“It’s a question of survival:” Meet the climate change rabbi

“This is an existential question. It’s a question of survival at some level, and we need survival in order to have Judaism.”
Rabbi Katy Allen, left, pictured at the 2019 Climate Change March in Washington, D.C. (Courtesy: Jewish Climate Action Network)

Is the future of Judaism tied to climate change? Rabbi Katy Z. Allen believes that it is and has made it her life’s work.

“I think that awareness and the connection to this is vital to making long term Judaism being viable and sustainable,” Rabbi Allen told me in an interview ahead of Earth Day. “This is an existential question. It’s a question of survival at some level, and we need survival in order to have Judaism.”

Rabbi Katy Allen

Rabbi Allen heads up the Jewish Climate Action Network which believes dealing with climate change is the ultimate Tikkun Olam, or repairing of the world.

“Dealing with the human existential crisis of global climate change is our ultimate task of Tikkun Olam, repairing of the world, for which we are all responsible,” the organization’s About Us page reads. “If we cannot slow climate change, limit its eventual scope, and preserve the livability of this Earth for generations to come, then nothing else matters.”

NASA says that the average surface temperature of our planet has risen more than 2 degrees fahrenheit since the late 19th century, with the bulk of the warming taking place in the last 40 years. In fact, the last 7 years have been some of the warmest on record, with 2016 and 2020 tied for the warmest ever recorded.

“It’s just everywhere,” Rabbi Allen said. “You just open your eyes to it. You can find something about climate change everywhere.”

Global warming leads to several things, among them a warming ocean, shrinking ice sheets, glacial retreats, decreased snow cover, ocean acidification, sea level rise and declining Arctic Sea ice. All of these events lead to more extreme weather events and a rapidly changing planet.

“If you look 50 years down the road then that’s going to be a whole other world,” Rabbi Allen warned. “We need to be getting on board with this.”

Coming to the rabbinate later in life, Rabbi Allen said she was always pulled to the natural world.

“Eco-chaplaincy is kind of an emerging field in the climate world. Spiritually it holds the whole emotional piece [of climate change],” she explained to me. “Some of the work that I do is personally along those lines, I gravitate towards the spiritual side of it.”

On top of Tikkun Olam, Rabbi Allen says that there is a stronger Jewish argument for taking care of the planet.

“It’s just everywhere in Judaism. God created the heavens and the Earth, it’s in Torah and you go from there,” she explained. “The beauty of Judaism is our indigenous roots. We developed as a people a whole ideal. Take the Adam and Eve story for example. All of Genesis is all about people being close to the land, some of it is agricultural, but not all of it is.”

So where does climate change play into Jewishness?

“Obviously there’s no place in the Bible where it says ‘you shall not change the climate.’ It doesn’t say that,” Rabbi Allen admitted. “But it’s all about our relationship to the planet and to each other,” she countered.

Others agree. Rabbi Allen says the call for change today comes mostly from congregants and lay people. And because of this conversations around the climate and environment are changing in Jewish circles.

“People give tzedakah. People give,” she said. “You give to the local food pantry, and we all do that. It’s normal for us to do that.” What Rabbi Allen wants to normalize is people taking the next step when it comes to the environment in Jewish spaces. She says a good place to start is looking at your own carbon footprint, see if you can buy power from you local utility from renewable resources, conserving energy, and divesting from fossil fuels

But where does Jewish communal life come in to play with all of this?

“Doing these things in community, whether in synagogue or elsewhere, if you do all of your work in conjunction with others you have more impact,” Rabbi Allen explained.

On top of addressing the crisis at the community level, Rabbi Allen says there is something deeply spiritual about protecting the environment as well.

“You have constant connections and bringing to life everything in Jewish tradition that’s talking to us about our relationship to the Earth and what it should be. Talking and studying leads to action and then integrating those actions into the community,” she told me. “I just really feel that our souls need it. We are getting more and more disconnected from the human world, the world outside our window, that impacts our spirits and health.”

Religion also plays an important supporting role in the climate change battle.

“As people get more and more upset… people want to know is my religion going to be supporting me through this, commanding me through this, or is my religion going to become so disconnected it’s going to lose some value?”

“The idea that Torah speaks to every generation in a different way… this has to be the Torah of today besides the pandemic,” she said.

And if it feels like climate change is too much to tackle Rabbi Allen also had some advice for that.

“I find that I tend to not engage with the doom and gloom. It’s okay I don’t know what our future is going to be, and I’m alive now and I need to make my life meaningful, and part of that is knowing that I’m doing something. What is so wonderful is all the things that people are doing. People are doing so many things, working so hard, building communities, making impacts.”

“We have to be doing this, we have to be doing this work, that’s the imperative,” she said.

When I asked her what else gets her excited these days she had a very simple answer.

“Solar panels,” she told me. I could hear a smile in her voice from over the phone. “These things are wonderful, they make you smile, they’re good things. It’s good for our souls.”

At the end of our conversation I asked Rabbi Allen if she had any parting advice.

“Don’t get discouraged by the people that block the way,” she said. “They don’t need to be the ones controlling the things we do.”

Editor’s Note: Want to learn more about climate change? Rabbi Allen is holding a free online conference April 25, 2021. More details here.

Prayer for the Earth

One other thing Rabbi Allen is advocating is Torah services to include a prayer for the Earth.