News

One synagogue divests from a Carbon Pharaoh Bank


January 9, 2019
The Shalom Center

A chronology of divestment

The process by which one Jewish congregation divested its holdings in fossil fuels

By Members of Kolot Chayyeinu

[This essay begins a series of Shalom Reports on how individual congregations can act to heal their neighborhoods from the Carbon-burning danger of local diseases like asthma and strange cancers, and the Earth from the Carbon-burning danger of climate chaos. --  AW, editor]

Kolot Chayeinu. which translates as Voices of Our Lives —  is a progressive Jewish congregation located in Brooklyn, NY, which was founded in 1993, and where social justice is an important priority and shared value. Our mission statement includes the lines…we are creative, serious seekers who pray joyfully, wrestle with tradition, pursue justice, and refuse to be satisfied with the world as it is….we search for meaningful and just expressions of our Judaism in today's uncertain world.

Background: Perhaps the beginning of our journey occurred on a cool spring evening in 2015, when a few dozen members of Brooklyn’s Jewish community sat in the informal garden of a neighboring synagogue to listen to the featured speaker, Rabbi Arthur Waskow.  He had been invited to talk about the particularly Biblical obligation to be environmentally active. It wasn’t very much in our Jewish tradition in recent centuries -- for a variety of historical reasons -- he said. But we lived in different times, and it was now very much a Jewish responsibility.   And Rabbi Waskow gave us some financial advice. He suggested that divestment from our oil-steeped banks was the most potent tool to counter the dire effects of climate change and global warming. We Kolotniks took careful note. Our financial assets were entirely with Chase Bank, which we knew invests heavily in fossil fuel projects. 

Our climate change committee formed about a year later, in the fall of 2016 and riffing on the now-famous protest line, “There is no Planet B”  we named ourselves the Planet A Working Group.  At some of our earliest meetings our five member committee discussed divestment, and quickly and unanimously voted for it to be our first priority.   But we also wanted to understand the several climate change issues and fossil fuel projects, from the perspective of bank-funded operations, both far from us and close to home.

As a community, Kolot became committed to supporting the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and their fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Our then- student rabbi, Miriam Grossman, had previously lived on Standing Rock Reservation working for the Tribal Historic Preservation Office, a Lakota organization which fights pipelines coming through sacred lands. Miriam maintained relationships with co-workers and friends who became Water Protectors and leaders in the struggle. In 5777, Miriam shared their call to action with us in a Rosh Hashanah sermon and mobilized with the community to raise thousands of dollars for the Water Protectors before joining the Oceti Sakowin encampment herself. 

And the Water Protectors, as they were known, drove home Rabbi Waskow’s message with their thoroughgoing analysis of banks’ ties to fossil fuel extraction, and the roughshod abuse of native people’s rights.  The Water Protector’s leadership implored allied activists to protest at bank locations and divest accounts at Citbank and TD bank in particular, as well as Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo.

Closer to home, two major natural gas pipelines — the Pilgrim Pipelines — were being planned; they would run under the Hudson River and skirt the Indian Point nuclear reactor.  Not coincidentally, these two conduits were also going to cut through native lands — in this case, the traditional territory of the Ramapough-Lenape Nation. We researched the financial institutions which were behind Pilgrim and the Dakota Access, learning that not coincidentally many of the same entities were involved in both, including Chase.

Perhaps the equally seminal event,though, that left us with the feeling that we ourselves were newly vulnerable to  global warming, was Superstorm Sandy, which had made landfall just south of us only a few years earlier, in 2012. Sandy had pounded coastal New York, including the Rockaways and Red Hook, two New York City neighborhoods not far from our congregation.  About 230 people in eight counties died as a direct result of the storm, and  thousands of others are still rebuilding. But as climate scientists are advising,  Sandy was only a warning shot. These storms will only grow in frequency and ferocity with global warming and large swaths of the City will likely be underwater before the end of the century. 

The Process:  Our task was relatively simple. All of our money was in Chase, and since we don't own our own building, we have no mortgage. Given that our resources were entirely  liquid, we believed that moving them would be fairly straightforward   So our foremost and most important task was to undertake an analysis of the best place to move our money to.

Through the following year,  2017, the members of Planet A visited almost all of the local banks in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, where Kolot is located, meeting with managers, reading annual reports and submitting financial statements to our banking-savvy members for their analysis.   And although not in our neighborhood, we added one of the most well known union-created banks, Amalgamated Bank, that was founded in 1923 by the Union of Amalgamated Clothing Workers.

Amalgamated's stated mission resonated with our own… to be the financial institution for progressive people and organizations: those who are working and living to make the world more just, more compassionate, and more sustainable.  Amalgamated had committed itself to supporting organized labor, creating affordable housing, and more recently they’d adopted a strict policy of renewable-fuels investment. Any proposal that contained a whiff of fossil fuels would be rejected out of hand.

By the Fall of 2017, with the help of our treasurer and executive director, who had become directly involved at this point, we narrowed down the choice of eligible banks to two — a local savings bank, within walking distance of our office, and Amalgamated. Safeguarding our deposits and withdrawals  and the convenience of the banks were our major concerns, but it became clear fairly quickly that with the advent of remote, computerized banking and improvements in its online security procedures, Amalgamated could match our requirements in both areas. Our decision was clinched when we learned that the local savings bank had made loans to a predatory landlord.  We obviously couldn’t exchange one unsavory bank for another, even if it had no interests in fossil fuels.

We were surprised and excited to learn that we would be the first American Jewish congregation to publicly  and completely divest.

Our relationship with Chase:  Our choice of bank was final now, but at the suggestion of Amalgamated Bank, we spent some time considering how to maintain an ongoing  — albeit non-fiduciary — relationship with Chase, in order to put pressure on the bank in a variety of ways to move towards renewable-energy investments.  Of course we wouldn’t change their portfolio — we are a very small congregation in terms of our wealth and we don’t own a building — but we could be a persistent messenger to them.

In terms of how we communicated our decision to Chase management, we made it clear that we didn’t hold the individual branch responsible for corporate policy and bore them no hard feelings. Our Rabbi and Treasurer met with a member of our branch’s management to explain our decision to withdraw our funds.

Mission statement for the “roll out:”

Our primary purpose is to create an afternoon event that will take place in or near Amalgamated bank, our new bank,  that both celebrates Kolot's achievement, as the first Jewish congregation in the U.S. to divest publically from an institution that invests in fossil fuel projects, and also motivates  other Jewish congregations to likewise divest their holdings. A well-strategized system of publicity, both conventional and social-media-based will allow the event to be shared widely and also shared over a continuous period, thus magnifying its impact.  

APRIL 17, 2018:   The Day of Divestment was planned to coincide with Earth Day.  It was chilly, and threatening rain, but we gatheredwith feelings of triumph outside the main Brooklyn branch of Amalgamated Bank. 

Our press release read: Kolot Chayeinu community members and supporters rallied at Amalgamated Bank today to announce that the congregation is publicly divesting from Chase Bank and proudly moving their accounts to Amalgamated Bank, in order to divest from the Dakota Access Pipeline, and from the fossil fuel industry. Kolot, the first Jewish congregation in the country to publicly take such divestment action.

Our ceremony was introduced by an improvisational “Ode to Mother Earth” on fluteby a member of Kolot followed by a call and response song engaging everyone.    

Who came:  We had a strong showing from the Congregation, many younger members included.  Our local Councilmember (and Kolot member), Brad Lander, was present, along with Councilmember Carlos Menchaca, many of whose constituents had been severely impacted by Superstorm Sandy.  We were delighted that NYC’s Public Advocate, Letitia James was there and we were also honored to welcome Chief Perry and Owl, leaders within the Ramapough-Lenape Nation on whose ancestral land we were standing. A representative of Amalgamated, with whom we had worked to establish our account was also present.

The best way to conclude this account is probably with our founding rabbi’s words.

Rabbi Ellen Lippmann (now retired) said,

This is the first time our community has decided to use its financial power to make change. We are not a large nor a wealthy congregation, but we hope and believe this divestment will make a difference to Chase, and we are so glad to know it makes a big difference to Amalgamated, and to the world in which we live.

Check out the video that filmmaker (and Kolot member), Lynne Sachs, made of the event:

Or to read our press and see more pics and videos, please visit  Planet A’s fB page:

https://theshalomcenter.org/content/one-synagogue-divests-carbon-pharaoh-bank