Climate hero Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb has a long and deep record of leadership on climate and environmental issues. Today he serves as chair and Rabbinic Consultant for the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), which deepens and broadens the Jewish community’s commitment to stewardship and protection of the Earth through outreach, activism, and Jewish learning. Through a network of Jewish leaders, institutions, and individuals, COEJL mobilizes the Jewish community to conserve resources, increase sustainability, and advocate for policies that support environmental protection.
Fred is a father of two, husband, and avid environmentalist, who’s devoted to tikkun olam and to community. With the wonderful folks of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation (Bethesda, MD) where he’s served since 1995, Fred has celebrated countless milestones, shabbatot and festivals, while bringing progressive Israeli shlichim, green initiatives, Reconstructionist and traditional Torah, and much more. A Wexner Fellow, Fred previously served as President of the Washington Board of Rabbis, board member of NRPE, and Chair of Interfaith Power & Light (DC, MD, NoVA). He also serves on the national board of IPL.
I had a chance to ask Fred about his involvement in climate and environmental issues. I hope his answers will inspire you as much as they do me!
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi: In what ways are climate concerns connected to your Jewish involvement and identity?
Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb: Jewish identity and ecological identity are, for me, fused to near unity. Environmentalism is all about awe for creation and practicing active respect for all God’s children. Judaism is a journey of awareness and gratitude, ethics and spirituality. As Martin Buber wrote: “love of the Creator, and love of that which God has created, are finally one and the same.” I’m equally a Jewish climate activist, and an environmental Jew. And I believe that tradition’s call, in light of the harsh realities of our time, asks us all to be both.
How did you get interested in working on climate issues?
I’m lucky to have found myself on the ground-floor of modern Jewish environmentalism – in 1989, not even age 20 yet, I participated in the first conference held by the early national eco-Jewish group Shomrei Adamah. In the ‘90s I was a regular at the gatherings of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, which helped build up the movement we know today. These engagements flowed naturally from the Jewish values that informed my upbringing and my social and political growth. The connections weren’t always clear a generation ago, but blessedly, many Jews today are saying the same.
It’s always been about motivating and empowering others. In 1990, I took a year off from college and joined a nine-month cross-country environmental education walk. Back then we’d say, “we’re walking over 3000 miles, for the planet; you can walk 3 feet to the recycling bin, or 30 feet to the empty room to turn off the light.” With increased awareness and urgency, the message has since become: “even as we strive to live lightly on God’s good Earth, let’s organize, and march together into politicians’ offices for climate justice!” The urgency of this moment, along with the tradition we’ve inherited, demands no less from us.
Once you knew you wanted to do something on climate issues, where did you go for resources, mentoring or involvement?
My early heroes and teachers were those who built this movement, laying both a theoretical and practical foundation for it – Rabbis Arthur Waskow, Ellen Bernstein, and David Saperstein, to name a few. The most growthful work was with peers, learning from one another, teaching and writing and experimenting, and building it up ourselves. Today there’s an incredible proliferation of resources, and entry points – Adamah, Dayenu, Jewish Earth Alliance, Shalom Center, and so many more – fantastic organizations and initiatives that we can both learn from, and contribute to.
There are so many ways to help. How did you pick your “lane,” and what is it?
The “lane” I hope ever more Jews occupy is where we encounter others, in the multi-faith arena. Jews are only 2% of the U.S. population, and 0.2% of the globe’s. We need to bring our text-informed selves to the table of all faiths, break bread and compare notes together, and act in concert with our cross-credal cousins. This is happening brilliantly through a national network called Interfaith Power and Light (on whose board I’m honored to serve), which helps houses of worship green themselves, then mobilize together for collective faithful action.
It’s also happening through groups like the National Religious Partnership on the Environment, where faith leaders work between, as well as within, their communities. The Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) has long represented the Jewish community under that umbrella; after years of serving on its steering committee while a full-time pulpit rabbi, I’m just now starting as Rabbinic Consultant for COEJL. That means representing the Jewish community in numerous “climate-adjacent” environmental justice efforts – sacred efforts like access to public land, limiting toxic exposure, ecosystem protection and restoration, and so on.
Who are your partners in this work?
Our most important partners are always the frontline or ‘fenceline’ communities, hard-hit by legacies of racism and classism, often ignored by policy-makers and C-suite leaders. It’s vital that Jews and others show up in solidarity, follow their lead, and amplify their voices.
In the multi-faith world, COEJL’s closest partners are Creation Justice Ministries (Protestant), Catholic Climate Covenant, and the Evangelical Environmental Network, along with the 40-plus state and regional affiliates of Interfaith Power and Light. In the Jewish world, beyond the aforementioned great green groups like Dayenu and Adamah, denominational bodies (such as the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center) are key partners, as are other national and local Jewish organizations.
And locally, never underestimate the power and potential of congregations! My own shul, Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation (in Bethesda MD), has greened countless hearts and minds through education and modeling. Most synagogues can do as we’ve done – many already have, with great impact – from solar panels atop sustainable architecture, to an onsite organic garden; from environmental justice programs, to a climate action team bringing our Jewish voice to county, state, and federal officials.
Tell me more about that Jewish voice – what texts or traditions most deeply ground your work?
Oh, so many! I’ll just name three concepts where Judaism adds unique and needed contributions to the eco-world. One is the inherent equality and sanctity of each and every human life – since without exception we’re all created b’tzelem, in the Divine image – even as the non-human world has sacred standing of its own, as part of God’s good seder beresheet, order of Creation.
Another is the Talmud’s pro-regulation stance. In contrast to current cries for unconstrained economic competition, Judaism always saw law and regulation as holy. They’re how we concretize values, bring justice, and ensure the protection of the most vulnerable among us. This is especially critical where climate is concerned, since voluntary schemes won’t save us in time – we’re already nearing the “too late” point for species, ecosystems, people, even peoples. As Jews and as justice-seekers, we must channel Dr. King’s “fierce urgency of now,” and bring on halachic-Talmudic-style regulations that can put us back onto a sustainable track.
Judaism’s most singular contribution is the idea – rooted in Shabbat, and in shmita/sabbatical principles – that what’s best and holiest lies entirely beyond the marketplace, far from production and consumption, since every “good” comes with some social and ecological costs. Instead, we’re all about the few things that can grow sustainably, without limit: community; spirituality; creativity; rest and renewal. Not “goods”, but “the good,” which alone is truly great. Ah, Shabbos….
Are there new or emerging frontiers in Jewish environmental thought worth mentioning?
I’m especially excited about applying Mussar – the venerable wing of Jewish thought and practice that fuses spirituality, ethics, and psychology into a text-informed self-improvement regimen – to the climate crisis. Mussar recognizes that despite our already deep knowledge of right from wrong, we keep making woefully insufficient or inconsistent choices; it then bids us to examine our inner selves, our actions, and our attributes, to find ways to close that gap.
Strengthening certain of these attributes (middot) will naturally lead us toward greater ecological sensitivity. A favorite example is anavah, humility, which is understood as “taking up the right amount of space, neither too much nor too little.” In carbon footprint or land use terms, we humans need to take up way less space than we now do – especially the wealthier and more consumptive among us – while in the social and political and spiritual realms, we must ratchet it up.
What advice would you give to people who are just getting their start on climate issues? Where might they begin?
Just begin! One good deed, one green step, begets another. Start with the religious, and then incorporate the scientific and the secular; or vice versa. Start locally, with your synagogue or regional Dayenu circle, your Jewish community relations council or Interfaith Power and Light chapter – then over time, turn to state and national efforts, to Israel’s thriving but threatened green scene, to the global movement. Start with individual virtue-actions like eating less meat, driving more efficiently and less often, conserving energy, switching to renewables – then quickly, add the policy and advocacy angle.
Which step you take first matters less than that you take one now – and follow it quickly with another, then another. A climate movement motto is “to change everything, we need everyone.”
You, dear reader, are needed. You’re invited. You’ve been called. The Jewish way is to answer, hineni – here I am.