David Bowie, Reb Shlomo, Alan Rickman, Herman Wouk

Had he lived, today would have been the birthday of Reb Shlomo Carlebach, z”l.

Like David Bowie and Alan Rickman – each of them, also, of blessed memory – he died at 69.

Nowadays we think of the biblical threescore years and ten as being not the measure of a full life – or so we hope. A growing number of people are making it to a hundred. Reb Shlomo, David Bowie, Alan Rickman; all three of them lived huge, good, rich lives, and all of them died too young.

I love to read obituaries and I commend them as one of the better and more provoking sorts of contemporary short-form literature. The English newspapers – the Guardian and the Independent and the Telegraph each have no paywall – are especially good at this. Being reminded of the mortality we daily strive to forget is good for us.

Religion, of course, is more than somewhat about mortality. When my uncle died, I offered to my militantly anti-religious aunt that I would say kaddish for him, if she wanted. My mother told me that my aunt’s reply would, of course, be “under no circumstances.” In fact – and in tears, unable to finish the sentence – she said that she and they would be honored if I would indeed say kaddish for him, which I did.

I do not for one moment think that this was because, in her late eighties, my aunt had suddenly acquired a belief in G!d, or felt thus the need to offer G!d’s praises; absolutely not. But the ancient traditions, worn and patched after centuries of use and re-use (and, yes, sometimes misuse) turn out to be, at critical moments, wiser than we are.

I write this because Hazon, of course, is fundamentally about life, about vision, about hope, and about agency. Can we be serious about wanting to make a healthier and more sustainable Jewish community? Can we be serious in believing and working for the Jewish community to play some role in creating a more sustainable world for all?

Well, yes, we can and we do, and our reach has steadily expanded these last 16 years, and we hope it will do so again in these next 16 years. And beyond.

Because to be engaged in all non-profits is, at least theoretically, to be engaged with immortality. The entity that is today’s Hazon traces back legally more than 120 years. Who drove out to find and then to buy the site that is today’s Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center? We don’t know. And yet the grandchildren of some of our current Adamahniks or Tevaniks will be hitting middle age in 2100, and some of them at least will be who they are because of lessons taught and learned, here at Hazon, here at Isabella Freedman, in this year of 2016; and those experiences and those lessons trace back to so many who came before us. And good work and good ideas always radiate outwards. The JOFEE field is growing. We’re finalizing our first cohort of full-time JOFEE Fellows. Jewish farming is flourishing around the country – the Leichtag Foundation is about to convene its second annual gathering of Jewish farmers, and the Boulder JCC (complete with a working educational farm) is starting to take shape. So much that is good is underway, in so many places.

So somehow we have to hold onto both our mortality and this sense of an unending future, as we also need to face what is wrong in the world and not be bowed by it.

Because this is indeed a darkening moment. Climate change; the Middle East; Israel and the Palestinians, the challenges within Israel. Chinese pollution, Putin and Erdogan, the future of Europe. The American political system, the evolution of the American Jewish community, racism, incarceration… Our 24/7 window to the world isn’t doing much, right now, for our sense of hope or confidence.

As markets wobble, this remains an important moment for each of us, in our own way, to double down on what is good and what we believe in and what we each can do. Now is the time to read something inspiring rather than something vapid. Now is the time to manage our Facebook feed, rather than have it manage us. Now is the time to sign up for something, to volunteer for something. Now is the time to vote, or to plan to vote, or to clear out some time to campaign for someone you believe in. Now is the time to live more lightly, to compost, to help a neighbor, to say thank you or to apologize.

And at Hazon: if you want to come to a retreat or a ride with us this year, you are warmly invited. Here’s a fullish list, with information and registration. Registration is now open for Pesach and Shavuot and a raft of other things. The anchor of our work, and still a significant part of our revenues, comes from the New York Ride: we’ve just put up a great 80-second video (crank up the volume and you’ll enjoy it even more.) And if you want Tu B’Shvat resources, click here.

Now, at the start of the year, I want to ask you also to consider becoming a stakeholder in Hazon, or to increase your gift to us. There are two things you could do that would be especially helpful.

One would be to give to The Tamar Fund, named after Tamar Bittelman, z”l. 100% of the fund goes to provide scholarships for younger people who would otherwise be unable to afford to come to retreats at Freedman – retreats that sometimes change their lives in extraordinary ways. It was begun, fifteen months ago, with a $5,000 gift, and we want to grow it. Every gift touches someone’s life.

The other would be to become a Hazon Monthly Sustainer. These are the people who give us a monthly gift, to support all of our work. It is the bedrock upon which all our work rests, and a growing number of people feel that they want to be stakeholders in this work, that when things around us darken it is the more important to make a difference and to do so each month.

Thanks to the generosity of the Jim Joseph Foundation, new and/or increased gifts will be matched, roughly 1:1. So a new or increased gift to Hazon will genuinely count double. 

Finally, and speaking of immortality, I leave you with a book recommendation: the absolutely charming Sailor and Fiddler, published just last week by Herman Wouk, on his hundredth birthday. You can probably read it, as I did, in one sitting.

In the end, memories interweave. I saw Alan Rickman on stage and was moved by him; I drove back from David Bowie at the Albert Hall, buzzed and joyous; I met Herman Wouk in shul, in the days when I sat behind him at Kesher, and then read and was greatly influenced by This Is My God; and I learned from Reb Shlomo in London, New York, Jerusalem and Modi’in, and live on to teach little bits of his Torah.

May we each of us, if we can, make it to a century, in good shape. And for Herman Wouk, now that he has hit that century, ad meah v’esrim….

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