Some Jewish values investors see environmental stewardship as a central part of their worldview. They point to Judaism’s teachings on the environment, including the Torah prohibition bal tashchit or “do not destroy,” which forbids the destruction of fruit trees during wartime. The implications of this principle for Jewish values investing go well beyond the specific type of environmental damage mentioned by the Torah.
“The rabbis understood that expansively,” says Rabbi Jacob Siegel, director of engagement at JLens, an investor network that connects the Jewish community and the impact investing movement. The Talmud and other Jewish texts have concluded that if one should protect environmental resources during war, it is all the more important to refrain from needless destruction and to conserve natural energy sources during normal times.
“If we destroy the world, there will be nobody after us to repair the damage,” says Siegel. “It’s a thread that runs through Jewish tradition.”
Debate over Divestment
Despite Judaism’s concern for the environment, in the past some have characterized Jewish institutions as reluctant to divest from fossil fuels. Siegel notes that many Jewish values investors do support divestment, although there are different perspectives within the Jewish values investing community.
“The Jewish community really values and treasures debate and argument,” he says. “So there are differences of opinion on everything, including fossil fuel divestment. Some Jews and Jewish organizations would strongly support fossil fuel divestment, while others believe that greater impact could come from, say, owning and advocating with energy companies to transition to cleaner energy sources, or from investing in clean energy.”
JLens’s regular surveys of investors and the broader Jewish community have seen a range of opinions on fossil fuels, according to Siegel. “For example, the community strongly favors divestment from coal. Support for divestment from other fossil fuels has been less universal than coal, but it has been growing.”
Dayenu and the Jewish Climate Action Network are among the advocacy organizations urging Jewish values investors to divest from fossil fuels. In 2019, Jewish youth activists led a protest against BlackRock, alleging that its investments have driven climate change.
In 2018, Congregation Kolot Chayeinu pulled its funds from JPMorgan Chase over the bank’s financing of fossil fuel projects, becoming the first US synagogue to publicly make such a move. Additionally, several fund choices offered by the Reform Jewish Values Stock Fund apply negative screens for consumable fuels, while one option offers positive screens in favor of companies with low carbon footprints, good records on climate change, or presence in the green technology sector.
Embracing Shareholder Engagement
Although Jewish values investors have not reached a consensus on divestment, there is widespread support within the community for shareholder engagement as an impact approach. Siegel describes Jewish values investors’ attitude as: “Let’s be in a long-term relationship; let’s move the needle on corporate behavior.”
“Shareholder advocacy deeply resonates from a Jewish values perspective,” Siegel says, pointing out that shareholder engagement echoes the Torah’s concept of tocheicha or constructive rebuke. The Jewish ideal of rebuke is a form of constructive criticism that opens the recipient’s eyes to shortcomings and helps them improve without provoking conflict. Investors can put this principle into action through dialogue with companies.
JLens was the lead filer on a 2019 shareholder resolution asking Amazon to report on its food waste policy, to estimate how reducing food waste would affect its greenhouse gas emissions, and to consider setting goals to reduce food waste. “Food waste is an intersectional issue that affects pollution. It affects carbon emissions” as well as food insecurity, Siegel notes. The resolution gained support from one-third of independent shareholders at Amazon.
JLens has also led environmental advocacy efforts based on the Jewish concept of shmita, the sabbatical year. The Torah describes this year as a time when farmers do not grow crops, allowing the land to rest. This idea can inspire sustainable agricultural practices such as crop rotation. “The Jewish perspective of the sabbatical year gets at some core environmental principles,” Siegel says.
“JLens as an investor network has been engaging with food companies on ways to bring these sustainability practices into a company’s business operations,” Siegel continues. For example, JLens has had an ongoing dialogue with General Mills, which is working to implement regenerative agriculture and to track carbon emissions through its supply chain, and with the Kellogg Company, which has taken a stance against deforestation and committed to 100% renewable electricity use by 2050.
Positive Impact Screens
Some Jewish values investors are addressing climate change through positive investing screens. The Jewish Community Foundation of San Diego’s Impact Investment Pool selects investments including green municipal bonds as well as funds and startups that achieve environmental impact. In 2018, the Nathan Cummings Foundation announced its commitment to align 100% of its investments with its mission; the climate crisis is one of its main areas of focus. And the Jewish Advocacy Strategy, a portfolio with a Jewish values lens, evaluates companies based on six pillar values including environmental impact; Jewish community federations, foundations, and nonprofits are among its investors.
Siegel expects impact investing to continue growing in popularity among Jewish investors, due to increased awareness, a transition away from negative screens and “sin stocks,” and a move toward diverse avenues to impact, including shareholder engagement and direct investment. “I think the Jewish community is nearing a tipping point for values-based and impact investing,” he says.