One Year Later, Taking Ownership of Sandy
Tue, 10/15/2013
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

As we prepare to mark the first anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, there is a near unanimous consensus among scientists that the world is getting hotter at an alarming pace and that human beings have had something to do with it. A just-released report by a select United Nations panel leaves little to speculation, stating, “It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”

Judaism would go one step further. Not only have human beings influenced the current careening of an over-amped environment; we are directly responsible the unprecedented ferocity of recent meteorological calamities. 

A Midrash states that when Adam and Eve saw the setting of the sun for the first time they were was so terrified that they sat up all night fasting and weeping, fearing that they had somehow caused irreparable harm to Creation. Only when dawn broke did they realize that this would be the usual course of things. Then God led them around the Garden of Eden, saying, “Look at My works. See how beautiful they are! See to it that you do not spoil My world — for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you.”

The rainbow following the Great Flood codified God’s promise never again to bring about such a calamity of nature. The implied message: If we can’t make things work on this beautiful planet, we’ll have only ourselves to blame. If we break it, we own it.

We need to take ownership of Sandy. We broke the planet. Now we own it. And we have to fix it.

God did not flood out the New York subways. God did not submerge the roller coaster on the Jersey shore. Run-of-the-mill hurricanes that follow the natural order of things, those are acts of God. Megastorms that defy all historical precedent: those are on us.

If Adam couldn’t sleep a wink thinking he had messed it all up just because it got dark, how should we feel right now?
Not good. But still, little is being done.

Hurricane Katrina should have been enough. The tsunamis in south Asia and Japan should have been the last straw. When Japanese soccer balls are washing up in Washington State, that’s got to make us stop and think. The ever-increasing ferocity and frequency of crippling blizzards and cataclysmic tornadoes, the devastating wildfires, extreme droughts, biblical floods, ferocious winds and routine power outages: all these should have prompted us to action.

But if they weren’t enough, surely Sandy should have been.

There’s a Facebook page, “Hurricane Sandy’s Lost Treasures,” where you’ll find the debris from shattered lives, page after page of framed photos, diplomas, trinkets. The pictures look washed out, tattered and yellowed, almost as if they had been uncovered from the wreckage of the Titanic. There’s a potholder dated 2002 that says, “Happy Father’s Day. Love you, Casey. Age 5.” There’s a Tiffany silver spoon, dug out from where the dunes used to be. A wedding program found near Ortley Beach. A plaque from a pleasure boat whose name, ironically, was “Stress Management.”

Welcome to the New Normal — as if it’s normal and acceptable that on post-Sandy maps New Jersey’s coastline looks like it has gone on a diet. 

I was in Oceania this summer, where the New Normal carries different but no less devastating associations. Australian school children look so sweet with their little hats — but by law they have to wear them whenever they are outside. Because of ozone depletion, Australia has the highest rate of skin cancer in the world, two or three times the rate found here. 

I visited the Great Barrier Reef. Recent studies show that the alarming sea temperature rise has already had a devastating impact on the reef. This breathtakingly beautiful place is dying.

There was an earthquake when I was in New Zealand.  Studies show that even earthquakes are exacerbated by climate change. In Christchurch, which still has not recovered from the devastating quake of 2011, people are living in homes where the front door doesn't close. Their lives have literally become unhinged. 

That is the New Normal. 

This is not a normal that we can accept, even as we are being told via our gridlocked Congress that we have no choice but to accept it. But there is a choice. We can turn the tide, in a very literal sense.

This past summer, my synagogue installed 845 solar panels on our roof, a new system expected to produce 236,000 kilowatt hours per year and satisfy 70 percent of the synagogue’s energy needs. We flipped the switch on eruv Rosh Hashanah, and the next day our eternal light was being fueled by the sun, the one energy resource that we do not have the wherewithal to ruin.

You can read about the project at our website, liketheroof.com, where an online solar monitor indicates that we’ve already spared the atmosphere over 17 tons of CO2. All of that, and we are saving our congregation $31,000 annually in energy costs and decreasing America’s dependence on foreign energy resources.

On Rosh HaShanah, Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal praised this project from my synagogue’s pulpit, calling it “a great example of what individuals can do when they come together to save the planet.” 

In addition to going solar, my congregation has a bountiful mitzvah garden that supplies fresh vegetables for local food banks and flowers for nursing homes. Plus, we are collaborating with Hazon and a local farmer to form the first Jewish CSA in southwestern Connecticut. Community Supported Agriculture is a great way to unite soul and soil, supporting local farmers, the environment and our own bodies. 

Every congregation should be doing this, if for no other reason than to remind everyone that sustainability is a prime Jewish value.  At a time when surveys are pointing to the decreasing relevance of synagogue affiliation for American Jews, there is no more compelling calling than saving the earth.

After Sandy, it’s time to take ownership of what we broke.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn.

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