Our Collective Future - A Guest Blog Post

1 Av 5776

(though actually we're posting it on the 26th of Tamuz!)

This Friday evening the new month of Av will begin, and so we're sending out our monthly blog post a couple of days early (by posting it on Monday instead of Friday). Nine days later, starting the evening of the 13th of August will be the holy day of Tisha b'Av (which means the 9th day of the month of Av). This is a day which traditionally commemorates the destruction of the 1st and 2nd Temples in Jerusalem, and whose meaning is now often expanded towards tapping into feeling the brokenness in our world as a whole. It is a day when the tradition invites us to collectively allow our hearts to break and to feel the grief over the brokenness of our world that we often keep at arms length. It is traditionally marked by a full 25 hour fast, like on Yom Kippur, avoiding all food and water.

This month, we'd to share with you a guest blog piece by ZMANIM community leader, Daniel Swid. The piece was written 3 years ago when Daniel and his family were living in Los Gatos, but its message about the connection between the upcoming holy day of Tisha B'av, climate change, and the environment is still profoundly relevant. We hope that you enjoy Daniel's thoughts.

~ Rabbi Josh

"Rocket Push"

I was living in Tel Aviv when Mika, my first daughter was born. Nearly every day I’d bike to the large urban park, Park Ha’yarkon that defines the northern boundary of the city. I would bike to picnics and barbecues, for playdates and solitude. But biking in the city was another story. As I biked the short distance to Mika’s daycare, I became Indiana Jones in a Temple of Doom strewn with booby traps and obstacles to discourage the young cyclist. On narrow sidewalks I weaved between pedestrians, dog poop, and stray cats. As if avoiding poisonous darts, I would duck beneath overgrown hedges. Cars and scooters parked in the bike lanes forced me onto the roads where buses threatened to roll over me. My favorite day of the year was Yom Kippur---no cars---pedestrians and cyclists could traverse the city without fear.

I day dreamed of changing the situation single handedly but, really what could I do alone? So, after further frustration and thought, I joined a handful of other volunteers at “Israel BShvil Ofanaim,” the national bike organization that lobbies in support of bike legislation and infrastructure.

Last year was the hottest year on record. It was also the year I quit my job at one of the Valley’s hottest tech companies. I’ve been mindful of Climate Change for a while, but last year was a turning point. During my slow traffic heavy commute up and down highway 85 to Palo Alto, I decided to hear the science first hand and listened to the audio book Storms of My Grandchildren, by NASA climatologist Dr. James Hansen. In 1988,  Hansen testified before congress about Climate Change. He was the first to raise broad awareness of the subject. Parts of the book are technical, very sleepy, and it’s a wonder I survived my daily commute. The book is also scary. Rising sea levels, super storms, ocean acidification, droughts, mass extinction, fossil fuel subsidies, and political inaction. Hansen believes that for life on our planet to remain stable we must maintain carbon dioxide in the atmosphere around 350 ppm. We hit 400 ppm this May. In National Geographic it was written that the last time CO2 levels were this high, “it was between 2.6 and 5.3 million years ago”. Climate Change is scary.

Mika will start first grade this fall and my daughter Zoe attends preschool here at Shir Hadash. Together we ride our bikes to school. When she rides up Blossom Hill Blvd I give her “rocket pushes”. A rocket push is a maneuver where, while pedaling together uphill, I place one hand upon her back and give her a great shove, transferring some of my momentum to propel her forward. Once, while crossing the bridge over Highway 17 on Blossom Hill Blvd, I slowed and paused, as if I had arrived for an appointment to gaze out over the endless stream of vehicles. Suddenly, I became overwhelmed by immense feelings of grief, sadness, and despair. I was overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the problems facing this next generation, facing my children.

Tisha B’Av is our community’s collective appointment with grief, sadness, and despair. I imagine all of us standing together on that bridge, overwhelmed yet embracing those dark emotions. In preparation for this appointment, the weeks leading up to the holiday include restrictions on physical and social joys like weddings, music, new clothes, and (like me) getting a haircut. It is said that G-d is absent. And on the holiday itself we fast. Tisha B’Av is also the turning point where we push through to hope. The purpose of emotions like grief, fear, and despair are to evoke transformative change and summon strength for action. It is said that the Messiah will be born on Tisha B’Av, how appropriate.

In February of this year, I traveled to Washington DC to witness the largest climate change rally in history. I left inspired by the diversity of the crowd of 50,000. There were children and grandparents, veterans and police officers in uniform, Native Americans and hipsters, blue collar, white collar, hippies and businessmen. This is a moral problem affecting everyone, but what can we really do alone?

In an interview with Bill Moyers, Annie Leonard creator of Story of Stuff says, “When we’re faced with problems as gigantic as disruption of the global climate, our consumer response is to buy green products, switch our lightbulbs, reject bottled water, or carry a reusable bag to the store. Those are all very good things. But they’re not about making the transformative change we need right now. To do this, we need to step out of our consumer role and into our citizen role and work together, through community and our democratic institutions. Perfecting our day to day eco-choices can be a step in the right direction, or it can be a distraction if we’re deluded into thinking that we’ve done our part since we shopped at Whole Foods.”

She goes on to say, “Today’s mainstream media is deeply invested in maintaining business-as-usual and an honest assessment of the current climate situation leads to the realization that fundamental shifts are essential in our economy, our transportation, our built environment, and much more.”

I believe our national conversation and mainstream media reflect a consciousness which has not yet embraced those dark emotions. There is a campaign underway across this country, called GoFossilFree, kicked off by 350.org, the organization founded by Bill McKibben and named after Dr Hansen’s target for sustainability on Earth, 350 ppm CO2.

The strategy is that the conversation played out by the mainstream media will transform as headlines are made by public, educational, and religious institutions that declare their intention to purge their foundations, endowments, and pension funds from financial investments in fossil fuels such as coal, tar sands, oil, and natural gas. Bill McKibben’s moral call is “if it’s wrong to wreck the climate, it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage.”

Today, there are active fossil free investment campaigns at over 300 universities, 100 cities and states, and a handful of religious institutions. Commitments have been made by San Francisco, Santa Monica, Berkeley, and Seattle. A commitment was made by the national religious body United Church of Christ, and by the San Francisco State University Foundation. And just last week, a large Norwegian pension fund and insurance firm removed 19 fossil fuel companies from its financial products to ensure long term returns declaring such investments to be “worthless financially” in the future. Their decision was based upon the release of a report by UK think tank Carbon Tracker which states that 60-80% of fossil fuel reserves need to be left in the ground if the worst effects of climate change are to be avoided

I’ve joined a handful of volunteers here in the Valley working on this issue. Our current goal is to support a fossil free Stanford. As community members at large of Stanford University, you can support this campaign by signing a petition at the information table outside in the Oneg Room or after Shabbat go online to support one of the local campaigns at Stanford, UC Santa Cruz, Deanza College, and the City of San Jose.

And what about Tel Aviv? Today, she is certainly not the Temple of Doomed Cyclists with over 100 km of bike lanes, a bike share program like those found around the world in Paris, Montreal, New York, Barcelona, and DC. Through groups and communities working together as citizens with heart and intention, our world can change.

Thank you.