An End and a Beginning

Dear Friend ,

I had a marvelous morning tromping in the snow in Central Park yesterday, marred only somewhat by the knowledge that at about the same time I was meant to have been on a flight to San Francisco. The snow giveth, and the snow taketh away…

But it was a good morning to look back and look forwards. Chanukah has just ended; also the Copenhagen Climate Conference. We’re now 10 days from the end of the year and the end of the decade.

Hazon began with the decade. Our first Ride was in the summer of 2000. Next year sees our 10th New York Jewish Environmental Bike Ride and our 10th Arava Institute Hazon Israel Ride, not to mention our sixth season of Hazon CSAs (now 40 of them, around the country). Two days from now more than 600 people will be at the largest event in our history, our fourth Hazon Food Conference.

So it’s a time of counting, and taking stock.

My greatest sense is of gratitude.  Hazon’s staff are some of the hardest-working, kindest, most idealistic people I’ve ever had the pleasure to be around. (It adds to their credit that they cope with my sometime grumpiness, mostly, with very good grace.) Hazon’s board members and lead volunteers are equally hard-working kind and idealistic, and almost without exception they lead exceptionally busy lives. They give of themselves – both time and money – with great generosity.

Distance lends a little perspective to something, beyond the white noise of daily life. This decade, for the world, has been a strange one. Framed on one side by 9/11 and on the other by the Copenhagen Conference, it looks on the face of it like a lost decade. We had an opportunity to create a true coalition of the world’s nations to make terrorism so abhorrent that it truly would be confined to one small cave in the middle of nowhere – that opportunity was lost. So too the wasting of government surpluses; surpluses that, at the beginning of the decade, were starting to be projected, or imagined, in the US and elsewhere. They would have done much good in the world; their loss represents infrastructure not fixed, high-speed train lines not built, doctors and drugs not paid for, schools not funded, kids not fed.

The decade ends with a certain sort of sobriety. Tom Friedman’s column in the New York Times yesterday was surely at least half-right, in the sense that governments are not best able to coordinate things, and they are particularly vulnerable in any given process to their weakest link. He was right that harnessing market forces towards a more sustainable planet offers much of what we need, in relation to oil usage and energy. If you tax oil, people will use a lot less of it; if we price carbon properly, ditto. There is a great deal that can be done. Much of it, I believe and trust, will happen in the next decade.

But what sits below the market? When Tesco in the UK announced two years ago that they were starting a process to carbon-label all their tens of thousands of discrete manufactured products, why did they do that? I’d argue there were two reasons: first, that the senior staff at Tesco are good people, and want sincerely to be running a good and clean business, and understood that this was a step forwards with that, and consonant with their values. And secondly, they were making the commercial calculation that they would pick up customers from their rivals –  because a sufficient minority of people wanted to know how much carbon went into growing, transporting and manufacturing their baked beans that they were willing to switch supermarkets to get that information.

And where did those customers come from? Their education, we know, didn’t begin with Tesco.

Non-profits and religions stand behind and before these changes. Businesses occasionally lead the market, but more usually, on things like this, they follow it. It is the steady drip-drip of reading the newspaper, an article, a seminar, a movie, a book, a speaker, an event; also a friend at a dinner table, a role model, a  sermon, an example, that shifts who we are, the values we hold, the choices we make.

This is why I enter this next decade with some genuine sense of hope. Copenhagen has been neither an end nor a beginning, but rather a certain kind of peak on a long trek. It gives us a sense of how complex the terrain is and how very far we still have to journey. But it is clearer, now, that these many travelers – pilgrims, almost – are, broadly speaking, on the same quest. The government ministers and the civil servants; the NGO leaders; the religious figures, the artists, the protesters on the streets, the CEOs; gradually a consensus is building about the need for change that is both radical and evolutionary, that represents fundamental change, yet grows out of who we are and the limits of the systems we have created for ourselves.

Hazon’s role, too, has become clearer. We organize bike rides and CSAs and a food conference and a blog and two educational curricula and we speak and teach and write – all this is true.  Our own programs have grown steadily, every single year since inception, this one included. Along the way we’ve raised over $1m for the Israeli environmental movement and over $1/2m for the American Jewish environmental movement.  We’ve taken a lot of people to Israel, and helped bring Israelis and Palestinians together to speak in the US. We work hard to support and network young Jewish leaders and a growing range of environmental projects. We’ve schechted goats in public and played our part in encouraging American Jews to think more deeply about the meat that we eat. More than 10,000 people this coming spring will be part of a Hazon CSA, putting well over a million dollars behind local organic farms, and donating several tens of thousands of pounds of produce to people in need. And the work we did to help bring protected bike lanes to the Upper West Side, and The Jewish Climate Campaign that we helped kick-off in the lead-up to Copenhagen, are two instances in which we’re seeking to have a greater impact in the wider world.

So the impact of our work has grown steadily and dramatically. Yet the heart of what we are about remains remarkably unchanged. The word Hazon means vision. The work that we do is grounded in Jewish tradition and in a commitment to inclusive community, the one no less than the other. We have touched people’s lives individually in remarkably powerful ways. There are some couples who might not have met, some kids out there who would not have been born without Hazon; one or two people who converted to Judaism; an adult bat mitzvah; some people who have changed jobs or changed towns; many more who have changed their sense of themselves.  But I believe that the deeper work we do is around possibility, around a sense of vision itself. Tom Friedman says that governments can unleash markets; but religious communities and religious leadership, broadly and deeply understood, can unleash people and, in particular, the sense of possibility we have when we are fired up, when we have the determination that change is necessary and the sense of hope that change can be accomplished.

This is, amongst other things, an appeal of sorts. If you have read thus far:

a/ thank you, if you are one of the many many people who have already supported us by riding or attending or leading or donating;

b/ we are within spitting distance of balancing our budget for 2009, and we have high hopes and plans for 2010. If, amidst your year-end donations, you felt willing and able to make a donation to Hazon, we would appreciate it enormously;

c/ please consider making the further donation of time. Registration is open for our Bay Area Ride in May 2010 and our Israel Ride in November 2010. Wilderness Torah has retreats happening on the West Coast at Pesach and Shavuot. We have a Tu B’Shvat seder coming up in NY, and others we’ll support elsewhere. You’ll be able to buy shares in a Hazon CSA in 40 communities this spring, with registration starting soon. Your synagogue and school could become a partner in the Jewish Climate Campaign and, if you haven’t already, you can sign the pledge and pass it on. Jewish Farm School will again be leading alternative spring break trips to local organic farms. In each case, you’re invited to sign up and come to one of these events or join one of these communities; you’re also invited, if you would like, to sponsor an event, fund it, promote it, volunteer to lead it, or invite others to do so; to join, in other words, in the process of transforming ourselves, transforming our communities and transforming the whole world.

I’ll end with an image – a Topsy Turvy bus, now near the end of its five-week cross-country journey. We will welcome it to our Food Conference in Monterey on Thursday. It has been promoting the Jewish Climate Campaign across the country. It is led by half a dozen Tevaniks and friends, fuelled in equal parts by righteous determination, idealism and used veggie-oil. It reminds me that the world often does seem like a topsy turvy place, but that with good people, good values, a decent map and a fine sense of humor, we have a fine world to enjoy, and a better world to seek to inspire.

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Thanks – and wishing you a happy new year,