Grave Matter: Rising Sea Levels Threaten Jewish Cemeteries

It is for Shmuel ben Shimson and Pauline Bernstein, among others, that I am marching. Shimshon lived in Italy in the 14th century, Pauline in Texas in the 19th. Though their lives were separated by centuries and by thousands of miles, they have something in common: They are buried in Jewish cemeteries that are threatened by sea level rise.

There are many other, more pressing reasons to join the People’s Climate March on April 29. Climate change has created natural disasters and famines, and has caused diseases to spread. It threatens many species with extinction, many ecosystems with destruction. The systems on which we depend — highways, irrigation networks, supply chains and many more — are increasingly vulnerable to climate impacts.

Even in the face of this much larger devastation, it is still troubling to think that the seas may rise and cover cemeteries where Shimshon and Bernstein rest in Venice and in Galveston respectively, both only 7 feet above sea level. They would surely have reflected on the graves that awaited them. Whether as a waiting place for the Messiah, a spot that relatives would visit, or simply as a final place, they would have understood their graves as permanent.

Living in port cities, Shimshon and Bernstein would have seen the sea often, would likely have traveled by boat. But they would never have imagined that the seas would encroach the cemeteries that they knew, where other Jews lay, where they would be brought soon after their deaths. And yet they may face this fate. The seas have been rising since the past century, and they are rising at an accelerating pace. Climate change has been melting glaciers in mountains around the world, and it is beginning to melt the vast ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica. And heat from the warming planet is expanding the oceans themselves, much as it causes other substances to expand.

The loss of these cemeteries to the seas will trouble not only the dead, if we think that their spirits will in some form experience the change. The loss will trouble the future generations who may be pressed to relocate the human remains and the gravestones. They will have many other tasks. It will seem more urgent to them to build new homes, new hospitals, new roads and schools, and to construct as well sea walls and other protective facilities. In fact these tasks are present-day ones. Venice, where Saint Mark’s Square floods with increasing frequency, is working hard to protect its lagoon, much as New Orleans, up the coast from Galveston, is still engaged in rebuilding its levees after the floods brought by Hurricane Katrina.

But the loss of cemeteries is not a possibility that can be ignored. Those who face it as an imminent threat will be deeply troubled, whether they dedicate some of their effort and resources to a relocation or they simply resign themselves to the sight of water lapping on the gravestones.

We cannot place a precise date on this loss. The extent and timing of sea level rise are active research areas. Some scientists believe in the inevitability of an increase of 6 or even 10 feet, enough to cover the cemeteries in Venice and Galveston, because of what is called thermal inertia. Much as a train or ship cannot be stopped suddenly, the steady, slow warming of ice sheets cannot be quickly halted, even if greenhouse gas emissions are sharply reduced. Others scientists think that a rise of this extent can be postponed for several centuries, or perhaps even held to a lower figure, only 3 feet. And there are others who anticipate an even greater rise. A few more feet of sea level rise would reach the cemeteries in Miami and Charleston, a few more would reach the ones in Amsterdam and other Dutch cities, and the rabbis’ graves in the Nile Delta in Egypt — sites of veneration for the local Muslim population, as Amitav Ghosh described so evocatively in his book “In An Antique Land: History In The Guise Of A Traveler’s Tale”.

Even in the face of such uncertainty, action is necessary. In fact, the uncertainty makes the action more urgent, since it is the steps that people of our time are taking that will determine whether climate change accelerates or whether it slows and finally stops.

And that is why I am joining the forthcoming People’s Climate March. I can hope that Shimshon and Bernstein will continue their rest. I can hope that future generations will not add the relocation of graves to their other responsibilities. And I can make my voice heard with the voices of many more in the present generation. We can save the world for ourselves, as well as for those who preceded and those who will follow us.

If you would like to march with other Jews, you can find the information you need at www.jewishclimate.org. And if you simply wish to join the march, go to www.peoplesclimate.org.

Ben Orlove teaches at the School Of International And Public Affairs, at Columbia University. His most recent book is “Darkening Peaks: Glacier Retreat, Science, And Society” (University of California Press, 2008).

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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Ben Orlove

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