Author Archive | Nigel Savage

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Synagogue at I. Freedman

Leadership & Followership: Support Your Local Rabbi….

I continue to be struck that the Jewish community spends a lot of time talking about “leadership” and almost none teaching about what we ought to call “followership.” Part of my understanding of this derives from my reading of a famous line in Pirkei Avot, one of the oldest and most famous parts of the Mishnah: “aseh l’cha rav” – עֲשֵׂה לְךָ רַב – make someone your rabbi; “u’knei l’cha chaver” – וּקְנֵה לְךָ חָבֵר – and acquire a friend; “v’hevei dan et kol ha’adam l’chaf zechut” –  וֶהֱוֵי דָן אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם לְכַף זְכוּת – and give every person the benefit of the doubt. Some damage has been done to Jewish life by simply gluing Jewish teachings to contemporary liberalism. I’m less interested in where Jewish teachings coincide with what I know already than where they dissent. This teaching is for me one of the most striking, one of the most interesting and one of the most useful such instances. The heart of how I read this verbal triptych starts with thinking about the curious use of the verb “k’nei” – קְנֵה – acquire. We would not normally say to someone, “go out and buy yourself a friend:” that […]

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Secular Jews and Secular Jewish Culture

Where does secular Jewish culture come from? Can or should we try to preserve it? Someone wrote to me about last week’s email to say that I was disrespecting “the secular Jewish community.” I replied that I didn’t think that I was, and I certainly didn’t intend to; but the correspondence (and, perhaps ironically, one or two things in this week’s parsha) prompted me to reflect on the nature of contemporary Jewish secularity. It’s an important conversation, and one that, for me, began almost thirty years ago at lunch with Felix Posen in a sushi restaurant in London’s West End. Felix thought you could educate for secular Jewish culture. I was – and remain – skeptical. Yet this skepticism is not the end of the story. I want to note that when we talk about “secular Jewish community” we actually mean two quite distinct things. One is at the level of theology – people who “don’t believe in G!d.” The other is really about Jewish culture – a sense of Jewish culture deriving from Jewish tradition but independent of, for instance, synagogue or services. These two kinds of secularity are quite distinct. There are many observant (ie “religious”) Jews who, […]

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Schmaltz, Pastrami and Sushi: Now What?

Beinart at Bloom’s… Sometimes if I’m talking about the Jewish Food Movement I’ll say to an audience “put your hands in the air if you grew up with schmaltz in the fridge.” 90% of anyone 70 or over puts their hands in the air. Then I’ll say, “put your hands up if you have schmaltz in the fridge now.” If there are a hundred people in the audience, maybe two hands might go up. More recently – seeing quizzical faces – I added “put your hands up if you don’t know what schmaltz is.” A bunch of hands go up in the air – all of them amongst the younger people in the room. That’s the backdrop to Peter Beinart’s piece in Ha’Aretz, yesterday, copied here in full, because it sums up so clearly something I’ve been thinking about recently: I realized the other day that my two children, ages nine and six, have never tasted pastrami. In fact, I’m not even sure they know what it is. They’ve never tasted chopped liver or herring either. They’re unfamiliar with Dr. Brown’s Soda, and they feel no particularly affinity for rye bread. Were they growing up in Bismarck, North Dakota, this […]

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Tza’aka, 2015, the World Zionist Congress, and Goodbye to Cheryl…

I have been thinking, recently, about tza’aka – crying out. It is the motif in the Torah for the moment when a person or a people says: enough is enough. After twenty quiescent generations of slavery, it is the tza’aka of the children of Israel which signals that something is about to change – that freedom is about to be within our grasp. And this is not just in the Torah. It was a kind of tza’aka that brought the Civil Rights movement in this country. It was a tza’aka that brought down the Berlin Wall. The Climate Change march in New York just before Rosh Hashanah was a tza’aka, and it helped to nudge the US and other governments in the direction of a substantive climate treaty. And what happened in Paris and in France on Sunday, provoked and inspired by tragedy, was a very glorious moment of tza’aka. Less than four weeks ago I was writing about fissures in our community, partly provoked by having just been in Paris. Here’s what I wrote then. I ended, inter alia, with “May we never need to defend ourselves – but may we have the courage and the confidence to do […]

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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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