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New vision at a dark moment

New York,
Second day of Hanukkah 5772 / 22nd December 2011

Dear All,

I got back from sabbatical exactly ten weeks ago. To my pleasant surprise, I’m still feeling calmer, more focused and more energized. That’s partly testament to riding my bike to work more regularly, and cutting down on sugar and junk food. But it’s also about having had the chance to step back from the day-to-day, and to think about Hazon’s work in relation to the world around us. As the year draws to a close, I want to give you a partial snapshot of Hazon, and a sense of where we’re headed.

The backdrop is that, as we know, this is a somewhat dark moment; not because things are so bad—they could be better, but they could also be a lot worse—but because our fear for the future is as great as it has been for a generation, and perhaps longer. This is true almost everywhere we look: in relation to the world, the West, America, Israel, and/or the Jewish community. We’re nervous about the economy, the impact of social media, the consequences of globalization, the functioning of markets, the viability of social security. Also the fate of synagogues and day schools, the young, the old, the relationship between the diaspora and Israel, and Israel itself. Global scorching and its consequences. Social inequity. Food security. Eric Idle’s immortal lyrics come naturally to mind; “always look on the bright side of life, de-doo / de-doo / de-doo de-doo de-doo…”

The word Hazon, which means vision, was chosen for the organization in 1999, in a millennium and a world now receding into the history pages of Wikipedia. But our ethos, our values, and our vision have remained remarkably consistent over time. The mission we’ve taken for ourselves—to work for a healthier and more sustainable Jewish community, and a healthier and more sustainable world for all—is one that we really mean. It’s both more precise and more expansive than you might imagine.

When Hazon first began, people said, “Why do Jewish environmental bike rides?” Then slowly they started to understand the interplay that we were interested in—impacting people’s lives in multiple ways, and also effecting change in concentric circles, moving outwards. Ten years on, our Rides have touched the lives of several thousand people directly, they’ve enabled Hazon to seed new programs internally, and they’ve raised close on $3 million for a slew of other great organizations, led by the Arava Institute in Israel and the Adamah Fellowship in the US.

Then in 2004, as the Rides became better understood, we launched the first Jewish Community-Supported Agriculture project. People said, “you’re a bike ride organization—why are you starting this work around food?” I explained that a Jewish CSA—just like our Rides—was a way both to strengthen and renew Jewish life, and to play some role in creating a more sustainable world for all. Seven years on there are 57 Hazon CSAs, now the largest faith-based CSA network in the country. Close on 10,000 members, 50 farms, more than 200 discrete educational events this year, nearly 40,000 lbs of fresh produce given to people in need. And, behind it, our Food Conference, our blog, the growth of our Jewish Food Education Network. New educational initiatives with families and with expectant parents. A food tour in Israel. The Jewish Food Movement which we’ve helped to catalyze is flourishing as never before. In 2012 our program areas will start to converge, as our Cross-USA Ride, in particular, becomes an extraordinary catalyst for sustainable food systems.

And there’s a third broad arena of change that we’re involved in: what we call capacity-building, and some people describe as field-building. That includes the money we’ve given from the Rides; it includes being fiscal sponsor to other organizations (including Challah for Hunger and Urban Adamah, which have graduated to become independent 501c3s, and Jewish Farm School and Wilderness Torah, for whom we still provide support. All four organizations have had a spectacular year.). Capacity-building also includes things like Siach (our network for environmental and social justice leaders from Israel, the US and Europe) and Makom Hadash (where we’re enabling a growing number of second-stage Jewish non-profits to work more effectively together; I’m delighted to announce that Storahtelling moved in yesterday, and we’re excited to learn and partner with them in the coming year).

So there’s a lot that’s going on. And as we turn into the new year, there are three broad changes of different sorts that are underway here.

The first is that, like lots of organizations, we’ve made a commitment to control costs. It’s a tough economy for everyone. Hazon has always run on a relative shoestring, but we’ve taken steps to make sure that we’re doing more with less. Despite cutting costs, we enter the new year with the strongest staff we’ve ever had, each working incredibly hard, and together exhibiting an esprit de corps that I’m proud of and that I find inspiring.

Secondly, and despite cost-control, we’re still growing strongly. In 2012 we’re planning to grow very substantially the work that we do to help transform institutions and communities. We’re doing that in CO and CA; we’re doing that in a growing number of synagogues; and we hope to do much more of this in the coming year. 2012 will also see the launch of our Cross-USA Ride, about which I’m quite incredibly excited. And then in June we’ll do our second Siach conference, in Israel.

The third thing that’s going on is that I came back from sabbatical and said: this isn’t business as usual. JDub closed down; The Curriculum Initiative’s national program closed down. The economy’s a mess. There’s been a proliferation of Jewish non-profits in general, and ones interested in food, land and sustainability in particular. Non-profits have an obligation to work as effectively as they possibly can. That means thinking about opportunities to share costs, to reduce overhead, to work more efficiently, and to explore a range of partnerships and collaborations. So we’ve launched a strategic planning process internally, to look at everything we do, and many things that we might do, and make recommendations about moving forwards. I’ll share more on this with you as it unfolds.

We’re a complex (and imperfect) organization that has great ideas, high ideals, and a strong commitment to learning and growing. We’re not sanguine by any means. But we’re going into 2012 with a determination to manifest hazon—vision—in all that we do. The evaluations from our Food Conference this year sum it up: more than 80% of participants said, “this conference increased my sense of hope for the Jewish people.” We’re committed to renewing Jewish life. We care about each person with whom we come into contact. We’re determined to play some measurable role in making a better world for all.

In 2012: I hope that you’ll join me on one of our Rides, or at our Food Conference, or that you’ll think about how we might help you in bringing new vision to fruition in your community.

If you’re making year-end gifts, I can only add that your support would and will go a long way. Right now it looks like we’re going to make a small loss for the year, for only the second time in our history. All of our board members have given, and those who can have increased their gift. A growing number of foundations support us. If you want to feel that you’re a stakeholder in this work going forwards, we’d love to welcome you again as a supporter. Follow these links to: give a one-off gift, or sign up for the California, New York, or Cross-USA Ride, or—best of all—become a monthly sustainer, one of the rocks upon whom our work rests.

Wishing you a happy Hanukkah, a merry Christmas, and a healthy and sustainable new year,

Nigel

PS: Hazon board member Mandy Patinkin, and his producer Staci Levine, have very generously donated two sets of tickets to Mandy’s Broadway show with Patti LuPone. I saw it when it opened—it’s a really great show. The tickets are being auctioned on eBay, proceeds to Hazon, and tax-deductible. The auction closes in 72 hours. Go ahead and bid for them—we’re a great cause, and you’ll have a great evening. The run ends Jan 13th.

This is the link for the auction on eBay. And here’s info on the show.

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