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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 they succeeded, very considerably. The group waxed and waned. People married, had kids, got divorced, became grandparents. People joined; people moved away. Some became more observant, some less observant. It was a great incubator for Jewish ideas: Sarina Berlow, one of the Beit Havurahnikim who were at our Jewish Intentional Communities Conference last week, told me “CAJE, for instance, first arose at the Beit Havurah kitchen table.”

But in the last ten years or so, the group gradually shrank in size. People’s lives moved on. New needs arose. And so earlier this year – unbeknownst to us – the members decided to donate the house to another Jewish institution, so that the proceeds of its sale would support programs and values that were consonant with those of Beit Havurah. There were apparently 15 suggested recipients, and they decided in advance that they wanted to agree by consensus, not by majority vote. And after due process they did indeed agree unanimously that they wanted to donate the house – to Hazon.

First, therefore, on the eve of Thanksgiving, we offer great and public thanks to the members of Beit Havurah who gave us this gift. It is significant to Hazon in a material sense and will support our work in a profound way.

Secondly, we welcome members of the Beit Havurah family – current and former – into the larger family of Hazon. We had five Beit Havurahnikim at the Intentional Communities conference last week. It was a genuinely remarkable gathering in its own right, and not least for the sense of mutuality – 20-somethings learning from 60-somethings, but also 60-somethings learning from 20-somethings. Israelis and Americans each remarking on how deep was the learning, one group from the other, back and forth. But it was especially great to have the Beit Havurah folk at the retreat. We hope that many more Beit Havurahniks will join us in the future at Freedman. We’re hoping to pick a retreat next year – perhaps at Shavuot – to invite back alumni and formally to affix the old Beit Havurah sign at Isabella Freedman.

But beyond these thanks, and this invitation, I want to talk about a very different kind of recycling in Jewish life – the very needed recycling of assets. I have talked in the past about the extent to which the present crises of American Jewish life are made worse by a very profound asset allocation challenge. We have young organizations on one side that are rich in people, ideas, programs and ruach – but have no balance sheet, no assets, no endowment, no reserves. Hazon is one such organization, though we are far from the only one. And on the other side – like Beit Havurah – Jewish institutions that financial or quasi-financial assets, but who indeed have become poorer in people, ideas, programs and/or ruach.

That is why Beit Havurah’s decision is so brave, so generous, so important, and I hope so inspirational to others in practical and specific ways.  As a broader Jewish community, we need to increase the number and velocity of such transfers. There is, and probably can be, no central mechanism to do so. But someone reading this email is the trustee of a synagogue building, or a school, or a camp, or of a fund, that has slowly lost its constituency. People have moved away. Needs have changed. Please consider starting a process to donate your asset to a young organization that is vital and growing and could put your asset to great great use. Certainly Hazon would love to be the recipient of such a transfer, and David Weisberg or I would be delighted to have a conversation with you if you’d like to discuss such a gift. But it is not just Hazon: the same applies to Avodah, Eden Village, Footsteps, Hadar or Keshet, for instance, to name just five organizations each of which is young, growing, has a strong board, great staff, and is touching people’s lives – and needs deeper and more substantial support.

I want to end with one last, absolutely extraordinary thing that I learned last week. It derives from Sarina’s casual line, which I quoted above, about CAJE starting around the Beit Havurah table. Here’s the scoop:

Hazon arose from my experience with Limmud in the UK. I attended Limmud for more than ten years, I was actively part of its community, and I began – but did not finish – a Phd exploring the reasons for its impact. Without Limmud there would have been no Hazon;

Limmud, in its turn, began when four guys from Britain (Rabbi Sammy Barth; Alastair Falk; Clive Lawton; and Rabbi Mickey Rosen z”l) went to CAJE. They had a great time and decided to do something in Britain – and they called it Limmud. Without CAJE there would have been no Limmud;

And, as I learned this weekend, CAJE began as an idea around the Beit Havurah kitchen table. Without Beit Havurah, there would have been no CAJE.

And so you see the remarkable punchline: without Beit Havurah, it is quite possible that Hazon itself would never have come into existence.

This is, indeed, a remarkable chain of causation and influence. It is actually a quite challenging story, in one sense; because it throws into relief the conversations we have about metrics and outcomes and measuring success. We should be striving to do this, better and better; but the greatest and most long-run impact that we have may not become apparent for years, and in this case, decades.

This indeed may be the most profound recycling of all. There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come; and few things more satisfying than to see people and ideas cross and criss-cross, touching lives directly, nourishing eco-systems, planting seeds that lie dormant and then flourish years later.

So I give thanks – genuine sincere thanks – to all those who came before me; to the people on whose shoulders I sit; and to the institutions that directly and directly have nourished Hazon, as together we renew Jewish life, and create a better world for all.