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Realistic Optimism in the Shadow of the Climate Crisis

Thoughts from the Heschel Fellows Alumni Gathering (July 11, 2021)

By Orly Peled (1st Cohort, 1999-2000), Director of Shatil Campus

The invitation to the 20th year celebration of the Heschel Fellows Program caught me in the midst of a personal and professional journey. Different circumstances have led me to feel that in light of the climate crisis, I must take urgent action within the scope of my influence. I picked up the phone and called the most optimistic person I know, my friend from the first cohort of the Heschel Fellows program, David Dunetz, who is also a Heschel staff member. I asked him to help me–help us– find a useful, effective way to take action. And that’s when I received the invitation to the Alumni gathering.

Full of curiosity and excitement I arrived at the gathering, searching for insights and optimism. For me, the Heschel Center is a safe space to develop thought-provoking ideas with a realistic-optimistic approach, a home that assists in an extraordinary way to connect words and thoughts. These thoughts, when put together are able to tell a clear story, one that enables us to focus our actions. 

As I was getting close to the venue, I already felt the bubbly atmosphere. Dozens of program alumni from twenty cohorts met after a long time. 

I left the gathering with the following insights:

  • Trust and partnerships

I left the gathering enchanted by the power of the women of the Heschel Center – Tamara and Rony, who lead in a co-directorship together with Miki Haimovich, the chair of the board.

Their inspiring management approach, a “trust-based management” is apparent. Words such as deep democratization, collaboration, and ingenuity suddenly became real. 

I could feel the space that they create for the staff and the entire community of the Heschel Center, a space that enables making the sometimes difficult decisions in order to realize the vision of the Heschel Center and its community. I saw their courage to release control to their colleagues, which derives from a real and authentic trust in the staff and the community. 

Above all, I could feel that the spark inside me was reignited by their leadership, a spark that increases the light of the lighthouse that is the Heschel Center, and one that I feel safe to navigate by amidst a sea of uncertainty.

  • Words, language, story. 

The first panel offered a fascinating discussion that was moderated by the new chairwoman, former MK Miki Haimovich, and featured two alumni from the first cohort: former MK Dr. Dov Khenin and Prof. Noga Kornfeld Shor, chief scientist of the Ministry for Environmental Protection, as well as Dr. Lia Ettinger. 

Miki asked the panelists: “How did the Fellows Program contribute to you – both personally and professionally?” 

Both Dov and Noga shared how–prior to their participation in the Fellows program–they had felt ideological loneliness, in addition to a lack of space for a different type of thinking. A type of thinking that connects the changes happening in the environment in a real way to our everyday lives. 

The two also shared their deep appreciation to the long-time educators Lia and Jeremy (Benstein), Co-Founder of the Heschel Center, Dr. Eilon Schwartz, and Orly Ronen, his deputy and later also a director of the center. 

We in Cohort 1 were lucky that the pilot Fellows Program was launched just when Dr. Jeremy Benstein was collecting materials and translating them for an anthology “Makom Le’Machshava” (A place for thinking).  We were granted an abundance of new ideas from a world we did not know before and began to use and create a new set of concepts.

The word “sustainability” in Hebrew = Kayamut, was born into the program, and our cohort accompanied the proud parents in the process of choosing the name for this way of life. At the end of the program, we came up with an expression and a new tool – “an ecological footprint”. A year after the program ended, the sustainability bookshelf was enriched by new publications from the Heschel Center and its partners, including  Jeremy’s Anthology. 

At the end of our program, we were tasked with writing our own essay, which we titled “A place that is great to live in”. Have we given up on that dream? Do we even remember how much wonder and excitement our world contains? Can we even stop the race of destruction of the only Earth we have? Indeed, the world is no museum. In order to progress we inhabit it, but do we remember to do so with love and sensitivity? Do we touch and change through caring and humility? 

That is the opening of the text Cohort 1 created in the booklet “A place that is great to live in”. 

With 20 years of perspective, I read these words and hear beautiful music inside my head. Soft and caressing words. Words that appeal to feelings and empathy, that try to lead to action. I feel the need to learn, to be exposed to unknown knowledge and information, and to validate my understandings. 

However, today the window of opportunity is so narrow. How do we tell the story? Which music should we play? How should we act? 

These feelings lead me to the last point. 

  • A Just Transition

Back on the panel, the panelists focused on the notion that the Heschel Center must add more building blocks in the policy arena. Miki Haimovich’s appointment as chair of the board embodies this commitment to this new direction.

Dr. Dov Khenin suggested focusing our work on a “Just Transition”. Our responsibility is to ensure that in this transition to a post-carbon economy, no one is left behind and that all peoples enjoy the fruits of any transition. 

To do that we need the joint effort of so-called “simple people” and high-level decision-makers, representing professional and political angles. This must happen while we continue changing our lifestyles and building new environmental realities for all of our communities. 

One of the most promising developments is the pursuit of the “Green New Deal” by the Biden Administration. As Dov Khenin describes, many of these policies have gained mainstream support in large part thanks to those representatives who see themselves as “simple people” (among them, a veteran Senator from Vermont and a young, uncompromising Congresswoman from New York). 

To increase the chances of a just transition, we must pay attention to the following principles: 

  1. Base our actions on scientific knowledge to build a new social contract between society and science.
  2. Understand the eco-system in which we operate, the points of system disruption, and know when to press them. 
  3. Increase the synergy between different actions.
  4. Act in diverse partnerships, starting from the planning stages.
  5. Include young people.
  6. Let go of the free market idea and the technological optimism, and channel the economic and technological forces for managing a just transition. 
  7. Widen the political imagination. 

Above all, we need to tell a new story. A story that creates the understanding that the change is already happening, and it will directly impact our lives. 

The story we need to offer must include, alongside the urgency to take action, a feeling of a just process, coming from the realization that we have the responsibility to ensure that in this transition we will create a positive impact for all. 

I left the gathering with my hopes renewed, once again accompanied by a realistic optimism.