Climate change tops agenda in Hazon-Pearlstone merger

By Sharon Rosen Leib | The Forward

In Portland this month, the daytime temperature reached 100 degrees. In Seattle, 111. Between June 26 and July 6, approximately 800 people died of heat -related causes in the Pacific Northwest. Hundreds more have died in extreme floods in Europe. No extreme heat or cold temperature event on record has come close in terms of deaths.

To Nigel Savage, the founder of the Jewish environmental group Hazon, these numbers —which scientists attribute to the effects of human-produced climate change— present a challenge to the Jewish community.

“The Jewish community needs to confront the potential destruction embodied by the climate crisis as strongly as we can,” he said. “We have to get every Jewish institution in North America to really put this on the agenda, quite literally—actually committing to put addressing the climate crisis into the core fabric of Jewish life.”

Pearlstone and Hazon lay and professional leadership (back row from left: Emile Bendit, Nigel Savage, Marina Lewin; front row from left: Rachel Siegal, Jakir Manela, Becky Brenner, Josh Fidler)

When Hazon announced its merger this week with Maryland’s Pearlstone Center, both groups made clear that the organization, now double in size, will redouble Jewish community’s fight against climate change.
Associated Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, which counts Pearlstone as an agency, signed with a solar power developer to create a massive rooftop solar farm, according to Jakir Manela, who will take over from Savage as chief executive officer of the merged organization, which will be called Hazon.

Manela said 50% of all Baltimore Federation energy will be renewable by the end of 2021.

“Hazon will push Jewish federations across the country to follow this model,” said Manela.

The combined programs, with a $12 million annual budget, will directly engage 50,000 participants annually and employ over 200 staffers at centers in Baltimore, New York City, Connecticut and Detroit.

“The new, post-merger Hazon has heft. It reflects the rising interest in climate change, as well as in food and farming, and will soon engage more than 100,000 people a year.

“All of this activity is happening in a space that barely existed 15 years ago – it’s been happening under the radar,” Savage said.

That space exists largely because of Savage. Two decades ago, he helped create the American Jewish environmental movement as it is today. He started Hazon, Hebrew for “vision,” as a broad lens for whatever work emerged to best serve the movement’s purpose.

Nigel Savage (right) with Hazon’s Rabbi-in-Residence at the time Isaiah Rothstein(playing guitar left) at New York City climate march.

Savage projected this vision into a future most of us had only begun to fathom in the year 2000 – a looming environmental crisis of earth-shattering proportions. The Manchester, England native, then a successful financier and scholar of Jewish texts based in London, wanted to do something impactful with his life before turning 40.

Savage moved to New York — he said he suspected his accent could charm American Jews into action— and his first priority was to get Americans out of their gas-guzzling, global-warming-inducing sports utility vehicles and onto their bicycles.

He kicked his new organization off with a Cross-USA Jewish Environmental Bike Ride, recruiting riders from pre-teens to seniors to raise consciousness. This expanded to Hazon-organized bike rides in New York and Israel.

“People loved those rides. A brilliant way to engage multiple generations,” said American Jewish World Service’s Global Ambassador Ruth Messinger, who has served 18 years on Hazon’s board of directors. The rides remain a beloved Hazon tradition. Messinger understood Hazon’s insistence onJewish community involvement in the global environmental movement.

“If we don’t have a healthy environmental movement worldwide across all constituencies, nobody will have a future,” she said.

Building on the success of the bike rides, Hazon branched out to put a Jewish spin on the nascent food and environmental sustainability movements. In 2006, Savage created and convened the Hazon Food Conference, which in turn led to the creation of the Jewish Outdoor Food Farming & Environmental Education (JOFFEE) program.

Hazon’s vision for the Jewish food movement centered on creating vibrant communal life by offering hands-on learning; exploration of Jewish agricultural traditions; personal interaction with nature; and the study of Jewish texts to inspire, build, and create a more sustainable future.

JOFFEE, an acronym Savage created reluctantly (“Did the Jewish nonprofit world really need another acronym?” he said), has been a resounding success engaging upward of 25,000 participants annually.

Hazon’s JOFFEE-inspired programs cut a wide geographical swath – spawning Jewish farming, sustainability and training/engagement hubs across North America: including Urban Adamah in Berkeley, California; Milk & Honey Farm at the Boulder, Colorado Jewish Community Center; Pushing the Envelope Farm outside of Chicago; Ganei Beantown, Boston’s Jewish Garden; and Shoresh in Toronto, Canada.

Hazon created another environmental education venture by partnering with the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, 400 acres of forested land and lush meadows in Falls Village, Connecticut, to incorporate hands-on outdoor learning into an immersive Jewish retreat environment.

“I’ve been there with rabbinical students discovering the joys of eating healthy, fresh-picked, farm-to-table food; learning how to compost; and seeing sustainable environmental practices being done impressively well. This provides inspiration for rabbis to take home and share with their congregations,” Messinger said.

See this article on The Forward.