By Jackie Hajdenberg
(JTA) — A massive march aimed at pressing for stronger efforts to curb climate change will take place in New York on the second day of Rosh Hashanah — a scheduling move that could exclude Jewish climate activists.
The coalition People vs. Fossil Fuels said it had selected the date despite the conflict after careful consideration. The march will take place days before global leaders are set to descend on the city for the United Nations’ Climate Ambition Summit.
“There were a number of factors that led us to choose this date,” a statement on the event’s website said. “Given the timing of the UN Climate Summit, Yom Kippur on the following weekend, and the need to make the march accessible for families and working people of all backgrounds on a weekend, Sunday the 17th was the date that was chosen. We did not make this decision lightly.”
The move comes at a time when warnings abound on social media about how important it is to avoid scheduling events during the busy Jewish holiday season for anyone who is seeking to hold inclusive events. Just on Monday, for example, Rebecca Rausch, a Jewish state legislator in Massachusetts whose platform includes combating climate change, tweeted a “PSA for everyone doing September scheduling” not to hold meetings on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, “at a minimum.”
Achieving those ambitions is particularly complicated this year, when Jewish holidays occupy three full weekends in September and October.
Jewish climate groups and activists say they understand why the March to End Fossil Fuels shook out the way it did — and emphasize that Jews concerned about what scientists say is a looming climate catastrophe have lots of opportunities to help besides marching on Sept. 17.
“This is just a busy time in the Jewish world,” Dahlia Rockowitz, director of campaigns and partnership at Dayenu, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “We know that any date that would have been picked around this summit was going to have challenges.”
Dayenu is one of five Jewish groups among the 30 faith-based organizations that are part of People vs. Fossil Fuels, which includes a total of over 1,200 organizations with interests in climate justice and progressive issues.
“We share disappointment that this was on Rosh Hashanah, but recognize the competing demands the organizers were holding, and also know that no matter what, it was going to be a challenging time of year to reach Jews, to turn out Jews to this type of event,” Rockowitz said.
Ben Goloff, a senior climate campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the organizations on the steering committee for the march, was involved in many of the scheduling discussions for this year’s climate march.
“For me and for other Jewish folks in the room and other organizations, this was at the top of our minds when we began sort of organizing around how we’re going to meet this moment, given the timing of the U.N. summit,” he said.
Goloff said he expected a Jewish delegation at the march on Rosh Hashanah and also understood why some Jews, depending on how they observe holidays, would be skipping it in favor of other efforts.
“There are some folks that are actually really excited to show up and participate in the march from the Jewish community and to hold a Jewish-led delegation as a part of it,” Goloff said. “And there are others that are organizing other things around it at times that make more sense for their practice.”
People vs. Fossil Fuels said in its statement about the schedule overlap that it appreciates the challenged it poses for many Jews.
“We deeply respect that Jewish communities have different relationships with protest and social action during the High Holidays,” the coalition said. “We honor and affirm that many Jewish communities and organizations will be praying at this time and celebrate their observance.”
This is not the first time a major march or protest has been held on an important Jewish holiday. In 2017, the March for Racial Justice in Washington, D.C. was scheduled for Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar and also one of the most widely observed Jewish holidays. Organizers of the march put out a statement apologizing for the “scheduling conflict.”
“The core leadership of the March for Racial Justice regrets the scheduling conflict of the September 30 date for the March for Racial Justice and the Yom Kippur holiday, the Day of Atonement,” the statement said. “The core leadership of the March for Racial Justice recognizes and celebrates the historical unity between African Americans and Americans of the Jewish faith. These two communities are natural partners, as each have a history of persecution and discrimination.”
Climate change has long ranked at or near the top of a list of issues concerning Jews in the United States, according to multiple surveys, and Jews have been heavily involved in the wider climate movement. But until recently, the issue had a marginal place on the agendas of Jewish communal organizations, which neglected climate even as the subject took on importance in the activism and policies of other religious communities and in the larger philanthropic world. That has changed in the last year or so, with a growing number of Jewish philanthropists and organizations allocating resources toward climate issues.
Rockowitz noted that other Jewish climate activism groups Dayenu is in touch with are coming up with alternatives to the Sunday march for those who are observing the holiday and not attending the protest. Jewish Climate Action Network NYC created a tashlich resource themed around the demands and messaging of the march, and a student strike on Friday, before Rosh Hashanah begins at nightfall, will have Jewish youth participants.
Shoshanna Segal, a Jewish fellow at the interfaith climate group GreenFaith, said she hasn’t decided yet whether to attend the march. But she said that while she would prefer that the march not coincide with the holiday, she thinks there are more important issues to consider.
“This is not the discussion that we should be having,” said Segal, who attends a Conservative synagogue in Queens, Forest Hills Jewish Center. “We should be having a discussion about: Is climate awareness somehow a 614th mitzvah?”
Rosh Hashanah celebrates the birthday of the world and has long been seen by environmental activists as a natural moment in the Jewish calendar to elevate their concerns. Some Jews who are attending the march during the holiday are taking the symbolism in stride: Some will gather at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn before the march to create Rosh Hashanah-themed art to carry with them.
Goloff, who lives in Washington D.C., said he, too, anticipated interweaving his Jewish identity and his passion for climate activism even as some of their biggest dates overlap.
“I will be organizing at a time when I’m also praying and that’s going to be important for me,” Goloff said. “It’s absolutely something that I will be holding dear to me in that lead-up to the event and then the week after.”
“I’m really grateful, actually, for this opportunity to bring those two things together,” he added.