MAICCA is a fast-growing network of people rooted in a variety of religious and spiritual traditions. We work for timely, high-impact changes in laws and systems in Massachusetts, hearing the cry, as Pope Francis said, of both the Earth and the poor, while building interfaith leadership and momentum for climate justice. I've found a home and a community for my climate work, and I am grateful to God every day for it.
Currently, Massachusetts is at an energy crossroads. Any day now a bill will come out of the House of Representatives proposing new energy infrastructure investments. MAICCA is pushing for efficiency, offshore wind and solar net metering, and opposing public subsidies for new gas pipelines. We are meeting with legislators as we speak, and could use help reaching more districts. On the streets, we are supporting the efforts to resist new fossil fuel construction across the state, especially down the street in Boston. This resistance is growing and could also use your help. I'm happy to talk more to any of you about both of these campaigns.
I am absolutely convinced that we all have a role to play in the climate movement. Climate justice is different from the environmentalism of the past century. At its heart it is both a movement both for the environment and for human rights, for the continuation of life itself. As Paul Hawken says, it is an immune system rising up organically from the Earth itself, with all of us as the immune cells. I still have moments of feeling bowled over by the pain of the world , my grief at what is happening, and my fear of the climate chaos we are facing. But I don't feel alone or despairing anymore, because I understand myself as a tiny part of a holy resistance network to build a better world. Thank you for being a cell in the immune system with me.