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Why I Gave Away My Salary During the Pandemic
One evening in May 2020, my husband and I sat on the kitchen floor, exhausted from another day of working from home and caring for our 2-year-old in the pandemic. A week earlier, Yotam had been laid off. We were able to collect unemployment, and he would now begin to start his own leadership coaching practice. But we were scared. Who knew how bad the coming recession would be, or how long it would last?
Before coming to the kitchen, I had checked on our sleeping son. Tripping over a dozen Sandra Boynton books, I held up the orange lantern we use as a nightlight and stared at his peaceful face. Like every night, my heart broke open with love for him. And like every night, it broke again imagining him growing up in this world. My entire life as a mother had been under the Trump administration. Bedtime stories of animal babies cozied up against their mothers morphed for me into images of children torn from their parents, amidst a backdrop of rising seas, wildfires, crop failures, and floods. The wild love I felt cut in so many directions—euphoric joy, pounding fear, and, especially during these nightly checks, a fierce drive to protect him at all costs. But what could it look like to protect my child when his world was falling apart?
Yotam and I looked at each other across the kitchen.
“I think we should still do it,” I said.
“Me too,” Yotam said.
I reached for my phone and started typing an email to our money manager, asking him to move forward with our pre-pandemic plan of taking $35,000 out of our investments, the equivalent of my annual part-time salary. Most of the money would go to the Sunrise Movement, the youth-led climate organization pushing for a Green New Deal.
Leveraging My Privilege
My maternal grandparents were among the generation of Ashkenazi Jews who were included in White privilege after World War II. Thanks to Pa’s personality, a successful business, the GI Bill, and a progressive tax code, Nana and Pa were able to live very comfortably and set up trust funds for their grandchildren. I was raised with this inherited privilege and security, and I learned fiscal responsibility by watching them spend enough to enjoy life, give generously to those in need, save to have a comfortable retirement, and put money away for the family.
But after Nana and Pa died in 2010, the era of climate change began in earnest, and formed the grim background to systemic racism, growing wealth inequality, and the weakening of democratic institutions. In a nation with a failing social safety net, I wanted to save enough to meet my and my child’s future needs. But I started to consider that keeping all my significant assets tucked away for the future was fiscally irresponsible. What good are retirement savings if we don’t have a livable world to retire in?
Facing a layoff and uncertain income (my trust fund is not big enough to live off of), Yotam and I did not think of the $35,000 as philanthropy but rather as an investment. The dividends we hoped to receive were not in cash, but in a marginally more livable world for ourselves and our child.
As I typed the numbers into the email, 3-5-0-0-0, I flashed back to the year 2000 when, as a high school senior, I won an award for starting a schoolwide recycling system. A nice feature about me and my friends was in the paper, and I clipped the article for my scrapbook (remember those?). But I was terrified. My line of thought went something like this: If I am getting attention for doing something this basic, then no one else is doing anything, and we are even more screwed than I realized.
Enough with the recycling. The entire economic system was hauling us to hell. I spent the next 20 years looking for a way to take action on the ecological crisis that would compel me by coming close to meeting the scale of the problem, something that would scream to everyone I knew that this was an emergency, that it was an all-hands-on-deck turning point in human history. In 2016, when I began to engage in peaceful civil disobedience against new fossil fuel infrastructure, I finally found what I’d been looking for.
The Birth of a Climate Movement, and My Son
Finishing the email, I thought back over the past three years. A difficult pregnancy and post-partum period slowed and eventually paused my climate activism soon after I had found my stride. I’d felt the pain of this most keenly when my son was 10 months old. I was sitting in our blue nursing chair, reading an email from a group called Sunrise Movement inviting me to Washington, D.C., to help occupy Nancy Pelosi’s office and demand that Democratic leaders take climate change seriously by championing a Green New Deal for America. Barely managing my pulpit job and new motherhood on top of an anxiety disorder, I knew I couldn’t get myself to D.C. Instead, I watched from the sidelines as the movement I’d dreamed of being a part of 20 years ago was born without me.
I needed to do something that would match the urgency I felt about the climate crisis. If not direct action, what?
I pressed send, put my phone on the kitchen floor, and took a deeper breath than I had in days. Maybe years. Another group of young parents we knew had recently raised $250,000 for Sunrise by donating their annual retirement contributions and inviting friends and family to join. Inspired by them and the work of Resource Generation, we too would move a significant-for-us amount of money out of our retirement savings and into the potential of a world worth retiring in. And we too would amplify our own action. To date, we’ve raised more than $22,000 for Sunrise from friends and family, with an ultimate goal of matching our $35,000.
In the two years since the sit-in in Nancy Pelosi’s office, Sunrise Movement has changed the terms not only of the climate movement, but of climate policy debate nationally and internationally. The founders of Sunrise—college students who studied successful social change movements for a year before launching the organization—did not start it out of altruism, or even a love of nature. They started it because they understood that their lives and futures depend on climate action. The years in the nightmare projections sit squarely in their lifetimes, as they do in my son Abraham’s. Sunrise’s strength stems from this existential desperation.
Sunrise uses a combination of strategies no other climate organization has managed: They use mass protest and targeted civil disobedience to capture media and public attention; they center the climate narrative around its direct impact on the lives of human beings; they put young people front and center (all their leadership is under 35); and, crucially, they get heavily involved in electoral politics, where power lies to address the crisis at scale.
Happily, Sunrise’s model of power building is itself growing. Other climate organizations have begun to do broad movement-building coupled with strategic political action, taking the efforts of previous decades to a new level. (As a rabbi, I’m most moved by the recent launch of Dayenu: A Jewish Call To Climate Action.)
Finding a New Climate Calling
Four months after moving the money, I was sitting at my desk after putting Abraham to sleep. On my computer were 16 muted mouths moving as people spoke to voters in Texas’s 10th district about Mike Siegel, one of Sunrise’s endorsed candidates for Congress. Scroll to the right, and there was another page of volunteers. And another. And another. Zoom told me that180 people were in the phone bank, and I could see that almost all of them were considerably younger than me. As we each made calls through an automated dialer, the Zoom chat box was a constant stream of comments. We were to type an asterisk (*) when we spoke with a supporter, and three asterisks (***) when a voter committed to getting friends and family to vote.
Particularly good stories got dropped in the chat, too: “hahaha just spoke with voter’s ex-wife, and she thought I was his girlfriend!” and “Just made a voting plan with 18yr old who didn’t even know election was happening!” Phone bank trainers responded to each line of chat with encouragement or praise.
After a few weeks of regular phone banking, I’d begun to look forward to my evenings with these people, laughing aloud as I read the chat, furiously typing my own joys and flops any time I had a moment between automated calls, getting a little spark of pride when a trainer typed my name in all-caps after I posted ***. Phone banking with Sunrise was not just an exercise in building electoral power. It was a balm for pandemic loneliness. It was a way to belong.
Sunrise is, in their own words, “training an army of young people”—empowered, skilled, compassionate, politically active, and strategically savvy young people who are ready to respond and organize no matter what the 21st century brings. In my darkest moments, when I think we have no chance at stopping runaway climate change, I still believe we can succeed in building a humanity that knows how to organize and take care of each other as hell breaks loose. And I know that is worth investing in.
After an hour of phone banking, I walk downstairs to check on Abraham. Tripping over a handful of children’s books about the Jewish fall holidays, I lift the lantern. While the pandemic and climate change show no signs of relenting, my nighttime checks have become less painful. My heart still breaks out of love and fear, but I can breathe more deeply. Where my mind used to flash to climate disasters and refugees, I now imagine Abraham on the verge of taking his first action with Sunrise or taking shelter with us during a hurricane. I imagine him asking me what Papa and I did when there was still time to do something about climate change.
And for the first time since becoming a mother, I have a start to my answer.
Shoshana Meira Friedman is a rabbi, writer, mother, activist, and song-leader in Boston. She serves as the Director of Professional Development at Hebrew College, and as a rabbinic consultant to Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action. She is a contributing author to Rooted & Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis (Rowman &Littlefield 2019), and her work has appeared in The New York Times and The Huffington Post. Her song The Tide Is Rising, which she co-wrote with her husband Yotam Schachter, has spread as an anthem in the climate movement. Rabbi Shoshana has held rabbinic positions at Temple Sinai in Brookline, MA, Congregation Shirat HaYam of the North Shore, and The Jewish Community Day School of Greater Boston. She was ordained by Hebrew College, and is an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, JOIN For Justice, and Oberlin College of Arts & Sciences where she was also a Henry David Thoreau Scholar. She lives in Roslindale with her husband, son, and dog. You can contact her at rabbishoshana.com.