For the past year, Jeff Schoenberg has been a full-time volunteer and chairman of the board of the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club. He estimates there are perhaps 55,000 who work in some way in Georgia to support the organization. The national organization has 3 million members and is the largest environmental group in America. He is a lawyer by training and a member of Temple Sinai. When Max Cleland was a U.S. Senator from Georgia, he was staff counsel.
AJT: How has your political background helped you in your volunteer work?
Schoenberg: I would consider myself an indoor environmentalist. The issues that the Sierra Club fights for are valuable matters for everybody. My job is to work to get good people to reach across the aisle and get as many decisionmakers as possible lined up behind smart policy. That’s what I want to see done.
I think that there’s a misperception out in the world that that environmentalists are fighting for the trees. You know Sierra Club is interested in protecting public lands and protecting the beauty of public spaces. But primarily what we’re interested in is protecting the environment so that people can live in it in a sustainable way.
That includes economics; that includes urban planning; it includes transit issues; it includes clean air and water. And if you address these topics in ways that are approachable and understandable, you don’t have to be an activist to want to join in. You just have to be human. That’s why it’s worth volunteering for.
AJT: How do you get other volunteers to work for the Sierra Club?
Schoenberg: We have a very strong pro-democracy piece to the way we do our work. We engage very much as an on-the-ground grassroots organization. We have a very large membership. My particular work is in thinking strategically and using our membership to build power so that we can make policy changes that make sense.
AJT: What have you accomplished?
Schoenberg: Most recently we persuaded the Public Service Commission to more than double the amount of solar energy that Georgia Power proposed to put onto the power grid for the next three years. Georgia Power doesn’t volunteer; they have to be pushed and we’ve been pushing.
We have successfully battled a natural gas pipeline that was going to go down the coast of Georgia that was completely unnecessary. We are currently fighting to protect the Okefenokee Swamp in South Georgia from a mining proposal that has a potential of actually draining the swamp.
We are standing up for regulatory transparency in the management of the [Chattahoochee-Oconee] National Forest in Georgia. It’s not just winning, you know, at that site; it’s winning to keep the [U.S.] Forest Service honest. We have a very active involvement with the the City of Atlanta to have the city use energy that is 100 percent renewable by 2035. We’re encouraging other cities across the state of Georgia to do this as well. And I could go on and on. I think the perception may be that we’re crazy left-leaning Democrats and that’s not the case. It’s very important if you’re going to actually make change that you figure out how to talk to everybody. That’s how you build power and make change.
AJT: How have your Jewish values affected the work you do?
Schoenberg: The idea of tikkun olam was always part of my Jewish education. It’s a critical part of being a human being to understand how you fit in the world and what your role can be to make it better, and that’s what I want to be. That’s what motivates all the work I’ve ever done. There is also an internal sense of what I would call “otherness” that comes from being Jewish. I try to put myself in the position of the people who are not on top of the heap and who need to be heard. It’s very motivating.
AJT: You are the only Jewish member of the board of the Sierra Club of Georgia. Why aren’t there more Jewish volunteers in the organization?
Schoenberg: I don’t really understand why it is that Jewish volunteerism doesn’t generally lead people to or toward environmental organizations. I’m the only Jewish member of leadership. You know as an organization with progressive values, it falls squarely in line with values that fit very comfortably with American Jewish theology. There is no reason why Jews shouldn’t participate in environmental activism in much greater numbers than they do.