By Stacey Dresner
SPRINGFIELD – At a rally in front of U.S. Representative Richard Neal’s Springfield office in August, a chorus of shofars were blown to ask Rep. Neal to “hear the call for climate action.”
The shofar blowers were members of the Western Massachusetts chapter – or “circle” – of Dayenu: A Jewish Call for Climate Action. Dayenu joined with groups like Springfield Climate Coalition, Sunrise Hampden County, the Sierra Club, and Arise for Social Justice at the “#SealTheDeal” rally to encourage Rep. Neal – chair of Congress’ Ways and Means Committee — to support President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill.
The $3.5 trillion reconciliation budget bill, which President Biden has been struggling to get passed due to disagreements between even moderate and progressive Democrats, includes numerous climate control provisions among its infrastructure proposals.
“People are talking a lot about the infrastructure bill, which would have a potentially positive impact on our country’s response to climate change, both in terms of attempts at mitigation — moving our energy sources away from the highest polluting ones; and also adaptation — recognizing that like it or not, climate change is here,” explained Rabbi Benjamin Weiner of Deerfield. “How are we going to begin to support communities, especially under-resourced communities, communities of color, frontline communities? How are we going to, not just address climate change, but try to address it by way of social justice and tikkun olam?”
Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, the founder of the national Dayenu movement, asked that Dayenu circles around the country use their shofars to sound an “alarm” calling Congress to act after increasing climate emergencies, including the California oil spill.
“After months of promises and activism, including unprecedented mobilization by the American Jewish community in support of a $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill supporting climate, jobs, and justice, it is appalling that a few, isolated moderates in the Democratic caucus remain willing to threaten the hope of a just and livable planet for generations to come,” Rabbi Rosenn said in a press release. “Our leaders have promised, time and time again, that they will deliver historic investments in climate that meet the scale that science demands. Now, as negotiations reach their conclusion, they must follow through.”
At the August rally in Springfield, Rabbi Weiner explained the significance of the shofar, then called out the words that summon the shofar blasts. The air was filled with the sounds of shofars blown by several Dayenu members.
“We did a shofar blowing ceremony because it was during the month of elul and we felt like one of the things that we have to offer to our allies, given that we’re both a politically active organization but also a spiritual community, is the gift of Jewish ritual as a means of spiritual empowerment,” said Rabbi Weiner. “We blew the shofar to say, ‘The month of elul for us is about the urgency of change and the sound of the shofar is about awakening to that urgency, so here we are offering you this practice as a way of bolstering all of us in this urgent action.”
At the same time, Dayenu circles around the country were also blowing their shofars for climate change at rallies including those held at a field office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein and near the Newark, N.J. office of Sen. Cory Booker. In Boston, Dayenu members participated in rallies near the offices of Sen. Ed Markey and Senator Elizabeth Warren.
“They are obviously supporters of the bill, but the goal of the rallies was really to show support from their constituents and to give all these legislators the courage to go big on climate action,” said Joyce Samet, Western Mass.’s liaison to the national Dayenu organization.
Rabbi Weiner also stressed that the goal of the Springfield rally was not to disparage or protest against Sen. Neal in any way.
“It was in the spirit of democratic activism–showing up as constituents to indicate to our reps where our priorities lie. Though the topic is obviously different, it reminds me of the advocacy I was raised on, on behalf of Soviet Jews, and other times we’ve taken a stand for issues of concern to the Jewish community. We believe that climate change needs to rise to a similar level of priority for Jews–and all humanity.”
Rabbi Rosenn’s mission in founding Dayeinu in April 2020 was to “secure a just, livable and sustainable world for all people for generations to come by building a multi-generational Jewish movement that confronts the climate crisis with spiritual audacity and bold political action.”
Since then, chapters or Dayenu “circles” have opened in the U.S. and Canada.
The August rally – and a smaller follow-up rally in at Rep. Neal’s office at the beginning of September — were the first events in which Western Mass. Dayeinu participated.
Last winter members of Congregation B’nai Israel in Northampton took the lead in organizing the local Dayeinu circle with interest from members of the Jewish Community of Amherst (JCA), Beit Ahavah in Florence and Temple Israel of Greenfield.
“It was good to have a vehicle for the Jewish community to bring a voice. There is a lot we can do about climate change and moral authority is one of them,” said Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Kiener, who came to Dayenu after learning about it from a congregant at Temple Israel of Greenfield.
The first meeting was held via Zoom with a representative of the national Dayenu organization who explained how the movement and Dayenu circles work. Fifty or 60 people showed up for that first meeting. Since then, a steering committee of around 15 to 20 people has been meeting on a monthly basis, while there is a growing pool of members who are ready to act when a rally is scheduled or letters need to be mailed to legislators.
“We ended up deciding we have two main motivating goals,” said Rabbi Weiner. “One is to engage in targeted and concerted political action in support of climate related and generally speaking environmental policy initiatives and to motivate Jews across the area to show up in support of those types of initiatives.
“And then the secondary role is just to kind of create community for each other. The climate crisis is really emotionally overwhelming and intense, and so we thought that sharing the bonds of culture, ethnicity and religion and spirituality, we can also really form a very supportive and nourish community for each other as we engage in this work.”
As co-chairs of networking and outreach, Rabbi Weiner and Sarah Evelyn Lane, are hoping to reach out to Jews in Western Mass., and want to encourage multi-generational participation.
While waiting to see what happens with the infrastructure bill in Congress, Dayenu in Western Mass. is still working on how it wants to proceed in its efforts.
“In addition to the steering committee meetings which are about planning events, these political manifestations, we’re also trying to get together a rhythm of basic gatherings, which are more open and that will speak more to the communal aspect of things,” Weiner said. “It’s the chance for people to come together and share ideas and express thoughts and feelings and feel a sense of camaraderie and community.”
Both Rabbi Weiner and Samet stressed that Dayenu is not a synagogue-affiliated group.
“We really want anyone in the upper and lower Connecticut Valley of Western Mass. whether they are affiliated or unaffiliated,” Samet said. “It’s really a place where we can share around a real common desire to build a just green recovery for the future generations, with a Jewish spirit to it. We can join other groups and send them our donations but there was something that was really compelling to many of the people that have joined about this Jewish spirituality, and making sure that it somehow relates to us as Jews.”
“If you’re kind of climate aware the world can be a very overwhelming place a lot of the time,” added Rabbi Weiner, spiritual leader of the Jewish Community of Amherst, “so for me, it’s been very meaningful to be able to open up a place — to have a way of responding to things so deeply rooted in my sense of Jewish community. And in my rhythm of Jewish practice, I found it on some level very empowering, at least spiritually.
I don’t do this as the rabbi of the JCA; really, I do it as a father of young children.”
Main Photo: Rabbi Benjamin Weiner (left) leads a chorus of shofar blowers at the #sealthedeal rally in Springfield.