Over the next few weeks, I will be spotlighting Jewish teen climate activists throughout the Boston area. The first is Lexington high school student Joel Swirnoff, who is the co-director of policy at the Jewish Youth National Climate Movement (JYCM). JYCM is a subdivision of Hazon, a nonprofit Jewish educational organization devoted to environmental activism, with a large youth contingent. Swirnoff became involved with the group through Temple Isaiah of Lexington, where he leads the local JYCM chapter. Next year he is leaving for Washington University in St. Louis.
What is your role in climate activism in Boston?
I’m very grateful to publicize Hazon, as well as the Jewish Youth Climate Movement, where I speak. The Jewish Youth Climate Movement is a sub-section of Hazon, and it’s all team-driven. Our oldest member is a graduate student. We are all millennials or Gen Z. I am the co-director of policy at JYCM. We are a young organization so a lot of what we want to do in terms of legislation is not quite within our purview yet. A big part of what we do is help create educational resources on certain policies that temples or other chapters can use. For example, we recently gave a presentation on the intersection between anti-Semitism and the climate crisis, and then went to a youth summit.
This is really interesting: what is the link between anti-Semitism and the climate crisis?
What the presentation teaches is that many actors in terms of the spread of climate change in the first place as part of the industrial revolution, and the spread of anti-Semitic myths that have worked their way into our system of government and our economic system, are really the same people. . A good example is Henry Ford. He is obviously very important for his creation of the Model T and for ensuring that cars were widely accessible, but he was also a notorious anti-Semite. He wrote many books and had a lot of influence in terms of politics. Another example is Standard Oil, now seen through Chevron, ExxonMobil and BP, companies that spun off from Standard Oil and helped fuel Nazi planes during World War II and the Holocaust. Many of these actors are the same. This is one of the big connections that we’ve tried to address in terms of how anti-Semitism and the climate crisis came from the same route.
Tell me a bit about yourself and your own climate story.
I’m 18 years old. I am about to graduate from high school. What spurred my climate engagement was my involvement with Temple Isaiah. There is a member of our temple who is very involved in general climate change. Our youth group leader contacted JYCM, and then we became the first chapter. Because the organization is still growing, they were looking for members for their board of directors. And I thought, “Well, I’m terrified of climate change, and I feel like I’m complicit, no matter how much I can actually change.” It’s very contradictory to what I was taught as a Jew, in terms of the idea of tikkun olam. I am very lucky to have obtained a position of co-director of policy. How can I stand idly by in the face of this gigantic crisis?
What do you think is on the minds of your classmates and peers? How important is climate change to them?
One thing I’m very happy about is that it seems Gen Z, more than any other generation, cares about this issue. We know this is going to be our future and the future of those after us. We borrow this world from generations after us. Many of us are very frustrated that older generations don’t necessarily seem to care as much. I was talking to my cantor recently, and one thing she noticed was that overwhelmingly, maybe three-quarters, if not more, of of var Torahs are becoming about the climate crisis and what this student wants to do to help fight the climate crisis. I think that’s quite indicative of how we all feel.
I know many students I have spoken to as co-chair of our temple’s youth council say climate change is still there, masking their lives with anxiety. It’s something that I really feel myself. It strikes you: our entire world is heading towards what seems like an inevitable extinction, or whatever; it rests on our lives. And because I feel like it’s such a gigantic problem, I think a lot of the anxiety is therefore exacerbated. What can we do concretely? So I would say that, definitely, Gen Z cares a lot about climate change, at least in my experience.
What would you say to teenagers who hope to change things? Maybe they don’t maintain your level of engagement but want to make a small difference.
I think the big thing to get through is that it’s a world that we inherit. Many of us will live long enough to see the ill effects. It’s much easier to talk to college students in California to galvanize them because they know wildfires are the result of climate change. One thing I would say to motivate people is, “This is going to be our world and it’s our world now. And if not now, when?”
The JYCM emphasized that climate change is not the result of individuals’ carbon footprints. While composting and recycling is always a good idea, it really comes down to cooperation between business, capitalism, and government in the United States and the inability of the government structure as we see it now to effectively attack businesses. All the money paid for our elections comes from people profiting from the climate crisis. They are the CEOs of BP and ExxonMobil. It’s bigger than us as individuals, so we have to attack it as a group. Thus, something that is not propagated by a single person therefore cannot be approached by a single person. We have to come together to knock something down.
Why is Boston an epicenter of this movement?
I think Boston is one of the most liberal cities in the United States. And that makes it a little easier from the start to get people to care. I think one thing we also see is that Boston is in danger. We’re on the water, and when the water rises, it’s going to destroy neighborhoods like Back Bay. Boston also has a culture of scientific discovery and curiosity. And one thing that often distracts people from caring about the climate crisis is not fully understanding that it is inevitable.
What part of climate change worries you the most?
The effect on people’s lives. Right now we are already seeing people becoming refugees because of the climate crisis and people losing their homes. People’s whole lives are turned upside down. I think this is something that will only get worse in the future. That’s really the main thing. People are going to die. People will suffer.