Climate hero Rabbi Jennie Rosenn is the Founder & CEO of Dayenu, a new organization mobilizing the American Jewish community to confront the climate crisis with spiritual audacity and bold political action. She previously spent the past 25 years as a rabbi mobilizing the American Jewish community around issues of social and economic justice. She started her career at Columbia/Barnard Hillel engaging young people in service and activism. Then she worked for a decade in philanthropy, helping build the field of Jewish social justice. During this time, she also had the opportunity to support the burgeoning environmental movement and women as agents of change in Israel. Most recently, she served as part of the senior leadership at HIAS, building a Jewish response to the refugee crisis.
Dayenu is growing quickly in size and impact. It presses candidates and elected officials to take real action. They educate them — and voters — about what’s at stake, and challenge them to be bold leaders in pursuit of climate solutions. A big part of their agenda is to end fossil fuel finance as well as to advance comprehensive climate policy.
I recently re-connected with Rabbi Rosenn at the Jewish Funders Network Green Funders Forum and asked her if she would be willing to answer some key questions to help other Jews lean into climate issues. Here is that interview:
JLM: How did you get interested in working on climate issues?
Rabbi Jennie Rosenn: Many things contributed to my own awakening to the climate crisis and the realization that it was coming faster and more furiously than I had fully realized. Working with refugees was certainly part of it – experts predict a billion climate refugees if we don’t make massive change. I was also coming to realize that at its core, the climate crisis is about social, economic, and racial justice – it’s about people, about who is bearing the brunt of climate change already and who will be most severely impacted. As I was integrating the reality of living in this moment of climate emergency, I was having conversations with friends and colleagues about how the American Jewish community was not showing up with all our people and power to confront this crisis at the scale that is needed.
So, what did you do?
Climate is the existential crisis upon which our collective future depends, and we have no choice but to give it everything we got. For me that meant founding Dayenu to give American Jews pathways to take the kind of meaningful, strategic action that science and justice require. And also, importantly, to provide support for Jews and Jewish communities to face their climate anxiety, cultivate hope and move into courageous action.
Rooted in Jewish values, experience, and spirit, Dayenu’s mission is to secure a livable and sustainable world for all people for generations to come by building a multi-generational Jewish movement that is confronting the climate crisis with spiritual audacity and bold political action. We are mobilizing Jewish support for climate solutions, building our collective power with national and global movements, and raising up a spiritual, religious, and moral voice.
That’s a lot – can you unpack it a bit?
Sure. The Jewish community, like much of the world, is very awake to the climate crisis. For several years now surveys show it is a top issue for Jewish voters and the #1 issue of American Jews under 40. But most people are not taking action in ways that will really help move the needle in the limited time frame we know we have. I think that’s for two reasons. First, they are not sure what to do to really make a difference in the face of such a complex issue. And second, it can be difficult to face the truth of what is at stake on an emotional and psychological level. It’s too much to take in so we disassociate, turn away, or distract ourselves. Dayenu seeks to address both of these and give people meaningful ways to act in community through strategic campaigns like Hear the Call (to pass the Inflation Reduction Act); All Our Might (to screen out fossil fuels and invest in clean energy); and Chutzpah 2020 and 2022 (to get out the climate vote). Meanwhile we are building grassroots power through organizing, training, partnerships, and a growing network of Dayenu Circles across the country. That’s the bold political action.
We also know the climate crisis is not just a political and ecological issue, it’s also an issue of the soul. So Dayenu is building a Jewish spiritually rooted Jewish climate movement, with resources for Jews and Jewish communities to be able to confront the crisis with their hearts and eyes wide open, supported by Jewish tradition and history, teaching and music, and of course, community. This helps us make space for the grief and anxiety, cultivate active hope, envision a different future, and move into courageous action. This is spiritual audacity.
There are so many ways to help. How did you pick your “lane” and what is it?
Personally, I chose to organize the Jewish community because that is what I bring to the table. We all need to look at where we have influence (and what our superpower is) and bring that to this crisis. For me – and for the many folks who choose to organize with Dayenu – that is organizing the Jewish community. Dayenu’s lane is systemic change. In order to mitigate the most devastating impacts of climate change, and to avert total climate collapse, we need to take action on a systemic level. Systemic change means not just thinking about what car do I buy?, but what cars does Detroit manufacture? It means not just putting solar panels on my own roof but advocating for policies to ensure my whole community, city, and state are rapidly transitioning to clean energy at scale and that those hardest hit and most often marginalized are benefiting. It means removing the money and social license that currently enables the fossil fuel industry to continue to build more polluting infrastructure, and it means electing leaders who will champion the bold solutions we need before time runs out. Dayenu’s lane is doing this work and doing it in a Jewish and spiritually rooted way. We are training, organizing, and mobilizing Jews of all generations to bring our history, experience, teachings and tradition, and faith and song to our activism and to the larger climate movement.
Do you have partners? Who are they and how did you build your team?
Yes! It is essential to do this work in partnership. We understand ourselves to be a small part of a much bigger movement and work in close partnership with Jewish, multi-faith, and secular climate groups. Similarly, the Dayenu staff team is made up of folks who have worked in Jewish social justice, the secular climate movement, community organizing, political advocacy, and Jewish environmentalism. We sit at the intersection of the Jewish community and the larger climate movement and working in partnership is critical.
What has been one of your biggest successes?
Dayenu played a part – together with many, many others – in helping to pass the Inflation Reduction Act, a historic, game changing investment in clean energy. There were many parts to our strategy, but just to share two snapshots: Across the country grassroots Dayenu Circles organized actions on their Senators’ doorsteps, blowing shofarot and calling them to take bold action on climate. Fast forward to last Tisha B’Av, when our climate torah was read on the Senate floor as they were taking the vote to pass the legislation.
What is your advice for other people who are just getting their start on climate issues? Where should folks begin?
I’m thinking about six steps to getting started:
1. Remember that you don’t have to be a scientist or a policy wonk to play a meaningful role in addressing the climate crisis. Truly.
2. Find a group in your community that is already working on climate. You can see if there is a Dayenu Circle in your area or to start one. And there are lots of different groups working on climate. Find one near you.
3. Confirm that what this group is doing is strategic. There are many things to do, but given our timeline is short, ensure this group is addressing one of the major levers for change (i.e. changing policy, keeping fossil fuel in the ground and unburned, moving money, working for a just transition to renewable energy, showing up as allies with frontline communities, electing climate champions, etc.)
4. Think about what you have to bring. Do you like to write? build relationships? make spreadsheets? march in the streets? organize logistics? You have gifts that the movement needs.
5. Find ways to sustain yourself in the work. Dayenu has developed climate torah, Spiritual Adaptation workshops, and music. Find what works for you to nurture your spirit in this hard, holy, and essential work.
6. Remember if we are going to avert the worst of climate disaster and build a just, green new energy economy it is going to take all of us, and none of us needs to do it alone.