Why We Do What We Do

Dear All,

People used to send fundraising emails before the end of the year. But everyone did that, so they moved to early December, and then from there to late November. This year, as you know, it’s both Chanukah and Thanksgiving in five minutes time. So we’re sending our year-end appeal now – with the autumn leaves still on the trees – to ask you to become a stakeholder in Hazon.

Ideally – for us, but I hope also for you – we’d like to ask you to give a monthly gift, as a growing number of people are doing. For the price, each month, of three cappuccinos, two bars of dark chocolate, and maybe a banana, you can feel that in a purposive and persistent way you are helping to create a healthier, more sustainable and more vibrant Jewish community; and helping the Jewish community, as a community, to create a more sustainable world for all. This is not minor. Hazon is doing important work, and we certainly need your support; and/but we also want you, for yourself, genuinely to feel that by becoming a stakeholder you’re making a difference in the very many areas in which we’re doing work. (And before I go any further: a huge huge HUGE thank you to the many many of you, individuals and foundations, who have supported our work already and have enabled us to reach this point.)

Hazon is nearly fourteen years old, and I’m certainly proud of what we’ve accomplished in that time; yet I’m most excited right now not by what we’ve done but what I believe we can do, are doing, and to some extent must do in the future.

Part of this is about understanding not just what we do, but why we do what we do.

First, the wider context. The US and the world face a long litany of challenges. The American century is ending. As an English Jew with two degrees in American history and a very deep love for this country, even writing those words is upsetting to me. But globalization, the rise of China, Middle Eastern and Russian oil, two expensive wars, too many people in jail, too few kids in pre-school, roads and bridges and train systems that need fixing, dodgy accounting in relation to future liabilities; US relative wealth and power is eroding. And on a global scale, in relation to climate change, the moral obligation to act in defense of future generations increasingly runs parallel to a growing range of measures that will be needed to adapt to changes that are already irreversible. (The era of adaptation is one that will, amongst other things, be seen to have been defined by the relative underperformance of real estate values in low-lying coastal areas.)

The challenges within the Jewish community, on a smaller scale, are no less complex and intimidating. I love Jewish tradition, but the NY Population Study and the Pew Study together paint a clear picture, and back up what we see each day to be true: a growing number of Jewish people don’t connect to organized Jewish life, don’t join a synagogue, don’t give to federation, don’t feel connected to Israel. As a proportion of the US population, the American Jewish community has roughly halved in size in the last 80 years. On present trends the American Jewish community just a couple of decades hence will be smaller than it is today, and the ultra-orthodox will be a far larger proportion of it.

These enormous and complex challenges are the very reason that this organization is called “hazon,” which means vision. It is our intuition – it underpins all that we do – that these challenges are best confronted together rather than separately. That is why our theme-quote is “the Torah is a commentary on the world, and the world is a commentary on the Torah.”

To those of you who care most about strengthening Jewish life, let me say plainly: Jewish life makes no sense without an outside referent. Our parents’ and grandparents’ generation were willing to go to services they didn’t believe in, and speak words they couldn’t pronounce and didn’t understand, out of an ethnic sense of Jewishness. That world is now nearly over. The best and the brightest of our young people will not simply be Jewish out of tribal loyalty. They – we – live in the most radically free society in human history. If we are to renew Jewish life, we must do so by building multiple bridges between Jewish tradition, on one side, and the greatest challenges we face in the wider world, on the other.

That is precisely what we are doing, for example, in catalyzing and leading the Jewish Food Movement. For 3,000 years we have had a tradition of keeping kosher; a tradition which is inalienably bound up with responsibilities towards workers, land, animals, and those in need. But that which was latent needs now to be made explicit. In rising to meet the injunctions of our tradition, we simultaneously do good in the world and renew Jewish life in the process. In less than a decade we’ve built the largest faith-based CSA network in north America; the remarkable Adamah program; the Hazon Food Conference; the Jew & the Carrot; Food For Thought: a guide to food policy in Jewish institutions; Home For Dinner; our Israel Sustainable Food Tour; food justice work on the ground in San Francisco and elsewhere; and on and on. But there is much more we can and should do. Over the next two full shmita cycles we need to launch Jewish Food Festivals in every community in America. We need to train, support and network the growing number of Adamah alumni – plus the alumni of Urban Adamah, and the staff alumni of Teva, Eden Village, and Ramah Outdoor Adventures, not to mention the incredible new Jewish Food Justice Fellows here at the Leichtag Foundation’s Hub in San Diego’s North County.  We need to deploy Jewish Food Educators, Jewish Environmental Educators, and Jewish Outdoor Educators within communities and institutions across the country. (The reason I’m here with the Leichtag folk and others is because we’re hard at work on what will be known next year as the JOFEE Study – an independent research project that aims to document the eruption and impact, over the last decade, of this vital emerging field – Jewish Outdoor, Food & Environmental Education.)

And I want to make the opposite point, also. To those of you who don’t necessarily care about Jewish life; to those of you, indeed, who think the Jewish world too introverted; to those of you who think each day about climate change and wonder what future generations will say of us and who cannot understand why we are not doing more; to all of you I want to suggest that, in fact, the role of religion is vital. Both governments and the private sector are starting to make a difference. But what is most needed is to mobilize faith communities, whose long time-horizons and deep moral claims offer – can offer, should offer – a sort of leverage which is lacking elsewhere. It is impossible to imagine the nineteenth century fight against slavery, the US civil rights movement, the fight against apartheid, the campaign for Soviet Jews, the movement for marriage equality, without the force of religious communities and individual religious leaders. Governments and the private sector make a difference, but they are each, ultimately, late adapters; in most cases they follow, and are responsive to, public opinion; they do not lead it.

So it is not just that the Jewish community needs to face outwards in order to renew Jewish life; it is also that the world, in some real sense, needs the Jews. The world actually needs Shabbat (ie rest, in a 24/7 frenzy). The world needs shmita (meaning longer time cycles; allowing land to rest; challenging our sense of ownership; reducing inequality in society; helping those who are most vulnerable). The world needs halacha, meaning a multi-generational process of self-control; of inducting our children into the notion that not everything we can do should be done; not everything we can eat should be eaten; that separately from the sanctions of the state, we must find ways to become, individually and collectively, more caring and more responsible.

So this is why we do what we do, and I hope that you will want to be part of it.

It’s why the JOFEE research is so vital – so that we can expand this field and touch many more lives for good.

It’s why I’m headed from here to our Intentional Communities conference at Pearlstone – because intentional community, especially urban intentional community, will be over the next ten or twenty years the front edge of renewing Jewish life, reducing our footprints, and strengthening community.

It’s why we’re working so hard to support rabbis, and hope to do much more in the future: because there have never been greater pressures on our rabbis, and we want to do all that we can to provide them with resources and ideas to support their leadership.

It’s why we want to invest very significantly in the Isabella Freedman campus; because in a fractured and privatized post-haskala Jewish community, there is no substitute for powerful immersive experiences – not just for kids at camp, not just for 20-somethings on birthright, but for everyone and anyone, of all ages and backgrounds.

It’s why investing in Teva is so vital in 2014 and beyond. Teva demonstrably has an impact not only on the kids who come to its programs, but on those who choose to teach at Teva. Shouldn’t every kid in the Jewish world have high-class environmental education integrated thoughtfully and effectively into their Jewish education?

And it’s why we’re so grateful to all of you who rode or crewed with us in 2013, or who sponsored one of our riders: the Rides have been the bedrock of our work, and they are the ultimate example of the phrase I mentioned last week, livnot u’l’hibanot, to build and to be built.

So I hope that you will want to be part of this. I hope that you will give us a year-end donation – ideally now. Or sign up to become a monthly sustainer. Please join us at one of our retreats in 2014. Be in touch if you want to launch a CSA in your community, or a Jewish Food Festival. Mention Adamah to a 20–something whose life might be transformed by it. If you’re a rabbi, join our Rabbinical Advisory Board – and if you’re free, join us next month for our first-ever Rabbis’ Retreat. Download Food For Thought or our Food Guide. Like the Jewish Climate Campaign on Facebook – and send it to your friends. Sign up for one of our 2014 Rides, or our Israel Sustainable Food Tour.

And most of all, in the face of the great challenges with which I began: do not lose hope. We are a people of vision. We are the people who, at the time of greatest darkness, not only believe that new light is possible; we take practical steps to bring that new light to life.

So, a tad early: Shabbat shalom, Chanukah sameach, and happy Thanksgiving.

Nigel Savage

Executive Director, Hazon


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