Sonia S. Cummings is one of the true heroes in the Jewish community on a wide range of issues. Born in Europe, multi-lingual and talented, she and her husband James have been working on environmental issues for decades.
From their home in California to their frequent trips to Israel and beyond, they have long been focusing on the urgent need to do more to stop the threat of climate change. Indeed, they were there long before many of us – myself included. How I wish I had listened to them and acted more fully earlier! However, thankfully, it’s not too late for any of us.
I got to ask Sonia — a designer, trend forecaster, and force of nature on her own accord — about leadership, inspiration, partnership, and climate solutions.
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi: How did you get interested in working on climate issues?
Sonia Cummings: I became drawn to climate issues over the last two decades through numerous personal sites visits as I witnessed ecological innovations in North America and the growth of environmental grassroots leaderships in Israel. The shaping of programs for the Green Environment Fund partnership in Israel was a catalytic experience for me. In the late 90’s, with no sewage treatments at the borders due to the lack of cross border cooperation, Israel’s main concern to protect the country’s environment was growing.
Bedouin communities housed in metal shacks where they cooked in the summer and froze in the winter — stood out through the lens of environmental justice. Also, the impact of industries on health were rapidly raising alarms.
At the time, environmental organizations worked in silos. It was a learning opportunity to observe challenges at the local and regional levels, concerns about environmental issues, and a sustainable future for the country. It also demonstrated how philanthropy could help stimulate support for civil society and help build the Israel environmental field.
I saw the country’s challenges as an opportunity to learn and also for us to take an active role to repair.
Is this connected to your Jewish involvement and identity? If so, in what way?
Since I live in a parallel desert climate to Israel, I started connecting the dots at home in California. We had our own pollution and drought issues. But I also began to look at the field of the environment in Israel — as a unique opportunity for partnerships, for a common denominator between Israel and its neighbors to perhaps bring peace to the region.
I observed the model of the Arava Institute which enables Arabs and Jewish students, Israelis, Jordanians, and Palestinians who met there for the first time to explore and develop skills through partnerships and collaborate on critical environmental challenges facing the region. That common concern and outcome could be the ultimate example of Tikkun Olam.
It reminded me of the Bauhaus concept whose vision was to combine a diversity of expertise to find the best solutions benefiting all stakeholders.
While serving on the Friends of the Arava, (FAI) board, I was invited to plan an event for coexistence at the Abraham Fund. I brought FAI Israeli and Arabs alumni to present their achievements. The late Alan Slifka, the Abraham Fund co-founder, whose aim was to further coexistence between Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel, saw this new vision as a valuable opportunity worth endorsing.
Fifteen years or so later, I still believe, even if climate is not on Israel’s current government priority, that there is an urgency and opportunity for the region to share technologies, resources, and invest in a sustainable future for all.
We have to work in collaboration because as we aptly say at the Arava, “Nature Knows No Borders.” And note that the United Nations General Assembly adopted an unprecedented resolution recognizing the critical importance of ecological connectivity worldwide by stating also that “Nature Knows No Borders”.
We simply have no other alternative.
As for my Jewish identity, the global climate crisis, (and we should really define more specifically and clarify what it implies contrary to some who equate global warming to the weather or “policies damaging our economy”), the crisis has become my priority over time especially after a bout with cancer.
I feel bound by a tradition that reveres and honors our relationship to the land. All year long we celebrate seasons harvests, are encouraged to share our bounty, and observe the shabbat rest and Shmita, the ultimate injunctions telling us we need to slow down, not just for ourselves but for the sake of all species and the land itself.
As stewards of the land our obligation, my obligation, is to leave it better than found so the next generation can also reap rewards from it. These are the underlying messages from our Jewish tradition which I feel deeply connected to and which compel me to dedicate my time to this urgent existential challenge.
The crisis we are witnessing globally surpasses religion. We are all both culprits and victims of a society driven by an economy of desire rather than an economy of needs. In the words of Vandana Shiva, “you are not an atlas carrying the world on our shoulder. It is good to remember the world is carrying you.”
Once you knew you wanted to do something on climate issues, where did you go for resources, mentoring or involvements?
I learned and found resources from implementations allies, by forming coalition and joining organizations such as the Friends of the Arava Institute (FAI), witnessing the FAI alumni demonstrate concrete solutions which could be rapidly implemented.
I partnered with peers like filmmaker Judith Helfand who, twenty years ago addressed the impact of toxic chemical exposure with her documentary Blue Vinyl, and more recently in her film Cooked, chronicling the 1995 Chicago heatwave in which 739 poor, elderly, and bipoc Chicago citizens died in a single week.
I connected with Dr. Michael Ben-Eli and visited Wadi Attir, a model of sustainable agriculture in the Negev desert blending indigenous Bedouin values and traditions. I also supported some of the radical innovation of his Sustainability Lab.
I continuously get inspired by my friend Dr. Mirele Goldsmith, the first leader to devise Greening Fellowships and the founder of the Jewish Earth Alliance, and by Michael Green, the founder of the Center for Environmental Health, (CEH), which exposes industries generating toxic materials threatening our health. It is through the Jewish Global Environmental Network (JGEN), initiated by my husband James with Dr. Eilon Schwartz, a first-time encounter of US Jewish environmentalists with Israelis counterparts, that I met Michael.
Another longtime colleague offering one of the most promising solutions for the region’s future and who continues to inspire me is Dr. Gidon Bromberg, the founder of EcoPeace Middle East, instrumental for his long-term vision of regional partnerships, and A Green Blue Deal, to protect a shared environmental heritage.
Lastly my friend Suzanne Biegel, a true hero, and a leader in impact investing in the UK, who, while recently diagnosed as a stage 4 lung cancer created a philanthropic endowment, Heading for Change, to invest in funds at the intersection of climate and gender. Since its launch this April, the fund has grown from $1 million to $3 million in less than three months.
Each of those colleagues and friends and many more, work relentlessly to mitigate the climate crisis, persevere demonstrating impacts and innovations to ensure a just, sustainable future for all. Our circle is growing; we are often the usual suspects bouncing ideas together and I proudly partner with them at every opportunity to promote their work, share resources and spread their impacts.
There are so many ways to help. How did you pick your “lane” and what is it? How do you go about doing this? What is your role now?
I play multiple roles because funding is only one facet of being involved in the climate challenge and I also have a limited capacity as to what I can fund.
I am privileged to be married to an environmental activist who continuously inspires me and encourages me to dig deeper into the complex issues we are tackling, (currently, i.e.., impact investing), and to be personally involved because we are all interconnected with this crisis. So, I focus on informing and communicating resources to a broadening network and highlight how climate intersects in all aspects of our life and try inspiring others to be active in this challenge.
I joined different networks such as the Wexner Climate Summit to brainstorm and share our resources; I am involved in a local community, a model of active resiliency from community residents defining solutions for solar and water.
I team up regularly with peers abroad who advise the French government on financial impact initiatives and with a friend in Ecuador searching for creatives tools to reconnect people to nature, to a sense of beauty we have lost and with indigenous traditions which have so much relevance and wisdom to impart.
I also joined Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project to connect with a wider coalition in my state. Nothing seems enough and the more connections, the best we can prepare to learn from this summer significant warnings before the 2030 deadline to reduce our emissions in half.
We need to act fast. More people are confronted with the evidence, and we are now at a turning point.
What have been some of your biggest successes?
I have seen successes while partnering with peers in a variety of projects, seeing them coming to fruition and many continuously evolving. These are not my victories but the collaboration of multiple efforts of lay leadership, deep commitments and I see many rewards in those achievements.
I led webinars addressing challenges of frontline communities with multi faith partners; ran parlor events with updates about Israel economic opportunities in an exchange of solar technologies and transboundary water, EcoPeace Middle East’s project.
As an avid advocate of regenerative agriculture, I helped promote ReSeed, a carbon solution from farmers to the market started in Brazil and now expanding in multiple countries- ReSeed has also been tapped by the World Economic Forum to help develop guidelines and best practices for the carbon offset sector.
This year as partners with Stand LA, an ordinance was passed to end new oil and gas extraction activities and phase out existing oil drilling in Los Angeles citywide. Lastly, I have successfully and continue to leverage nonprofits unrelated to the environment, to endorse and integrate climate in their mission and programs.
What is your advice for other people who are just getting their start on climate issues? Where should folks begin?
I try to pitch my friends and acquaintances monthly with updates and tips on how to play an impactful role to help reduce fossil emissions. I combine hard statistics, facts with lighter tips and trends because without joy one can become extremely disillusioned and we need strength to carry on.
I recommend taking action with synagogues, (does your synagogue use a solar Nir Tamid?), I suggest joining Adamah’s Climate Leadership Coalition and its programs on food.
I recommend people engage children in Adamah’s educational activities and prepare the next generation of leaders in climate justice ahead the 2024 US presidential election with Adamah’s Jewish Youth Climate Movement, because the next generation’s future is at stake.
Petitioning and connecting with local state representatives is also critical because each of our voices counts and is noted. The perfect links are the Jewish Earth Alliance, the Jewish Climate Action Network and Dayenu to learn about divesting from fossil fuels.
I suggest also doing the Snap Challenge for five days to understand the challenges of frontline communities, (the challenge asks individuals to confront the difficult choices over 40 million of Americans make every time they go to the grocery store while on an extremely tight budget), and reading Soil Not Oil, Vandana Shiva’s book, a valuable tool explaining that a world without fossil fuel dependence is possible.
I suggest learning all about, recycling, plastics, waste, renewable energy, pollution.
Finally, I ask myself regularly what am I willing to give up and change for the sake of our survival? For my loved ones?
Whatever we do to reduce CO2 emissions and stop global warming will benefits us all, for “small acts multiplied by millions of people can transform the world”, but also lead to bolder initiatives.
We have the solutions for solving the climate crisis. We just need the political will and more trust from the philanthropic community to take a leap of faith and put more capital in existing ventures ready to be deployed on a global scale to ensure a healthier sustainable and just future for the sake of our children and the generations to come.