Author Archive | Nigel Savage


Can we claim the truths of seemingly non-overlapping stories?

In the last week I was in England, briefly in Paris, and I reread Amos Elon’s beautiful and tragic The Pity Of It All, his history of the German Jewish community from Moses Mendelsohn to 1933. Then yesterday I was honored to be at one of two White House Chanukah parties, at which two schoolmates – a Jewish Israeli kid and a Muslim Israeli kid – lit Chanukah candles under the supervision of a Californian rabbi for an African American President, child of a Christian and a Muslim, who grew up in Hawaii and, for a while, Indonesia. So I’ve been thinking a lot about the historical context for the moment in which we find ourselves. And I’ve been thinking, in particular, about two larger stories that inform Jewish life, about the extent to which those two stories seem to overlap less and less – and whether there is anything we can or should do about that. The first is the story of fragility – at best. Jewish communities have always been in the minority. There have been “golden ages” – Spain in the early Muslim period; the emancipation; Germany after Mendelsohn. But the golden ages have indeed been evanescent. […]

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Giving Thanks, and a Very Different Kind of Recycling

Tomorrow it’s Thanksgiving. On Friday night – hodu sheini – many of us will eat some of the leftovers. That kind of recycling is good, and so is recycling boxes or bottles or turning plastic into toothbrushes. We could all do more to lessen our footprints. But Hazon, this month, has been the recipient of a very different kind of recycling. I wanted publicly to give thanks for it; to make an observation deriving from it that is important and worth thinking about; and to issue a public request that I hope may hit a chord with someone, somewhere. The story begins in the summer of 1974, when Cherie Koller-Fox and some friends rented a ski lodge, and nearly forty people came out during Elul to spend time together. The following year, and coming out of this experience, a group of friends established what they called Beit Havurah – a house that they bought as a shared Jewish gathering place; a bayit in which to celebrate, to hang out, to fall in love, to express a new sense of Jewishness, and in general to explore and expand the nature of Jewish life in the 20th century. In all of this […]

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Two Pockets

The teaching that is speaking to me most deeply, these days, is the one about the two pockets – that we each should walk around with two pieces of paper in our pockets. In one pocket: “for me the world was created” And in the other: “I am dust, and will return to dust…” One of them is about power and impact; the other is about our deep insignificance. One of them reminds us of the goodness in the world; the other is about its darkness. They speak to me so deeply because it feels as if both are true, and are somehow becoming ever more true with each passing day. From one pocket: our great-grandparents could hardly dream of the peace, freedom, affluence, and choice that so many of us take for granted each day. They couldn’t have imagined the medicines that heal us or the technologies that enable us to learn or to stay connected. They didn’t expect to see three Jews on the US Supreme Court, or Ivy League schools that are a quarter Jewish, or a State of Israel that is prosperous, diverse, culturally vibrant, and militarily strong. Yet those of us who are able to […]

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All Hallow’s Eve, Father Healy z”l, and Applied Jewish Wisdom

Halloween wasn’t really a thing when I was a kid in England; we had Guy Fawkes Night, five days later. So my first Halloween was when I was a Junior Year Abroad student at Georgetown, where it was a big deal, both on campus and in the neighborhood. We began Halloween by going to Dahlgren Chapel for a Hallow’s Eve Mass, led by Father Healy, z”l, the President of the University. Dahlgren Chapel is small and dark, an atmospheric place, and famous as the location of a key scene in The Exorcist. For Halloween it was packed. Students were dressed up, had already started drinking, and were planning to go out and hit the bars in Georgetown afterwards. It was quite a scene. It was to this audience, and to considerable laughter, that Father Healy began: “I’m so glad that you are all so committed to the celebration of All Hallow’s Eve…” He went on: “Hallow’s Eve is about celebrating the holiness in each of us; the holiness in our friends, the holiness in our fellow students, the holiness in our teachers…” And already the atmosphere had shifted, and the congregation was settling into quiet, and one could feel people […]

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The Launch of a New Incubator for Experiments in Jewish Intentional Community

The word “community” is a central word in Jewish life. We talk about “the Jewish community” a good deal. But the nature of community is complex and evolving. In the Manchester of my childhood it was taken for granted that my parents would likely know the parents of my friends, and that my grandparents would know their grandparents. My grandma died a quarter of a mile from where she was born – having lived nearly 96 years in one square mile of Jewish north Manchester. That world does still exist in some places, but it is shrinking. In its place we have evolving communities: old friends whom I catch up with when I see them; newer friends who live nearby. Virtual “friends,” with all the complexity we know that notion encompasses. I have been thinking about the notion of community in relation to Sukkot – and Sukkahfest – and our Intentional Communities Conference, at Isabella Freedman from November 20 – 23. The sukkah is something we construct with friends and family. Like the mythic barn-raisings of the old West or of the Amish community, it is the very opposite of “virtual” community; it is as tangible as a hammer and […]

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Shana Tova

This is a brief note to thank you for your support during this year that’s gone by, and to wish you and your family well in the coming year. It has been a hard and complicated year for the world and for the Jewish people, and yet Sunday’s Climate March here in New York summed up what our response to challenge can be and should be: bringing people together with determination, idealism, and a shared commitment to a better future for everyone. For Hazon this has been a remarkable year. We completed the merger between Hazon and Isabella Freedman. We delivered more than 26,000 person-days of immersive programs – and we published the JOFEE Report, substantiating the human impact of many of those programs. (Plus we added a vitally needed new acronym to the American Jewish lexicon: it stands for “Jewish Outdoor, Food & Environmental Education.”) Jewish Food Festivals are sprouting around the country. With the support of the Leichtag Foundation we hired our first staffer in southern California. We’ve hired a wonderful new director for Teva, and we continue to deepen and broaden our work in Boulder, Denver, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. We’ve had a further joyful crop of […]

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“Realistic hope”: Scotland, climate change, shmita & the call of the shofar

Yesterday Lord Sacks, in a teaching for the Wexner Foundation on teshuvah, described Jewish tradition as “a religion of realistic hope.” I was struck by this phrase and wondered if he had used it before. He seems not to have done; but Rabbi Levi Olan (rabbi-ing with a different theology in a rather different time and place) used it as the title of his commencement address at HUC-JIR in 1953. I doubt very much that Rabbi Sacks was quoting Rabbi Olan; rather they were each drawing on their own understanding of our shared tradition. It is a beautiful, accurate, and useful phrase, and never more relevant than at the remarkable time in which we now find ourselves. Yesterday Scotland voted to remain part of the United Kingdom. That signifies realistic hope on the part of the Scottish people – trusting that significant constitutional and thus existential change will be possible, without having to blow up a centuries-old union. I pray that in the coming year such peaceful evolution will be possible in other parts of the world where the boundaries of legal border and personal identity do not cleanly coincide – not only in Canada or Spain, for instance, but […]

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Food is Memory, Family, and Culture

Editor’s note: This essay is from the new anthology Faith in Food, published by the Alliance of Religions and Conservation. Order from Amazon or directly from the publisher and read some of the glowing reviews. I’m writing this on the eve of Yom Kippur, the fast day that is the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. It’s an appropriate moment to reflect on the centrality of food in Jewish life, and on the multiple ways that our relationship to food shapes who we are and how we influence the world. I want to sketch out some of the vital elements of the traditional Jewish relationship to food, how they’re evolving today, and what we all might learn from them. It’s an important task because religions are no longer islands unto themselves. Our communities need to stand not only for their highest ideals — which sometimes run the risk of sounding like platitudes — but also to be challenged by the tougher questions: how do your ideals play out in reality? Do they have meaning in the 21st century? Can they really help us live better lives, in all senses, and if so, how? Jewish tradition — a maximalist tradition — […]

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Reb Zalman z”l and the Tree of Life

Dear All, As the week goes on, and despite events in Israel and so many other things, I remain profoundly aware of the death of Reb Zalman, may his memory be for a blessing. A sense of him and the memory of him is never far away. He had such a beautiful voice, his beautiful accent, and those twinkly eyes. He was irrepressible, joyous, and a font of ideas and connections. It was a pleasure and a challenge to try to keep up with him and his richly associative mind. His presence continues to echo. I will miss him very much. He was intimately involved with Hazon and our programs over many years. The staff at Isabella Freedman loved him; he made it a habit always to meet with the behind-the-scenes staff, not just front-of-house folk. He taught at Shavuot, was a central figure at Elat Chayyim since its earliest days, was a very special presence at our benefit last year, and came to England with us for a climate change conference a few years back. He was deeply interested in, and supportive of, our work on shmita. And he and Eve have been incredibly kind and generous to me personally. […]

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The Gifts of Irresponsibility and Unseriousness

It is a cacophonous and intense time to be here in Israel. The three kidnapped boys. War in Iraq. My niece’s bat mitzvah. Syria. Netanyahu and Abbas. The World Cup. Seeing old friends. Waze. Shopping malls, Israeli hospitals, Mahane Yehuda, the (superb) Rabin Museum. The Presbyterian vote to divest. Masechet Ta’anit. Everything higgledy-piggledy, one experience jarring upon the next. Against this background, I have no great wisdom to offer – certainly succinctly ☺. But I note that many of us living in comfort and peace have afforded ourselves for a great while – without being fully aware of it – the gifts of irresponsibility and unseriousness. I include within this a whole raft of things: not reading serious newspapers (including, especially, those with which we disagree); allowing our attention spans to shorten; polluting our inboxes and thus indirectly our souls with nonsense and vapidity. Stepping back from civic engagement. Being in Israel is a good antidote to this. The multiple lessons of the Torah and of Jewish history are that subtle and fragile artifacts of human creation – culture, community, education, law – accrete over time, but fracture, relatively speaking, in moments. Aleppo, Baghdad, Damascus – these have been thriving […]

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