February marks Black History Month, an opportunity to learn about and share African American history. Further, Black History Month is a moment to consider where we, as a Jewish and an American community, can continue pursuing racial justice in the coming year.
In the first week of Black History Month, we read Parshat Mishpatim, from the Book of Exodus. Mishpatim is the oldest stratum of Torah (famously parallel to the Code of Hammurabi). The portion expounds on the earliest Jewish laws, including how and when to set both Israelite and non-Israelite slaves free. In some ways, this is one of those sticky portions that uncomfortably remind us that our tradition was part of the historic system of slavery. However, read an alternate way, the section of Mishpatim grappling with slavery insists on treating disempowered slaves as humans, also created in the Divine Image. Mishpatim is a mandate to act with respect and dignity to all.
What does this mean in 2016? In the age of rising rates of asthma and cancer among black Americans, as well as unequal impacts of extreme weather disasters on communities of color, the fight for racial justice is multi-faceted. Climate change is a racial justice issue, and, as Jews of all colors, we must advocate for climate justice.
Climate change is a universal problem. In the last year alone, global sea levels rose 6.7 inches. 2015 is now the hottest year on record, followed by 2014 as the second hottest year, indicating a rise in global temperatures. And, finally, we are seeing a dramatic increase in extreme weather events like floods and droughts.
Communities of color are disproportionately affected by climate change. Super-storm Sandy, Hurricane Katrina and California’s wildfires impacted communities of color more strongly than their white counterparts. Decreased air and water quality and extreme weather events have lead to illness and disability, physical displacement, cultural erosion, food insecurity and criminalization, according to the NAACP Climate Justice Initiative.
Many American Jews have an important legacy of supporting racial justice. The American Jewish community has played a valuable and well-documented role in standing up for our African American neighbors. A number of rabbis marched with black church leaders in the 1960s, while others have shown their support more recently through participating in the NAACP’s Justice Summer for equal rights and protection under law. In the pursuit of justice, many in the American Jewish community stand for homeless youth protections, gun violence prevention and the reduction of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders. So too must we advocate for equal access to clean water, clean air and a habitable planet.
Our obligation in solidarity with the black community was not completed when Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Martin Luther King Jr. We must continue to advocate on the frontlines of equality and work together for the biggest threat to all of humanity and to communities of color. This Black History Month, the Jewish community should speak from its historic position of support to our black church brethren and also in spirit of inclusion of Jews of color by acting on climate.
While we in the Jewish community focus on black history, while we lift up in our classrooms and in our services the voices and stories of black Jews and black Americans, so too should we move our community to action. It’s not enough to say that we have marched for civil rights. Today, black Americans still face deep and unrelenting racism and injustice. It’s our obligation as American Jews to stand up with them, thoughtfully and intentionally, in the fight to end that injustice.
Environmental racism and the disproportionate impacts of climate change are one fundamental way that communities of color are mistreated. Working to green your congregation and conserve energy and natural materials at home is good, but there’s so much more we can be doing. Allocations for the Green Climate Fund are included in the 2017 budget announced by President Obama this month. The Green Climate Fund is a resource with contributions from more than 30 countries to help developing nations that are vulnerable to climate change adapt to rising sea levels and other negative impacts while mitigating root causes through sustainable development. We need the Green Climate Fund in order to help reduce our global greenhouse gas emissions and stem the tide of our changing climate.
This Black History Month, tell your elected officials that you support the Green Climate Fund and that, as a Jew, you care about climate justice.
Liya Rechtman is a manager at the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life and a policy associate at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.