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Jewish environmental group increasing efforts as climate debate heats up

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Sybil Sanchez, the new COEJL director, says the group’s focus will be on its Jewish Energy Covenant Campaign seeking increased activism on environmental issues. Courtesy Sybil Sanchez

WASHINGTON – As the debate over how to combat climate change heats up in Copenhagen, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life is ramping up its efforts to help make the Jewish community a key player in the discussion.

Without a full-time director since early 2006, COEJL has secured a half-million dollars in funding for the next two years and hired Sybil Sanchez, executive director of the Jewish Labor Committee, to be its new director.

Sanchez said she sees COEJL helping the Jewish environmental movement transition into a new phase.

For a long time, she said, the goal was to get people to understand such things like “climate change is real” and the negative impact of carbon emissions. But now that “all but the hard core” in the Jewish community are convinced of that, Sanchez said, the question is “how do we integrate that into action as Jewish individuals and activists — move it to the next level and start to be the change we want to see in the world.”

“It’s a challenging and inspiring time,” she said.

Sanchez, who was officially to take over at COEJL on Wednesday, said that while specific plans for the future are still being discussed, the group would likely be hiring a representative in Washington. But the primary focus of the environmental organization’s efforts right now is the Jewish Energy Covenant Campaign. The initiative asks American Jews to pledge that they will act to conserve on the individual level, be part of Jewish communal actions on the environment, and advocate for environmental issues with elected officials and in the media.

She also sees COEJL becoming a clearinghouse of information for synagogues and Jewish organizations, providing best practices and products to help sustainability, providing advice, and making connections between groups working on similar issues. COEJL sponsored a “sustainability” conference earlier this year for representatives of Jewish organizations.

Sanchez said the environment sparks multi-generational interest among Jews because it encompasses a number of different issues — from concern about dependence on foreign oil to protection of nature to worries about the state of the planet for future generations. And Sanchez argues that Judaism is connected to the environment in a number of ways. Major Jewish holidays are timed to the seasons of Israel, she points out, and working “in community and collectively are part of the Jewish and environmental lifestyle.” For example, the requirement to pray in a minyan, she notes, is one example of the “idea that we need each other” in Judaism.

In the absence of a full-time leader in the last few years, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism have stepped in to help out with COEJL, which is a project of JCPA. The Reform center worked on legislative advocacy in Washington, while JCPA — an advocacy umbrella organization bringing together the synagogue movements, national organizations, and local Jewish ommunities — organized grass-roots support and activism throughout the country.

The Reform center’s director, Rabbi David Saperstein, said it was good to have both organizations “more engaged than they might have been otherwise” in the issue and he hopes that intensity continues, but added that COEJL’s re-emergence will help to mobilize further the consciousness of the Jewish community.

“It is crucially important at this moment in history to play a role in the climate change debate,” he said.

“I feel it’s back in the nick of time,” said JCPA’s president, Rabbi Steve Gutow, who hopes to see COEJL become successful enough to eventually spin off into an independent group.

Gutow said the Jewish community has been a “very important leader” on a number of other issues in recent years — from Darfur to Iran to anti-discrimination issues — but has not done the same on energy and the environment.

“I think people look to us for leadership on certain issues,” he said, and “if we decide to lead, I do think we have a particular niche that we are able to help move it forward.”

JTA

 
 

Environmental leaders roiled by oil plan

President Obama’s announcement last week that he intends to allow drilling for oil off the Atlantic Coast drew swift condemnation from area political, environmental, and Jewish communal leaders.

Oil is “like coal, it’s not good from square one,” said Rabbi Lawrence Troster, a Teaneck resident who has worked with a number of Jewish environmental organizations. “They can’t guarantee there aren’t going to be oil spills and other things that won’t devastate the shore.”

Obama’s energy strategy called for the exploration off the Atlantic coastline from the coast of Florida up to Delaware. Obama also announced a series of car and truck fuel and emissions standards, and the purchase of 100 plug-in electric cars for federal agencies.

Troster called the oil exploration announcement “a calculated move,” a concession, to create leverage for Obama to tackle larger issues such as climate change.

The president “has some Democrats who are not on board on some of the climate change issues; this is a way of balancing some of the interests,” Troster said. “On environmental issues this particular administration is doing a much better job than the previous administration.”

He noted that it would be several years before offshore drilling became operational and even if the U.S. were to drill all of its domestic oil resources, it still would not be enough.

U.S. energy independence, he said, would not come from domestic oil drilling, but rather from pursuing sustainable alternative sources such as wind and solar energy.

“It’s really important in the 21st century and today’s economy to focus on modern techniques,” said Sybil Sanchez, director of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.

COEJL condemned Obama’s drilling announcement but praised other parts of the president’s strategy, such as improving fuel efficiency standards and regulating automobile greenhouse gas emissions.

“This administration is looking to take a comprehensive approach and we hope it will accomplish that,” Sanchez told the Standard. “We’re concerned when we see offshore exploration for oil drilling. We want to see more of a focus on clean technology.”

Reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil is a matter of national security, Sanchez continued, but reducing fossil fuel dependence in general is also a national concern.

Obama emphasized in his speech that the emissions caps and domestic exploration are “part of a broader strategy that will move us from an economy that runs on fossil fuels and foreign oil to one that relies on homegrown fuels and clean energy.”

The Gulf of Mexico contains 36 billion to 41.5 billion barrels of undiscovered, recoverable oil and 161 trillion to 207 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered, recoverable natural gas, according to the Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service.

The Interior Department intends to hold two lease sales — one 50 miles off the coast of Virginia and the other in Alaska — by 2012. It is the Virginia plan that has drawn the ire of New Jersey’s politicians from within the president’s own Democratic party and the Republican party, despite its past support for domestic oil exploration.

“Even though the president’s draft plan does not propose drilling off the Jersey shore, it does allow oil and gas exploration just south of Cape May. That concerns me a great deal,” said Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9) in a statement to the Standard. “Furthermore, any oil spills resulting from drilling operations further south could easily follow northerly currents and end up washing onto our beaches.”

The United States cannot drill its way out of its foreign oil dependence, Rothman said. The country needs to focus on the development of new, alternative energy and on conservation.

“Drilling off the Virginia coast would endanger many of New Jersey’s beaches and vibrant coastal economies,” said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) in a statement sent to this paper. “Giving Big Oil more access to our nation’s waters is really a Kill, Baby, Kill policy: it threatens to kill jobs, kill marine life, and kill coastal economies that generate billions of dollars. Offshore drilling isn’t the solution to our energy problems.”

The Garden State’s new Republican governor, Chris Christie, also condemned the plan.

“I oppose the idea of drilling off the coast of New Jersey,” Christie said in a statement. “New Jersey’s coastline is one of our economic engines and I would have to be really convinced of both the economic viability and environmental safety of oil and gas exploration off our coast. At this point, I’m not convinced of either.’’

According to Christie, Obama’s proposal so far includes areas off Virginia and the northern tip of Delaware near Cape May in the Delaware Bay. Though New Jersey’s coast is not included in the plan, an oil spill could have serious ramifications for the Jersey shore.

“That’s a reasonable fear,” Troster said. “When I hear there’s going to be more environmentally sensitive oil drilling, [I consider it] an oxymoron. It’s a very dirty form of energy production and I don’t think you can change that in any significant way.”

 
 

Fund protection of land and water

_JStandardOp-Ed
Published: 12 November 2010
 
 
 
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