You should know… Liya Rechtman

Photo by David Stuck
Photo by David Stuck


Avoiding the “scientific apocalypse” is on Liya Rechtman’s daily to-do list. As the manager of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, more concisely known as COEJL, the 23-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y., native and lifelong Reform Jew says her job is “putting the environment on the Jewish agenda.” But no one person or group can save the world alone, so Rechtman, who graduated from Amherst College with degrees in religion and English, preaches cooperation, especially among religious activists. WJW spoke with her in COEJL’s office on K Street.


How do you pronounce COEJL?

COE-jl. It rolls off the tongue better than co-EE-jl.


You’ve said that you began your environmental activism intellectually. What did you mean by that?

In college I began as a religion major. I did not study Judaism, I studied evangelical Christianity. And I was interested in the formation of the religious right. And through that, I discovered the religious left, which incidentally was a movement I’d been part of my whole life — progressive religious values.

When you’re doing research, everything is dry and unbiased. I was chosen as a legislative assistant for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism [RAC, in Washington] and it gave me the chance to say, ‘What haven’t you done already?’ And I had done LGBT work, I had done sexual violence work, and I saw environmentalism as a way to engage my previous knowledge of evangelical Christianity, but from my own tradition. Not as an observer, but as a religious Jew and an activist.


You’re going to Paris at the end of the month for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). What will you be doing there?

I’m going as the manager of COEJL, but I’ll be going with a group called Religions for Peace. We are going as emerging faith leaders. The U.N.F. Triple C is the framework of that international collaboration.

Climate change requires international solutions. The idea is that hopefully by the end of the conference, there will be some agreement on mutual emission reduction.

I’m not going there as an official observer. As an American person of faith, I hope to stand in solidarity with people who are directly impacted by climate change.


Last year, you did a Kislev Chanukah challenge. You announced that you were going to replace your incandescent light bulbs with energy efficient compact fluorescent bulbs and challenged others to do the same.

That was a part of a challenge that I did at the RAC every month. The idea was, there are grand, broad ways to make change on climate, like the U.N.F. Triple C. And also really small ways. The importance of individual action is huge. I always use this example when I’m teaching. I always have a reusable water bottle with me and I say, ‘I’m doing environmental advocacy right now.’ The kids realize that even carrying a reusable water bottle and not using a throwaway bottle is a tiny way to be an advocate.


I found your bat mitzvah speech online.

(mortified) Wow, you do your research. I have to take that down.


Is there anything you’d like to tell the Liya of 2005?

There are two things I remember.  My Torah portion was tzedek, tzedek tirdof [justice, justice you shall pursue]. It’s the heartbeat of Jewish social justice work. But before I realized that everyone said it every single day, it was something I had discovered on my own in my Torah portion for my bat mitzvah. I wrote my college essay on it. That’s my thing. I didn’t realize everyone knew it (laughs).

The other thing is that I donated 1,000 teddy bears to a children’s home in Israel. It was super sweet, but I wonder what the impact of that was. I wish I had pursued that further — like why were these children neglected, what was the government really doing?


Some activists have no sense of humor or irony. Are you one of those people?

(laughs) I try not to be. I think it’s super important to have a sense of humor about what you’re doing. It needs to be balanced with care. But so much of this is funny. I’m 23. If I make one nonmistake a day, I see that as a success.

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