They didn’t need to pray for rain. It was already coming down in buckets.
But when a dozen environmentally active Jews came to Lafayette Park during the Sukkot holiday to recreate the ancient water-pouring ceremony to ask God for rain, the downpour was almost beside the point. The group, let by Rabbi David Shneyer, of Kehila Chadasha and Am Kolel Jewish Renewal Community of Greater Washington, was trying to make a point about climate change.
“Sukkot is a time for us to feel the connection with the natural world,” Shneyer said. “We’re instructed to dwell in the booths throughout the holiday and feel that intimate connection with nature.”
The water pouring ceremony, or Nisuch ha-Mayim, was performed when the Temple in
Jerusalem stood. It was part of an ecstatic week of celebration. The Talmud declares: “One who did not see the joy of the water-drawing celebrations, has not seen joy in his life.”
There was not much joy at the drenched Oct. 16 ceremony. With water drawn from Sligo Creek, Shneyer poured the water over the cupped hands of three people. Others tried to shield them from the downpour with flailing umbrellas that tipped the water onto their heads.
“Traditionally, the ceremony was performed in the Temple, but we decided to use that tradition in recognition that the Earth is our temple,” Shneyer said.
The White House, just yards away, seemed to be the object of the ceremony.
“According to the Talmud, Sukkot is the time of year in which God judges the world for rainfall,” Shneyer said. “Today, in order to receive God’s blessings, we must call attention to those among us and those in power who are disrupting the life on planet Earth and all the inhabitants and life forms that dwell here. Increasing droughts around the world are directly caused by climate change.”
A longtime nature lover, Shneyer said he felt “a calling to go beyond the typical observance” of Sukkot and wanted to do something that would help the environment.
At the end of a dry summer in Washington, Shneyer and the members of the group blame the drought in part on climate change.
“I’m a grandmother, with two small granddaughters that I am so concerned about,” said group member Janeane Marks. “I’m scared to death [about the climate]. I want to see things change. And I think each of us as individuals have to do what we can to make that happen.”
The event also included the ritual shaking of the lulav and etrog.
“I think it’s an essential part of Jewish values to be concerned with the environment,” said Glenn Armiger, who had come to the event to show his support. “To be concerned with being stewards of the Earth and concerned with appointing governments that are equally concerned as we are.”
Once the ritual was over, the group walked to a branch of Chase Bank on New York Avenue. JP Morgan Chase is reportedly the biggest funder of the fossil fuel industry. They spoke to the manager and gave him a letter, which read:
“The Festival of Sukkot is celebrated this week in Jewish communities throughout the world to express gratitude to the Creator for this beautiful earth and for the final harvest. On this holiday we pray for the well-being of the land and our climate.”
It also asked the bank to halt investments and phase out funding for fossil
fuels while supporting renewable energy initiatives. Shneyer thought it would be a good way of getting the bank’s attention and showing that their customers want Chase to support the environment.
“I felt that conversation with the manager was meaningful and I thought the fact that we were there would be reported to [the manager’s] supervisors,” Shneyer said. “Our actions and similar ones would have an impact on their governing board.”
“I think what’s going to help climate change in the future is that there are so many other organizations involved that touch on” environmental issues, Armiger said. “You can be LGBTQIA-plus and have environmental issues attached to your political beliefs. You can be Jewish. You can be evangelical Christian. It’s just really important to support faith groups and special interest groups that have climate change in their periphery.”