Ask Silver Springer Joelle Novey about her work and she smiles: “I like to say I talk to people sitting in circles of folding chairs in church basements.” In fact, you could say she’s teaching, or preaching, and biblical texts are as relevant as the latest natural gas emissions standards or oil pipeline legislation.
Novey is executive director of Interfaith Power & Light, which works with congregations of all faith traditions across the region to encouraging people to take action in response to climate change.
“We’re serving faith communities of all traditions in D.C., in Maryland and in Northern Virginia, helping those communities talk about what is happening to our world and what they feel called to do about it to take action to green their congregations and their homes and also to speak out with a moral voice for stronger climate policy locally and nationally.”
At the helm of IPL-DMV for more than 12 years, Novey said, “The heart and soul of our work is grassroots conversations, going out to churches, synagogues and temples and talking with folks about what’s happening to our world and … what they feel called to do about it.”
Then comes the systematic organizing of individuals and congregations — she estimates that over the years the organization has reached more than 1,000 faith-based organizations and an email list of 11,000.
Her organization focuses on three areas of environmental action and policy: educating congregations and their members on issues related to the environment and climate change; helping congregations go green by supporting them to purchase clean power, use solar or change institutional practices to minimize environmental impact; and teach congregations and their members to speak out and participate in local, state and national advocacy efforts to shift policy to protect the earth and its irreplaceable natural resources.
And while IPL offers programs with partner organizations like the National Wildlife Federation to support congregations to plant native plants and make their grounds and landscaping hospitable to local wildlife, for Novey nothing is more important than the advocacy work.
“All of our efforts to address the climate crisis are incomplete without advocacy to change laws,” she stated. “The climate crisis is not primarily the fault of any one person making choices in a fossil fuel economy. It’s the fault of very powerful corporate polluters that don’t want any limits placed on their activities…. If we’re going to stop global climate change, we have to form a movement that is big enough to meet the scale of the problem.”
Then she turns to talmudic commentary, citing medieval commentator Isaac Ben Sheshet: “It is forbidden to attain your livelihood at the expense of another’s health.”
“This very simple teaching from the Jewish tradition guides all of my thinking about holding polluters accountable,” Novey said. “Yes, of course everyone has a right to an honorable livelihood, but you may not make your money at the expense of someone else’s health. Too many [companies] are still doing that.” Engaging congregations and individuals in advocacy efforts can make a difference.
While supervising a small staff, plus interns and volunteers in an interfaith environment, Novey, 42, sees her work as directly connected to being a Jew. Growing up in Baltimore where her family was active in Chizuk Amuno Congregation, she reflected on feeling called to this work.
“I always felt like the religious ideas I was taught were very radical if we took them seriously. The idea that every human being is made in the divine image really calls upon us to treat each other very differently from the way so many are treated.” She continued, “What would it look like to really take our stated values seriously and live them out has been a thread throughout my life and my work.”
Outside of her work, Novey is a busy mother of two boys and loves choral singing. Her family belongs to Tifereth Israel Congregation in the District and is active in the independent Minyan Segulah in the District and Silver Spring. Although these days her time is more limited, in college at Harvard she sang with Kumba, a choir in the Black spiritual tradition, and the Jewish a cappella group Mizmor Shir.
“Singing groups are such a good example of community. Especially in a cappella singing, you’re totally dependent on everyone doing their part and cooperating,” she explained, “which is a good metaphor for life …. You cannot do it if you’re not listening carefully to everyone else.”
She is adamant that no issue is more important to address right now than the global climate crisis and the faith community can play an integral role.
“We have to accept that we’re in the fight of our lives for everything that we love,” Novey said, “even though we didn’t choose to be the first generation experiencing climate change … it can be empowering and ennobling to stop pushing away the fear and rage, and embrace the fight we’re in. We can even wrest a blessing from this fight. That blessing is the opportunity to connect with people who we might have thought were too different in the past, but we now see that they are our community … and we must work together to protect our world.”