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Rabbi Yonatan Neril - Jerusalem on interfaith action
Home » Rabbi Yonatan Neril – Religion as a global force

Rabbi Yonatan Neril – Religion as a global force

Nick Breeze

Nick Breeze

Climate journalist and host of the ClimateGenn podcast.

Nick Breeze  

Rabbi Yonatan, I want to talk to you about the interfaith constituency. Can you talk a little bit about its size and how different parts of it interact with each other?

Rabbi Yonatan Neril  

85% of people in the world identify with a religion, according to a Pew study. So that’s most of the 8 billion people on Earth and the question is, how can religion get on board in addressing the climate crisis? 

Religion is the sleeping giant in regards to climate action. Religious institutions have huge land holdings, media systems, educational systems, and billions of followers. One thing that’s amazing here at the COP27 UN climate conference in Sharm el Sheikh Egypt, is that people of many faiths are coming together: Imams, priests, pastors, rabbis, and we’re finding common cause so that the next generation can inherit a liveable, thriving and spiritually aware planet.

Nick Breeze  

I know that you’re working across faiths, but do you feel that as a part of the Jewish community that you’re achieving what you want to achieve in terms of climate action and communication.

Rabbi Yonatan Neril  

Every year that emissions go up on planet Earth, I feel like I’m not achieving what I want to achieve and I see that humanity is not achieving what it wants to achieve. Back in 1988, nations of the world came together and began the process that we’re now continuing with COP27. 

This is the 27th meeting of political leaders, business leaders, scientists, and a handful of religious figures, and this year in Egypt, and every year, emissions go up. One definition of insanity is trying the same solution over and over again and expecting a different result. 

The operating system that is driving humanity is consumerism. That operating system is producing the climate crisis and the ecological crisis, the biodiversity crisis, the plastic pollution. Unless we change that operating system, the problem is only going to keep getting worse andnd the only institution in the world that is capable of changing the operating system, is religious institutions. 

The root issues here are greed, apathy, lack of responsibility, short term thinking, and seeking our pleasure in the physical and material. The root solutions to the ecological crisis and the climate crisis, are long term thinking, humility, finding our pleasure in spirituality, family and community. And that’s why it’s so essential to get religious institutions on board, and actively working to curb climate change.

Nick Breeze  

On the face of it this is a simple message about consumerism, and yet we seem locked in. I mean, the system of consuming is consuming itself and we are consuming ourselves, and the COPs, like you are saying, are insane because they literally track a rising tide of emissions. How do you take what you just said about faith groups having an impact further and make that a bit more tangible?

Rabbi Yonatan Neril  

We just held a session this morning about what religious institutions are practically doing to curb climate change and we had nine speakers. Bishop Andreas Holmberg of the Church of Sweden spoke about how his church made a commitment a number of years ago to be carbon neutral by 2030 and how they’re living up to that by putting renewable energy on their houses of worship. They have huge forest that they’re managing and their clergy are increasingly teaching on this topic. 

I actually engage with churches and with clergy who visit Jerusalem. An Imam spoke about his work in the Islamic Society of North America to engage mosques and Imams to teach and preach more on this topic. 

I edited a book called Eco Bible, which is connecting rabbinic commentary on Hebrew bible verses across 400 different verses. I’m also collaborating with a Lutheran pastor in Kentucky, to produce a monthly Christian preacher resource to engage Christian clergy on preaching on this topic. 

So there’s a lot of institutions that are doing work on this area, but it’s still a drop in the bucket in terms of really moving the needle on 6 billion religious people taking this issue seriously and acting on it.

Nick Breeze  

Do you think there’s a responsibility to some degree of individuals who attend a church, a temple or whatever place of worship to put pressure on the person who’s at the front, if they’re not really engaging, so that it’s more a two way process of engagement?

Rabbi Yonatan Neril  

It’s definitely a two way street and most clergy in the world, whatever religion they are, don’t teach or preach with any regularity on ecology, let alone on climate change. So I believe that somebody who attends a house of worship should speak personally with their clergy member and say, “this issue is very close to my heart, it’s the most important issue, because unless we live sustainably, nothing else matters and therefore, I want to hear from you, Priest, Pastor, Rabbi, Imam, whoever you are, on this topic!” 

Religion shouldn’t be its own sphere, and ecology its own sphere, which is actually how many religious people conceive of it. The two are intimately connected and Pope Francis made that clear that in his encyclical ‘Laudato Si, On Care For Our Common Home’. The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has been speaking about this for 30 years. So therefore, it’s very important for faith adherents to speak to their clergy, and encourage them and request that they speak on this topic.

Nick Breeze  

A lot of what you are talking about is about stewardship and it’s easier to be a steward of something if it’s already in good shape. What we tend to be seeing now is that the planet and the natural world is not in great shape. It’s rapidly deteriorating. We are losing species of animals that we don’t even understand or probably don’t have names for, in some instances. How resilient do you think faith based communities are around the world and even further afield where people are really on the frontlines?

Rabbi Yonatan Neril  

Here at COP27, I just passed the pavilion of Pakistan and they have a big sign outside of their pavilion that says, ‘What happens in Pakistan doesn’t stay in Pakistan’. Pakistan is a country of over 200 million people. It just experienced record floods which are exacerbated by climate change. 33 million people had to flee their homes and half of the country was flooded. Most of those people are religious Muslims but there are a handful of religious Christians among them. There actually used to be a Jewish community in Pakistan, Pakistani Jews. 

So what happens in Pakistan doesn’t stay in Pakistan and those religious people are now having to deal with the reality, 33 million of them, of being climate refugees. So, there are a number of religious communities waking up to the reality that they can only ignore this problem for so long before the hurricane or the flood or the fire comes knocking on their door. 

I recently spoke to a couple of rabbis, one of whose synagogue in New York City was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy and another whose synagogue in California was burned down in Santa Rosa, by the wildfire. So a number of clergy are actually waking up to the reality that this is something that they have to address because we can’t bury our head in the sand.

Nick Breeze  

As you go into 2023, what are the things that you and the people within your network going to be doing to spread the messages you’re talking about, to build that resilience and take the appropriate action?

Rabbi Yonatan Neril  

Well, this morning I met with 10 other people involved in the religion ecology movement and we are now moving forward with an effort for the first time to have a specific pavilion for faith based climate action [at COP28]. You see, back in 1988, when the UN climate process began, they defined seven major stakeholder groups, but faith based communities were not one of them. Among the 300 pavilions here at COP27, none of these major pavilions are for faith based communities. 

There are either country pavilions or business pavilions or large environmental NGOs. So we’re now working so that for the next COP, taking place in the United Arab Emirates, there will be a legitimate space where hundreds of clergy can converge on and during the two weeks of this conference, from 9am to 7pm, we can speak, we can pray, we can sing and play music. We can let out the soul that religion is trying to bring to the surface, together in an interfaith pavilion. It will show the power of faith based people and clergy taking action on this issue.

Nick Breeze  

Okay, I certainly look forward to that. So thank you very much for speaking to me today. It has been great to catch up. 

Nick Breeze  

You are welcome. Great to be here.

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