Finding Judaism in my passion for environmental activism

by Jonah Watt, class of 2018

Originally published October 16, 2015

Every Sunday morning for 10 years, I sat in my Hebrew school classroom, passing around a small tin tzedakah box and emptying my pockets full of loose change into it. At the end of the year, we dumped out the contents and counted the money inside. In an exercise of early childhood democracy, we would vote as a class where to donate the tzedakah, and then our teacher would send a check to the animal shelter or local food pantry of our choosing.
I grew up in a Jewish family and a vibrant Jewish community, raised on the values of tzedakah (justice), tikkun olam (repairing the world) and l’dor v’dor (from generation to generation). I was taught how to promote justice, how to engage in acts of repairing the world and how it was my responsibility to care for the planet and to ensure that it was left in the same condition, if not better, for my children and future generations. (Finding a Jewish spouse and producing these future generations was another value imparted on me from an early age.)
When I came to Bowdoin, I attended Hillel candle lighting for the first few weeks, and then less and less, much to my mother’s chagrin. Instead, I spent more and more time at Bowdoin Climate Action (BCA) meetings, an initially daunting community filled with what I perceived to be radical eco-terrorists.
For a while, it seemed that my Judaism had been put on the backburner, replaced by a newfound love for climate action. That is, until a few weeks ago, when I was asked to be on a panel for the teach-in. In preparation for this event, I dug down and found my Jewish identity and values deeply sedimented in my climate activism.
The panelists were asked to find texts from our religions that shape our relationship with nature and climate change. I struggled to find excerpts from our torah on how to avoid disastrous floods (besides ushering two of every animal species into an ark) or how to combat the fossil fuel industry’s stranglehold on not only our climate but our political and economic structures as well.
After reflecting on all of my Hebrew school torah study, I came to realize that there were no explicit teachings or stories that informed my stance on climate change; rather, the values that I had grown up with had become internalized and, unknowingly, drove my advocacy for climate justice.
In my work with BCA, I find examples of tzedakah, tikkun olam and l’dor v’dor. Fighting for a more sustainable, fossil-free world, we advocate for climate and racial justice and act to ensure that we can pass on an inheritable world to our children. Though I had not realized it until I was asked to find direct relations between my faith and my stance on climate change, my Jewish values had been informing my quest for climate justice since the beginning.
As I campaign for fossil fuel divestment, I think back to my days in Hebrew school, passing around the tzedakah box and donating loose change to worthy causes. Though the contents of a tzedakah box and the contents of our endowment are vastly different pools of money, I firmly believe that they should be regulated by the same guiding principles with which I was raised. And though I may not be the one voting on where our endowment’s tzedakah money is invested, I sure as hell won’t stand idly by as they go towards industries antithetical to my values.
Just as I know that five-year-old me would not have voted to donate our tzedakah money to Shell, Exxon or any other corporation that profits from the destruction of our planet and our people, I know with equal conviction that current-day me would not support such investments in injustice, either.

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