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My Route to Jewish Environmentalism

Intern Courtney Cooperman at a climate march in New York City, in support of December's Paris conference.

Intern Courtney Cooperman at a climate march in New York City, in support of December’s Paris conference.

By COEJL Intern Courtney Cooperman

For me, Judaism has always been synonymous with making a difference in the world. Even in preschool, I looked forward to partaking in creative projects for dozens of local organizations at my temple’s annual “Mitzvah Day.” Excitement about yearly tikkun olam activities quickly evolved into overall enthusiasm about social action. In high school, after taking a mini-course called “Sociology of Poverty,” I became fascinated with unmasking the root causes of social injustice.

Initially, I did not grasp the extent of the relationship between addressing environmental issues and improving society. However, I encountered one phrase in IB Environmental Science that brought the close connection to light: environmental injustice. Environmental factors underlie and perpetuate existing inequalities. For example, children are more likely to have asthma in areas with high levels of pollution, which tend to house lower-income communities. Jeopardizing children’s health also hinders their education, limiting their opportunities to escape cycles of poverty. Similarly, in less developed countries, women often take on the responsibilities of obtaining resources such as water. When resources become depleted, women must travel farther and dedicate more of their time to these basic tasks, barring them from engagement in other pursuits.

Unexpected intersections, such as those between environmental and women’s rights issues, fascinated me.  As I continued to explore, I learned that environmental matters lie at the crux of the 21st century’s most pressing concerns. Peace and violence follow patterns in climate, natural disasters, and resource availability; rising temperatures force people out of their homes, causing an increase in climate refugees that magnify existing crises. Overall, I came to see the environment as a foundation in the layers of injustice.

Accordingly, the environment has become a focal point as I engage with the relationship between Judaism and societal progress. My confirmation class trip to the Religious Action Center’s L’taken seminar amplified my understanding of the Jewish commitment to social issues that extend far beyond the Jewish community. For example, I had no idea that Jewish leaders were at the frontlines of the Civil Rights Movement, and continue to be among the strongest voices for racial equality. When I attended URJ Biennial in 2015, Vice President Joe Biden encapsulated the relationship between Jews and improving society, calling Jews “the heart and soul of opportunity in America,” and noting that we have been behind every major progressive cause in the past century. (The policy on transgender rights adopted at Biennial reinforced the vice-president’s laudatory remarks.) Environmental justice underlies the idea of “opportunity” that Biden emphasized. Public health concerns posed by pollution, lack of access to resources, and the impact of climate change are among the problems that impede people from achieving their fullest potential.

Learning about and taking part in Jewish advocacy showed me the central role of Jews in understanding social issues and pushing for solutions. I felt empowered to improve the world, as I had envisioned myself doing since childhood. I saw my involvement in the Jewish community as a pathway to making a difference, although at the age of sixteen, I imagined that it would be years before I personally took on a more significant role in the world of Jewish activism.

Nevertheless, my aspirations to address the sources of social issues only grew. I spent the summer between junior and senior year studying climate change, inspiring me to get more personally involved in environmentalism. Within the first few months of senior year, I found myself writing an editorial about climate change in the school newspaper, getting into debates with climate skeptics, and even attending a march in New York City on the day before the Paris Conference. When it was time to start thinking about my Senior Project, which constitutes any sort of real-world exploration in the time between exams and graduation, I knew that I wanted to find something in the world of environmentalism. I started working with the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) both as a senior project in Washington DC and a remote internship for the rest of my senior year.

My COEJL internship allows me to continue my social action endeavors through the mechanisms of Jewish life, yet on a much larger scale than I ever imagined would be possible at age eighteen. I began by helping with a project to mobilize Ohio synagogues in support of the Clean Power Plan. Recently, I reached out to Jewish communities nationwide, asking for their signatures on a letter that encourages lawmakers to approve President Obama’s Green Climate Fund allocation. Mitigation – limiting carbon emissions to prevent increased warming, as the Clean Power Plan proposes – and adaptation – preparing vulnerable communities to face the impacts of climate change, as the Green Climate Fund does – are two important fronts in the fight against climate change. After learning about both aspects of combating climate change, it has been exciting to delve into the concrete steps that the US is taking in fulfilling its commitment to these goals.

In the upcoming months, I plan to continue assisting COEJL with their endeavors, research the environmental issues that I am most passionate about, and meet with my legislators to encourage action. I look forward to joining Jewish environmental efforts to drive national and global progress, particularly on climate change, in the wake of last December’s Paris Conference. Furthermore, I hope that Jewish communities become increasingly aware of the intertwinement between Judaism, the environment, and social justice. If we can see environmentalism as an integral part of tikkun olam, then we can wholeheartedly address environmental issues as Jewish social justice priorities. 

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