Rabbi Warren Stone calls climate change “the most challenging issue of our lifetime.” It’s a sentiment he’s shared on the local, national and global stages throughout his career.
But as Stone, 70, retires this month after 32 years leading Temple Emanuel, in Kensington, he sees the climate movement moving to a new stage, Gone are the days of striving to prevent global warming.
“These days, we’re focusing more on adaptation,” Stone says, “because climate change is here.”
The Boston native came to the Reform congregation in 1988. By then he was passionate about the environment.
“I grew up with the love of Judaism and the natural world.” Stone says. “I remember participating in Earth Day 1970 and it resonated with me, my profound love toward the natural world and Judaism. So the two came together.”
Connecting the Jewish community to the natural world has been a central theme of Stone’s work. His congregation has gone to farms on Sukkot, climbed Sugarloaf Mountain for Shavuot and even had a Passover seder with a kibbutz in the Negev.
Synagogue transformed its property into a space for outdoor meditation and gardening, called Gan Emanuel. Food grown there is donated to fight hunger.
“I’m really proud of that vision, that we as American Jews can use the grounds of our synagogues for planting and for many activities for the community,” Stone says.
In April, ocean surface temperatures were the highest since global records were first kept in 1880, according to NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information. And another record breaker occurred this year, with the warmest January in 141 years.
Stone says work is underway to adapt humanity to a hotter world. Researchers are looking into growing coffee beans at higher elevations, farming rice with various amounts of water and changing crops to meet the crisis head on. Work is also ongoing to protect habitats in light of “the silent genocide of species going on.” But with that work around the world, there’s still a part for the local community to play.
“If all synagogues, churches, schools and universities develop a consciousness about walking gently on God’s Earth — it’s not even environmentalism. It’s spiritual activism that’s related to protecting the earth. It’s sacred,” Stone says. “So it’s for all people to think about what can we do not to use up the resources and how can we protect creation when we’re witnessing this climate challenge to our future and the future of our children and certainly grandchildren.”
When not leading services, Stone’s leading delegations on environmental issues to Congress and the White House. The rabbi has represented many Jewish organizations as a UN delegate at the Conference on Climate Change in 1997 and 2009. In 2010, he served as a G20 World Religious Delegate at a conference on Faith and Sustainability in South Korea.
And he was chosen by the United Nations Climate Change Secretariat in 2015 to serve as faith and climate international leader for the UN Climate Neutral Now initiative.
Stone has served on the boards of the Global Advisory Committee for Earth Day, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life and is founding chair of the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ Committee on the Environment. But of all that, Stone is most proud of affecting the generations of congregants who grew up under his watch at Temple Emanuel and went on to care about social justice and stay involved with the Jewish community.
As his congregants have grown, so too has Stone. This month marks his transition from rabbi to rabbi emeritus. As a sendoff, the congregation raised funds to cover the synagogue’s roof with solar panels in his honor. But retirement for Stone is an opportunity to readjust his focus.
“For me, it’s not retirement,” he says. “I will continue my activism. I will continue my Jewish engagement. So kind of redefining what retirement is. So I’m excited to have a lot of things to do and have been doing most of my lifetime.”