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Polluted skies over NYC will become our new normal — and this is why we organize

Dayenu founder says the smoke and orange haze that made the air unfit to breathe must open our eyes to activism

I have lived in New York City for 36 years, and I have never experienced anything like the smoke that enveloped our city this week. I am catching my breath, literally and figuratively.

As the founder & CEO of Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action, I spend my days with American Jews and allies who regularly share their experiences of grief, fear and courage in the face of the climate crisis. Seven in 10 American adults report having personally experienced extreme weather events, made more frequent and intense by runaway climate change. As we awoke to yet another day of hazy skies and noxious air caused by smoke from historic Canadian wildfires, millions more Americans, and countless fellow Jews, joined the ranks of the initiated.

In Psalm 150, we recite “kol haneshema tehallel Ya” — “Everything that breathes sings praise to God.” Life depends on our ability to breathe, and nothing makes us feel that more keenly than when the places we live are overtaken by hazardous smoke from climate fires.

Though wildfire smoke has become a sadly familiar occurrence in the Western United States and other parts of the world, it is a new experience here in New York. This week’s air quality alerts across 16 states as well as the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec are the result of millions of acres of wildfires across Eastern Canada. From coast to coast, wildfires are raging with increased frequency and intensity due to hotter temperatures and drier conditions caused by climate change.

The smoke many of us experienced — or are still experiencing — is scary. I never imagined that the skyline of Manhattan would vanish in a gray-orange haze. In addition to health concerns, this week we felt the reality of the climate crisis with new immediacy.

In the face of extreme weather like this, first and foremost make sure your loved ones are safe. As we know, the climate crisis affects the poorest and historically marginalized first and worst, but it affects all of us. Experts recommend limiting time spent outdoors, using an air purifier indoors and wearing an N95 mask if you do go outside. This is especially important for those who have asthma or other respiratory issues.

Many of us are also feeling a sense of deep unease, anxiety or fear. The climate crisis is not only an ecological and political issue, it is also an issue of the soul. We are reckoning with what it means to live in this time of climate devastation and existential change. Dayenu’s spiritual adaptation work supports people as they grapple with the deep array of feelings that can arise, while also cultivating hope and a move to action — because we know that action can be a powerful antidote to anxiety.

When we act, we must do so with the urgency, ambition and moral clarity to meet this moment. We know that extracting, burning and refining fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas — has increased the frequency and intensity of forest fires like this one. If we continue to extract and burn fossil fuels, these conditions will only get worse. This last week of polluted skies will become our new normal. Period.

This is why we organize. When North American Jews come together, and work with other communities, we have the power to make sure smoky days like these are few and far between. To make sure we address the climate crisis at the scale that science and justice demand. To ensure we hold fossil fuel executives and politicians who do their bidding accountable. The only way we can build a just, green, new energy economy will be by working together.

This week, stay safe, and make sure your community is OK. Then talk to your friends and family to ensure that they too understand that the smoke engulfing our nation is a result of the climate crisis, and that we must act. It is scary, yes, but we aren’t helpless.

We have the power to make days like these as rare as possible, so we can all breathe freely.

Rabbi Jennie Rosenn is the founder and CEO of Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action. To contact the author, email [email protected].

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