By: Joshua Lancman
At Golda Och Academy (GOA) in West Orange, New Jersey, sophomore Shayne Cytrynbaum, national policy director for the Jewish Youth Climate Movement (JYCM), works to make a more direct positive impact on his own community, while also helping to lead an international youth-activist organization.
The completely Gen-Z JYCM applies ancient Jewish ethical and agricultural principles to modern-day issues of environmentalism, in an attempt to “catalyze a cultural shift that makes taking collective action toward climate justice a central and defining feature of Jewish identity in the 21st century,” according to their mission statement. “Judaism teaches us that "justice, justice, you shall pursue" (Deuteronomy 16:20),” JYCM states. “Throughout history, our people have bravely advocated for justice. As a people connected to the environment and dreaming for justice, we must pursue a sustainable and equitable world for all.”
A grassroots association, JYCM relies heavily upon individual kvutzot (Hebrew for chapters/groups) to take action, calling them the “heart and soul of our movement. As the ones who know [their] community the best, [the small, local chapters] can best inspire, lead and take action.”
At Golda Och, a small conservative Jewish day school, Cytrynbaum leads his kvutzah with a bright-eyed optimism and unremitting determination to change his community for the better. Recently, he and the rest of the GOA Climate Activism club (which he co-founded and heads), raised the most funds of any JCYM chapter in a week- over $1000.
Cytrynbaum’s passion for environmentalism began during the 2012 presidential election. “I remember seeing high school activists protesting in front of my elementary school against Mitt Romney because he was pro-coal,” he recollected. “They told me I should vote for Barack Obama, since he was more supportive of the environment. I have no idea why they were telling an elementary schooler who to vote for, but it ended up having a big impact on me.”
In 2019, Cytrynbaum was unable to attend the global climate strike popularized by fellow teenager Greta Thunberg, and to compensate, started speaking to his school administration about going green. After discovering a lack of interest in the subject amongst his teachers and principal, Cytrynbaum became the figurehead of climate activism at GOA, eventually discovering and joining JYCM during his eighth grade year.
“I wanted to join a more organized advocacy group, and JYCM provided that while also incorporating Jewish values and a supportive youth community,” he said. “Judaism has a long history of environmentalism, and I think it’s important to approach combating climate change with this Jewish lens, in order to build bridges between the Jewish community and the climate activism world.”
After applying to the JYCM leadership board in 2021, Cytrynbaum rose to become one of its youngest heads as the national policy director a year later. “Policy is the most effective tool to combat big polluters, like corporations,” he explained. As the director, Cytrynbaum leads JYCM in researching the impacts of government environmental policies and training other climate activists how to properly organize.
“I think that while for the past fifty years much of environmentalism has been from an individualist lens, in order to provoke actual change, we must approach climate activism from a collective mindset, changing governmental and corporate policy to have a larger impact,” he said.
You can learn more about JYCM at https://www.jewishyouthclimatemovement.org.