“I Want a Future:” Two Generations of One Family on Climate Activism

I’ve often joked that the family that protests together, stays together. I started working as a Jewish human rights activist around the same time that I became a parent, and a quick trip through our family photos shows how often we’ve taken to the streets together. Whether it was the 2014 climate march in New York City, the 2017 Women’s March in DC, rallying in support of Black Lives Matter, participating in a solidarity vigil for immigrants on hunger strike outside of our county jail, or countless actions in support of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the fight for farmworker justice (leading my younger child Aliza, then 5, to complain during one particularly long march “But we did this last year!”), it’s just part of who we are and what we do.

Looking at my upbringing—my parents fought for the ordination of women as rabbis and my late father was an early Jewish environmentalist, one might think that all of this activism was a given. But I never considered it predestined that my rabbinate would be on interwoven with the fight for human rights. I also never put overt pressure on my children to become activists themselves. 

But they have. On October 25th, when I was arrested at Blackrock along with other Jewish climate activists, urging the company to take bold action to stop the climate disaster, I did so at the urging of my older child, Liora Pelavin (they/them), whose climate activism is a core part of their identity.

Afterwards, we talked.

Rachel: Why is climate activism important to you?

Liora: I want to have a future. And I want to have a future where there isn’t chaos, where I can live out my dreams and not have to worry about fires and floods.

Rachel: It’s hard for me to distinguish my activism from my work as a rabbi. Is being an activist a specifically Jewish activity for you?

Liora: In some ways yes, in some ways no. In some of the climate spaces I’m in, like the Blackrock protest (which was organized by the Jewish Climate Youth Movement), those are Jewish spaces. But I’m motivated by values that I think of as moral universal, that everyone has an equal chance to live a good life. When climate chaos comes, it will affect everyone, but the rich will have it easier.

Rachel: You organized your first protest, a climate protest, outside of your day school right before your bat mitzvah two years ago. What inspired you to organize that protest? 

Liora: I really wanted to bring climate activism to my friends. I saw a lot of climate activism on social media, around the world, that started with people organizing locally, and that inspired me.

Rachel: You and your friends protested outside your school for a full day in the freezing cold. What was the reaction of the other students and teachers?

Liora: A lot of the parents were very confused and had a lot to say. The teachers were very supportive. The head of school came out to talk to us, and he promised that the school would take further action. But then COVID happened and we need to make sure he follows up on those promises. We had a meeting recently about the future design of the school, and I brought up the need to have the school be climate friendly and climate prepared.

My zayda was a climate activist and the protest that I organized was 6 months after he died. Ever since we went to the NYC Climate March and I saw him speak with other faith leaders, I’ve wanted to fight climate change and urge others to take action. I told my first grade class about the march—my zayda came to speak to them, too—I don’t think any of them remember hearing from him but I do.

I have a lot of anxiety about the future, because of the climate disaster, and my activism helps, because it means I am part of a community of people who care. Sometimes it seems like no cares, and connecting to other activists, I know I’m not alone. Whatever you can do to fight climate change, it has an impact.

Rachel: The quote from the Torah that inspired your zayda was from Psalms: “How vast are your works, oh God, your designs are beyond our grasp.” It spoke to the wonder and infiniteness of the created world. The Jewish text that is centering me right now is from the prophet Hosea: “Plant justice for yourselves, harvest the fruits of goodness.” Do you have a Jewish text or saying or value that guides you?

Liora: Bereishit tells us that as humans, it is our job to tend the earth. That means we must protect and nurture it, not just use it for our needs. I think a lot of adults have forgotten that.

Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster is the Executive Vice President of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility. She was previous the Deputy Director at T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, where she was the lead strategist on T’ruah’s human rights campaigns and headed the organizing and training of more than 2,000 rabbis and cantors.

Liora Pelavin is an organizer for Fridays for the Future NYC and is involved in a variety of local causes in Northern New Jersey. They are in eighth grade at the Solomon Schechter Day School of New Milford.