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Grassroots Jewish group to create a new voice on climate change

Maddy Blay
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Published: 26 April 2019

Last updated: 4 March 2024

EVEN BEFORE THE federal election was called, it was widely labelled as “the climate election”, in acknowledgement of the broad public frustration at the government’s lack of commitment to climate action.

Out of this groundswell, an advocacy initiative called the Jewish Climate Action Group (JCAG) was formed this month in Melbourne.

The group has five founders who say they aim “to raise awareness and mobilise action around the climate emergency within the Australian Jewish community (focussing initially on Melbourne),”in the words of Rebecca Forgasz, the driving force behind JCAG.

Forgasz, whose day job is Director of the Jewish Museum of Australia, says the catalyst for forming the group was a conversation she had from a volunteer with Courage to Care, the Jewish educational program that uses the inspiration of non-Jews who risked their lives to help Jews during the Holocaust.

“I realised the principle of having the courage to not be a bystander but to take action to save a life could be applied to climate change – and acting to prevent a climate catastrophe,” she says.
I realised the principle of having the courage to not be a bystander but to take action to save a life could be applied to climate change – and acting to prevent a climate catastrophe.

This month Forgasz and fellow founder Tamar Simons, the former manager of the Jewish International Film Festival, started holding a series of “conversations” in private homes for members of the Jewish community.

Last week I attended one in East St Kilda, along with around 20 others.

We began in a sort of speed dating arrangement where participants discuss their experience of learning about climate change, with Forgasz and Simons leading the activity. After sharing our own thoughts, the organisers shared theirs; how each came to acknowledge the universality and critical time-frame of climate change, and how they came together to form JCAG.

We were then shown a particularly jarring part of a documentary made by the organisation 350.org. While detailing some of the catastrophic impacts of climate change around the world, it also documented the ever-growing movement of pro-climate activism.

It was encouraging to see, in such a nascent project, that the format of the session has elicited such a positive response from the participants. The organisers  estimated that for every session they run, there were at least two participants who approached them, asking to host a session in their own living room – evidence enough of a simple framework to motivate others.

At the time of writing, there have been five of these conversations (plus a standalone evening for or over 20 Jewish community leaders) and Forgasz estimates that they have reached about 100 people. Simons notes that “the ripple effect [of the sessions into the community] is huge”.

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These largely informal sessions revolve largely around information and conversation to educate people but also to share experiences. The session balances information and agitation, a specific goal of the group.

“We can’t just be concerned citizens, we actually need to be active, engaged citizens,” says Forgasz. “Climate change is so huge, that it just needs a huge number of people to be vocal and active”.

Forgasz says there are several reasons why a Jewish Climate Action Group is not just meaningful, but useful in the fight against climate change. A lot of people, such as herself, have professional networks that are Jewish and that this provides a direct place to have an “immediate impact”.

In addition, she suggests that cultural touchstones such as “the Holocaust experience and even Biblical references” can help educate about climate change through an emotional connection to the issue.

Forgasz says the knowledge of an impending election gave greater urgency to their timing to start the group. In addition to the informal conversations, JCAG has also decided to engage publicly on the issue by holding a community event on May 6 in St Kilda, to “advocate for climate action from within the Melbourne Jewish community”.

Forgasz says this event “has special significance as it is being held in the seat of Macnamara, home to a large proportion of Melbourne's Jewish population, and one of several genuine three-way races in the upcoming federal election.

They hope to not only raise awareness but also create a voice for the Jewish community on an issue that is important to Jewish voters. “There is strong local support for and community activism around climate action in Macnamara, and it is likely to be one of the issues that swings the vote.”
This is also an exercise in community-building, an opportunity for people to come together over something they haven’t had a forum for doing until now.

She adds that this is also an exercise in community-building, an opportunity for people to come together over something they haven’t had a forum for doing until now.

Beyond the election, JCAG may look into expanding into Sydney and other areas. Their vision extends to broader engagement within the community. Forgasz ponders whether the philanthropic sector of the community could be doing more to help: “let’s shift their thinking about where to fund”.

Although JCAG is still embryonic by the end of the evening I’m left in no doubt about its founders’ capacity to drive the Jewish community to engage with climate change, at a grassroots level and beyond.

For further information, or to attend a climate change conversation, email  ozjcag@gmail.com or sign up at http://eepurl.com/gk32hD

Photo: JCAG 'conversation' in St Kilda on April 16 (Tamar Simons)

About the author

Maddy Blay

Maddy Blay is a community organiser and campaigner, and writes about social and political justice as a proud Jewish leftist. She is the former federal director of Hashomer Hatzair Australia and studies politics and public policy.

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