Four years ago, Rosh Chodesh Adar, our family’s Jewish values and our vision for the State of Israel were severely tested at the Kotel, as Susan and our daughter Hallel, along with others, were arrested for the crime of wearing a tallit. Our goal was that when our youngest daughter, Ashira, who was then 9, became bat mitzvah, she would be able to wear a tallit and have an aliyah from the Torah at the Kotel. Susan’s arrest famously triggered a world Jewish outcry, a delicious government crisis, and some really memorable tweets.
Ashira, by the way, was able to wear a tallit at the Kotel when she became bat mitzvah, because we won and the law changed, and she was able to have an aliyah from a Torah scroll, because Natan Sharansky promised our family no new arrests. However, still, as in the dark days of the Soviet Jewry movement, the Torah had to be smuggled in. A fair-enough compromise involving the southern end of the Wall was reached, but has yet to be implemented.
But I have faith that the High Court will soon compel the government to begin dismantling the ultra-Orthodox monopoly at the Kotel.
So why is “Captain Sunshine,” the environmental activist, writing about the cause of religious pluralism? Because disruptive theologies and disruptive technologies have a lot in common and are necessary for an inspired Judaism and an enlightened Israel. Disruptive theologies and technologies are both idol-smashers, they are both monopoly-busters. And when combined, they are world-changers.
Monopolies — religious or otherwise — are bad for Jews, and, when it comes to climate change, all living things. I know a little bit about that, since I was part of the team that broke the energy generation monopoly of the Israel Electric Corporation, when our Arava solar company received the first independent generation license and Power Purchase Agreement in Israel’s history. It was for a modest yet revolutionary five megawatt solar field at Kibbutz Ketura — a kibbutz that is Shabbat-observant, pluralistic, with a kosher dining room, and a fully egalitarian synagogue.
I think it is no coincidence that the solar revolution in Israel sprang from a community that is empowered to embrace theological and technological vision and innovation. Before I was a solar guy, I was a Jewish educator married to a rabbi. So the roots of my innovation are not Start-Up Nation’s science and technology, but enlightened Judaism, which our family strives to live.
And — interwoven with of our enlightened Judaism — is God, with whom I continue to wrestle and whose presence I am often blessed to feel in my life.
With teams at Arava Power and Energiya Global, I brought solar power to Israel and Africa and elsewhere because I feel commanded to do so, as my teacher, the late Prof. Eugene Borowitz z”l taught me in his Covenant Theology class at Hebrew Union College in New York. My partners and impact investors figured out how to deploy a scalable business model for this tikkun olam, in Israel and around the world. And I am proud that our investors span the entire Jewish religious and political spectrum — from Jerusalem a new light is shining.
I was part of the Israeli negotiating team at the Paris Climate Conference, and of the 40,000 people in attendance, I think I was the only one with a kippah. I was always confident that the historic deal was going to be signed because it was taking place during Hanukkah, our festival of lights and miracles. It was a deeply spiritual experience for me because I ended up spending much of the conference getting hugged by African energy officials.
Because, from Jerusalem and based on our solar experience in Israel, Chaim Motzen and I developed and financed sub-Saharan Africa’s first commercial scale solar field, at the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village, which is now supplying 6 percent of Rwanda’s power. It was the first successful example in Africa where GDP growth was decoupled from emissions growth. In other words, the economy continued to grow at 8% without adding any more carbon dioxide emissions to power that growth. And now we work closely with Israel’s prime minister to advance solar as an expression of Israeli humanitarian, economic and diplomatic interests in a dozen African countries.
Our business goal is also our Jewish mission: it is to bring affordable green energy to 50 million people by 2025. When Susan, the kids and I made aliyah from Boston to Kibbutz Ketura, my partners and I set a ludicrous goal, that by 2020, 100% of the energy consumed during the day, from the Red Sea — including Eilat– to the Dead Sea, would be powered by the sun. The government and the electric company all said it was going to be impossible and no one in the world had ever achieved anything close to that. But today, the Arava is 70% powered by the sun during the day, and by 2020 we will reach 100%.
This is the model for the rest of Israel, for Africa and the Middle East, and hopefully for the world. There is still much work to be done, and, in the words of the sages, “we are not at liberty to desist from it.” In Israel today outside of the Arava, fossil fuels still have a shocking 97% monopoly over energy generation, a relic of the past that must be smashed — like the Golden Calf. And in Africa, there are 600 million people without power, and another 200 million using dirty and expensive diesel to generate their electricity.
My Covenant Theology says that access to green and affordable power for under-served populations should be elevated to a fundamental human right. For without power, how can there truly be education, health care, industry, jobs? If enlightened Jews believe that everyone is created in God’s image and therefore deserving of dignity, then this work from Jerusalem of bringing power to the people of Africa is a Jewish obligation, not just a business.
Our Torah is really clear. As we stood at Sinai, and received the Law, the Commandments from God, God sets up the paradigm, the struggle and the blessing for an enlightened Judaism:
“If you hear My voice and keep My Covenant…you shall be to me a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation….”
Coming from the oppression of Egypt, where Pharaoh ruled with a deadly iron fist, where there was a clear hierarchy of holiness from Pharaoh to the priestly class, we learn that command-control of religion and society leads to cults of death. God wants us to be the opposite of ancient Egypt’s cult of death. The Jewish people must always represent a positive celebration of life. And the way to do that is to do away with religious coercion and hierarchy. For when we are all members of a Kingdom of Priests, it connotes equal access to God and Authority. No one, and I mean no one, can dictate our spirituality.
To be a Kingdom of Priests is the ultimate democratization of access to the Ultimate Power. And I will leave it to you to decide if I am only speaking about access to spiritual power or perhaps other pure forms of God’s energy. My role now is to help transform Israel into a superpower of goodness in the world by empowering communities across Africa with Israeli green energy, and with others, to integrate water, agricultural, medical technologies and more.
And while I am obviously a proponent of the Paris Climate Agreement, the best way to beat climate change is hidden in Jewish thought and practice, and is the inheritance of all Jews throughout the world: decarbonize Shabbat. Transform Shabbat into a real day of rest and non-consumerism.
Yes, decarbonize Shabbat.
On Yom Kippur, in Israel, there are hardly any greenhouse gas emissions. It is a happy day and the streets are filled with kids playing amid the cleanest air of the year. On Shabbat in Israel, to the credit of mostly our Orthodox brothers and sisters, there is a 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
If the entirety of the Jewish people worldwide from the entire religious spectrum would truly observe Shabbat every week — and if we could model a low-carbon true day of rest for other faith communities — there would be a one seventh reduction in greenhouse gas emissions — worldwide.
And then the majesty of God’s earth would be back in balance.
Now that’s power.
And with power, as we learn from a modern sage, I’m referring of course to Spider-Man, with power comes responsibility. So in the spirit of taking responsibility, here is my heartfelt appeal for worldwide Jewry to accept the challenge of three goals in the spirit of tikkun olam:
First, please switch to electric cars — everyone. Within four years, driving a combustion engine car should be considered a chilul Hashem, a desecration of God’s great name.
Next, power your holy places of worship with clean, holy energy rather than the dark, fossil energies of your utilities;
And finally, it is time for our movements and the Jewish institutional world to divest our endowments and our rabbinic pension funds from fossil fuels.
We can’t do it all in our lifetimes, and we can take comfort from the words of the song Lo Alecha that tell us it is not for us to complete the work of saving the world. But, boy, are we ever on the hook now to do everything possible to empower all Jews spiritually, and to materially raise the dignity of all who are downtrodden — especially before climate change really devastates. My vision for Israel is for Israeli technological innovation to represent Tikkun Olam to the world and for theological innovation to empower all Jews to truly feel spiritually at home here.
Adapted from a keynote address delivered at CONNECTIONS 2017, the international conference hosted in Jerusalem by the World Union for Progressive Judaism, May 18, 2017.
Yosef Abramowitz, aka Captain Sunshine, is president and CEO of Energiya Global Capital as well as co-founder of the Arava Power Company. He was the first private-sector candidate for Israel’s presidency, named by CNN as one of the six leading Green Pioneers worldwide, and served as a member of Israel’s negotiating team at the Paris Climate Conference. Yossi is married to Rabbi Susan Silverman-and they have five children.
The opinions expressed herein are his own, and don’t necessarily reflect the views of his company, or its staff or investors.