Daveed Diggs as a rabbi grappling with climate chance in "Extrapolations." (Photo/Courtesy Apple TV+)
Daveed Diggs as a rabbi grappling with climate chance in "Extrapolations." (Photo/Courtesy Apple TV+)

What Apple TV+’s ‘Extrapolations’ says about the Jewish future in a changed climate

The new Apple TV+ show “Extrapolations” offers a powerful preview of what Jewish life could like in the coming decades if we delay action on climate change.

“Why is God doing this to us?” asks Alana Goldblatt (Neska Rose) as a fifth question during a Passover seder scene in the third episode of the series. This question echoes throughout the episode, which is set primarily in a synagogue facing rising waters in Miami in 2047.

The choices that Rabbi Marshall Zucker (Oakland native Daveed Diggs) faces in the episode are starker versions of the ones that already face us all. He has to choose whether to save his synagogue building, whether to protect just his own congregation or to care for his broader community — and whether to stay honest or use any means necessary to get what he needs.

Sadly, despite water levels in the sanctuary that necessitate rubber boots to attend services, the synagogue board is not ready to face these big questions. Their bickering over which pumps to buy is a painful portrayal of how a narrow scope of vision — in this case, focusing on the cheapest way to temporarily save the building — can lead us to lose everything.

In the episode’s most dramatic scene, the rabbi and a plumber wade through waist high water to save two Torah scrolls from flooding. It may seem far-fetched, but the framing of the scene almost exactly echoes widely published photos from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when rescuers saved scrolls from a flooded synagogue in New Orleans. What has changed in the past 20 years — and what will change in the next 20 — is the frequency of such scenes.

Do we understand such scenes through the eyes of the fictional synagogue’s founders who survived the Holocaust to make a home in Miami? Or do we see it like Elie Wiesel who Rabbi Zucker quotes in reference to climate injustice: “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.”

Or do we understand a Miami underwater through the narrative of our people’s Exodus from Egypt, as the Seder suggests and as Rabbi Zucker’s mother invokes as she relocates to Chicago? Is climate change another Pharaoh to escape? Do we need a new way of life?

The most obvious frame of reference, perhaps, is Noah’s flood — the topic of Alana’s original bat mitzvah portion. But in an effort to escape the shadow of her father’s sins, Alana’s family has changed synagogues, and her original portion is already claimed by another student. So, instead of reading about the erasure of the world by flood, she will mark her entry into adulthood by reading the portion in which God wipes out Sodom and Gomorrah for their sins.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Zucker, confronting the rising waters, gradually moves from aligning himself with pragmatic board member David Goldblatt (Judd Hirsch) to his Machiavellian son Harris (David Schwimmer) and finally to Alana. But, as the drama unfolds, we come to see that understanding the situation as apocalyptic divine judgment leads only to fatalism.

In the closing scenes, while rescuing the Torah, Rabbi Zucker tells a version of an old Yiddish joke. A man surrounded by rising floodwaters turns away a neighbor in a canoe, a rescuer in a motorboat, and a state trooper in a helicopter — all of whom had come in turn to save him. “‘No,’ says the man. ‘I have faith in the Lord. He will save me.’” When the man dies and gets to heaven, he complains to God, “‘Lord, I had unwavering faith in you. Why didn’t you deliver me from that flood?’ God replies, ‘I sent you two boats and a helicopter. What more did you want?’”

“Extrapolations” is a powerful reminder to us in 2023 of all we can still save if we act with courageous and broad vision. We can’t just wait for a visible act of God while there are still figurative boats and helicopters ready to save us from the flood; i​t’s up to us to recognize and take hold of opportunities for our redemption.

That’s the message of the show and of the latest climate science in 2023: It’s up to us as humans to solve the problem. We have the resources, technologies and policies; we just need the political and social will so that no one is left behind.

From one climate concerned rabbi to another, I wanted to tell Rabbi Zucker to remember his own teachings and to look beyond his own synagogue. We need to remind our people — and ourselves — that this is not a zero sum game. As he tells Alana’s father (Schwimmer): “‘For someone to win, someone has to lose’ is basketball, not Torah.” As the scroll Rabbi Zucker clings to and as the rising Miami waters make clear, our futures are tied up with one another.

As the episode nears its end, Alana asks her question again, “If God loves us, why not intervene?” Rabbi Zucker responds, noting that Moses asked a similar question:

“Basically, [God answered], ‘I’d tell you, but you wouldn’t understand because you’re a human…’”

“That’s the answer? Being human?”

“Yeah, it has to be. I think the answer is… it’s up to us.”

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Rabbi Jennie Rosenn

Rabbi Jennie Rosenn is the Founder and CEO of Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action