The Jewish response to climate change after COP26
(JTA) Tens of thousands of leaders and activists from around the world, representing world governments, nongovernment and environmental organisations, gathered in Glasgow, Scotland, earlier this month for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP26.
Among those present for the talks was Jakir Manela, the chief executive of both the Pearlstone Center and Hazon, two Baltimore-based Jewish environmental organisations that are in the process of merging and that represent a sizeable voice in the Jewish climate action space.
The stakes were high at the conference, as world leaders struggled to come to workable policy agreements for limiting the most harmful long-term effects of climate change. Many climate activists left COP26 frustrated that not enough was being done. Manela shared some of that frustration, but also said he saw many positive developments in Glasgow — including larger roles for Jews.
Upon his return, the Reisterstown, Maryland resident talked to the Baltimore Jewish Times about his impressions, his concerns, and his hopes for the future of the struggle against climate change.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Baltimore Jewish Times: How would you describe this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference?
Manela: More than any other COP in the past, the world was really watching COP26, because the climate crisis has come to, for lack of a better term, a boiling point. The increased intensity and frequency of wildfires, hurricanes, heatwaves, droughts, rising seas, polar ice melting, and the alarm bells being rung by the global scientific community demand urgent and aggressive action. And finally, the world’s media, the world’s countries, and people all over the world were really paying closer attention to this gathering than ever before.
Were there any moments from the conference that particularly stood out for you?
One is that at a number of these high-profile sessions, you look on the screen and you see a number of Jews on stage, really at the forefront of this work. I was very proud to see that.
Then we’d had a beautiful week all week, but at the last moment, it was cold, windy, and rainy as 200 000 people went to march in the streets to call for more aggressive and ambitious climate action. And there was a lot of optimism from inside the conference itself, from government leaders, and even some of the environmental leaders who felt like some of the pledges that had been made were significant.
The marches certainly had some anger and some frustration to them, but also a lot of love and joy, hope, and song and dance. And, just again, people from all around the world marching together, singing together, calling for change together. I was really moved by that.
Setting out on the trip, did you have a particular goal in mind? Was there a particular goal you were hoping the conference could achieve?
I wanted to connect with multifaith leaders around the world. I was hoping the conference would make significant progress on the path to net-zero emissions.
Would you say the conference succeeded in what you were hoping it would achieve?
Yes, to my personal goal. Mixed results on the conference goal. In theory, according to the pledges that have been made, yes, there has been progress. But not nearly enough concrete action yet.
Did the conference have any effect on your future plans for either Hazon or the Pearlstone Center?
Yes. I believe we will now explore what it takes to become a United Nations-accredited organisation so that we can continue to bring a Jewish voice to these important global gatherings.
During and right before COP26, Israel pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, and emphasised the role that its start-up economy could play in the development of green technology. What do you think of these things?
At our Shabbat dinner, we heard from a number of Israelis, including former members of knesset. There was general gratitude and support for this pledge, and also criticism — not only of Israel’s leadership but of all leaders who are making these pledges for 30+ years from now. One former member of knesset said, “Nu? Thank you for promising something on behalf of a future prime minister who won’t be you. What about now? What are you doing now?”
Did you learn anything you didn’t know before, such as about climate change or the fight against it?
I was really happy to see nature-based solutions promoted in a significant way. If we replace all the coal-fired power plants with solar panels, that actually doesn’t do it. We can have the world covered in solar panels and we’re still going to be in trouble. We need trees, we need green space, we need nature to be preserved and invested in for this to work. I was happy to see that emphasis.
Do you think coming to the conference as the leader of a Jewish organisation gave you a perspective that others might not have had there?
I found in the multifaith gatherings that I was in we were bringing a Jewish voice that otherwise wasn’t present.
We [Jews] have, every single week, a day when we are supposed to just take a break from all the consumption and all the travel and all the fossil fuel and all the energy, and just enjoy life, be with people you love, enjoy the natural world, take a break. And if we could really embody that as a Jewish people, and really spread that practice across the world, it would have a huge impact on our global footprint as a species. So Shabbat is an ecological practice.
How do you think individuals and communities can best contribute to the fight against climate change?
Commit to the brit Hazon, a personal commitment to creating a more sustainable world. We highlight six key action areas:
- Eat less meat; reduce energy use; reduce food waste; grow your own food and buy local; reduce household waste; and buy less stuff.
A version of this interview was originally published in the ‘Baltimore Jewish Times’.
App ups the game for KDVP leaders
Dannica De Aguiar, Amira Karstaedt, and Aerin Cohen leave King David High School Victory Park with a combined tally of 24 distinctions, but they also leave behind an app to help the school’s future matriculants.
The app they created, called EVE, was introduced by the student representative council (SRC) last year.
“It serves as a platform for students to stay up to date with any important information, to express concerns, and share ideas,” says De Aguiar. “Ultimately, this app was developed by students for students, to meet their needs.”
As head girl, De Aguiar’s main role was to lead and support the SRC, while Karstaedt was its chief whip.
Cohen, the school’s deputy head girl, came up with the idea for the app when she noticed that students needed a platform to express their needs and have their voices heard.
“EVE was created to make the normal school day easier and happier, as well as to provide an easy way for students to communicate new ideas and concerns,” says Cohen. “We found a platform that allowed us to develop and distribute our own app.”
The student leaders, in turn, responded to the submissions from students on the app and took necessary action. EVE is also the place where students can access timetables, find out about the school’s upcoming events, and order from the tuck shop.
“EVE was constructed for the well-being of students,” says Cohen. “Therefore, in addition to a holiday countdown that boosts morale and motivation, EVE provides details of how students can reach out to [counselling service] Hatzolah Connect.
“This app has great potential for growth and I hope that one day, EVE will be developed professionally to serve many more schools and their students,” she says.
EVE is being further developed by Victory Park’s deputy head girl and boy and SRC of 2021/22.
During De Aguiar’s time as head girl, she represented the students and the ethos of the school as best as she could, and ensured the smooth running of numerous procedures.
Together with the SRC, she oversaw a variety of portfolios. “We had the opportunity to run initiatives, committees, and introduce [activities],” she says.
Karstaedt was involved in assisting various portfolios to execute their ideas, and ensured that each SRC member was heard and supported. She helped to organise the Fempower virtual event along with the rest of the school’s executive committee, which she describes as “a memorable and inspiring project”.
As mayor of the Johannesburg Junior Council, a prominent youth-led, non-profit organisation, Cohen was responsible for ensuring that fellow councillors had the support, guidance, and motivation they required to reach their goals.
“It was my role to encourage and organise to make sure that all councillors had the opportunity to learn together while serving the community around us,” she says.
Two Grade 11 students are elected to represent the school on the council each year. “I was honoured to be elected with my best friend, Paris Obel, who served as head of arts and culture,” says Cohen.
Deciding to run as mayor, Cohen went through multiple rounds of impromptu and prepared questions and speeches before the council voted her into the position. “I was up against some of the most brilliant minds and inspirational young people. I suppose I just really believed in myself and in my ability to turn passion into real, tangible change.”
De Aguiar considers receiving the Aileen Lipkin Sculpture for Good Fellowship her biggest success in her final school year.
“This award was voted for by my peers, and is awarded in recognition of commitment to the values of integrity, tolerance, and respect as well as commitment to the school,” she says. “This award is special to me because although good marks are something to be proud of, they don’t define you as a person.”
Karstaedt won the Israel Quiz in 2020, and achieved full colours in creative writing.
“My path to success in the 2020 Israel Quiz was gradual, requiring endurance and dedication,” she says. “But being able to expand and refine my knowledge of Israel’s history, culture, and geography during the three years I participated in the quiz was a rewarding and enjoyable experience.”
Her passion for creative writing has been a constant in her life, and was further consolidated when she became a member of the Writing Club in Grade 8.
“I especially love writing poetry,” she says, “and am thankful for the many opportunities that I received throughout high school to share my poems with others and listen to some of the exceptional pieces written by my peers.”
Karstaedt and De Aguiar put their good results down to hard work in a matric year in which they wrote mid-year exams at school during the third wave, and having early morning lessons and bi-weekly webinars.
“I worked hard to obtain the results that I expected of myself, and that motivation played a significant role in my approach to completing assignments, studying, and writing exams,” says Karstaedt.
“You need to focus in class, practice at home, and put in the hard work to prepare for your exams,” says De Aguiar.
She says 2022’s matrics should expect a tough year, but they should accept the challenge and rise to the occasion.
“In the end, you’ll be rewarded for all the effort. Most importantly, make sure you remember to have fun and enjoy the year.”
Hostage crisis hits close to home for Cape Town rabbi
It was the middle of the night when Cape Town Progressive Jewish Congregation’s (Temple Israel’s) Rabbi Greg Alexander (Rabbi Greg) heard that a fellow faith leader was being held hostage in a Texas shul on Saturday, 15 January.
Although the shocking event was unfolding across the oceans, it hit hard as he realised he knew the rabbi being held hostage.
“Suddenly the world felt small again. It took a moment to register that this was happening,” says Rabbi Greg. Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and his congregants escaped around the same time that an elite FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) hostage rescue team breached the Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, after an 11-hour standoff. The hostage-taker, Malik Faisal Akram, was killed.
“My wife, student rabbi Andi, and I met Rabbi Charlie in 2001 when we lived in Jerusalem,” recalls Rabbi Greg. “Andi and Rabbi Charlie’s wife, Adena, studied together at the liberal Bet Midrash on King David Street. Rabbi Charlie was a rabbinical student. We spent some Shabbatot together, and stayed in touch when they went back to the United States and we moved to London.
“We met them at the height of the Second Intifada when there were bombings in Jerusalem,” he says. “It was a time of fear and uncertainty then, and I can’t imagine what it must have felt like now to be in that synagogue, or for her watching and waiting…”
“We haven’t seen Charlie or Adena for nearly 20 years even though we have followed each other online, and have gone in similar directions in our rabbinic work,” he says. “They are such amazing people, and are working every day for a better world. It’s so important to know in talking about this attack that of the many social-justice causes he initiated, his synagogue has specifically reached out to local Muslim communities and hosted them for Ramadan.” Temple Israel has done the same.
As the hostage crisis unfolded during an online Shabbat service, Rabbi Greg was alerted to the news a million miles away in time and place, late on Saturday night (South African time).
“We found out while Rabbi Charlie was still being held with the other hostages in the synagogue. The network of progressive rabbis around the world were all sharing what little information they could find, and we watched with horror to see what would unfold. Many people davened for their safe release. Of course, you immediately think of your own shul, wondering if it could happen to you. We are blessed in South Africa not to have experienced the levels of antisemitic violence we have seen in Europe or America, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen here. Please G-d it won’t, ever.”
At times like this, “his synagogue could be any synagogue”, he says. “When something happens to one of us, it happens to all of us.” In fact, when Rabbi Greg posted on Facebook that he was praying for the safety of Cytron-Walker, a local Chabad rabbi commented on his post, “We are all praying for their safe release. Please G-d we will hear good news soon.”
Rabbi Greg says Cytron-Walker is “the definition of a good guy – a mensch of the first order. He’s kind, generous, and quick with a smile. As a rabbi, he has always emphasised peace work, social justice, and interfaith work. Everyone has commented on how calm and unflappable he was throughout the crisis.”
He says this isn’t the time to lose hope in connecting with other communities. “We will continue to reach out to our interfaith partners to build bridges of understanding in our local community.”
Asked if he ever imagined something like this happening in the shul of a fellow rabbi, Rabbi Greg says, “I’m well aware of how incidents of unapologetic Jew-hatred have increased in the world in the past decade. Ten years ago, nobody thought we would be living through this kind of violence and verbal attacks, but it’s now sadly commonplace.”
In fact, after the deadly Pittsburgh attack in which 11 Jews were murdered in the Tree of Life Synagogue on 27 October 2018, Cytron-Walker wrote to people from other communities who had supported his congregation by expressing their grief.
“When I heard about the deadly attack in the middle of our Sabbath service, the feeling was all too familiar,” he wrote at the time. “The emptiness and the pain, the anger and the helplessness. Too many times in Jewish history we faced tragedy without love or support. Too many times to count, we were left to pick up the pieces of tragedy and destruction. Believe me, the love and support matters. It’s something we all should be able to expect of each other. Thank you for helping us through these dark times. Thank you for standing together. When it comes to hatred and violence, we must all stand together.”
In the aftermath of his own ordeal, he once again thanked others for their support. “I’m thankful and filled with appreciation for all the vigils, prayers, love, and support, all the law enforcement and first responders who cared for us, all the security training that helped save us. I’m grateful for my family. I’m grateful for the CBI [Congregation Beth Israel] community, the Jewish community, the human community. I’m grateful that we made it out. I’m grateful to be alive.”
His words echo that of a psalm which Rabbi Greg says is one to remember at this time. “Psalm 116: 7-11 from the full Hallel in Rabbi Edward Feld’s beautiful translation in Siddur Lev Shalem reads: “‘Be at ease,’ I said to myself, ‘for Hashem has done this for you.’ You have saved me from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling; I shall walk in G-d’s presence in the land of the living.”
“I hope Rabbi Charlie and the congregants taken hostage can ease their hearts with Hallel psalms,” Rabbi Greg says. “There’s nothing like tehillim for articulating how it feels to be freed from terrible danger.”
From pandemic to “twindemic” as global cases soar
As South Africans heave a sigh of relief at the improving COVID-19 situation, other nations are recording record infection levels, reporting new variants, and even worrying about the rise of a “twindemic”.
Although Israel has been mustering record morbidity levels amid the Omicron-driven wave, new coronavirus guidelines for Israeli schools came into force on the weekend with vaccination rates no longer a factor in whether classes can meet in person.
The country had been adopting a “traffic light” plan, in which the vaccination rate of each class determined if students attended school in-person or remotely.
A bigger stir has been caused by a woman in Israel being diagnosed with “flurona” at the start of January. However, this condition has been around for at least two years. Flurona is just the term for having COVID-19 and flu at the same time.
Strict measures to control the spread of coronavirus were expected to prevent flu transmission, which appears to have largely held true for 2020. Efforts to track flu cases face challenges, as flu tests are scarce and the illness can be confused with others, including COVID-19.
Israel is noticing flu spikes this winter after historically low case levels last year. After hitting record lows as coronavirus surged, flu cases in the United States (US) are rising this year. Europe’s flu season, meanwhile, is just starting.
Although Australia successfully contained outbreaks of coronavirus, about 86 000 of the 1.1 million cases it has amassed since the beginning of the pandemic have occurred in the past two weeks. It’s now getting close to attaining record levels of COVID-19 infections following the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.
Several countries in Europe have already achieved that feat. On Wednesday, 12 December, daily cases in Germany (80 000) and Bulgaria (7 062) hit record levels, while Turkey logged a record level of more than 74 000 COVID-19 cases on Tuesday.
In contrast, on 12 January, the United Kingdom (UK) reported that COVID-19 cases fell nearly 45% from the previous week in what was the biggest drop since the arrival of Omicron. Professor David Heymann, an epidemiologist from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, claimed that the UK would be the first country in the northern hemisphere to tame the pandemic.
The picture isn’t so rosy in the US, where COVID-19 hospitalisations reached a record high on Monday, as a surge in infections strained health systems in several states. On Tuesday, the Indiana health department reported that more people were hospitalised with COVID-19 in its state than at any other point in the pandemic, and Oklahoma reported record-high numbers of new COVID-19 cases on the weekend.
Faring north, the Canadian province of Quebec, facing a new wave of infections, has announced plans to impose a “health tax” on residents who refuse to get the COVID-19 vaccination for non-medical reasons.
In terms of new variants, a Cyprus researcher recently discovered Deltacron, a reported new variant of COVID-19. It apparently combines the Delta and Omicron variants.
And, according to scientists in France, the new B.1.640.2 variant, named IHU, could be stronger than the Omicron variant. IHU has been detected in a vaccinated man who travelled to Cameroon, the host of this year’s Africa Cup of Nations. Researchers say this doesn’t mean IHU originated in the central African country.
Confirmed cases of COVID-19 have passed 310.5 million globally, according to Johns Hopkins University. The number of confirmed deaths has now passed 5.49 million. More than 9.46 billion vaccination doses have been administered globally, according to Our World in Data.
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