Hazon and Isabella Freedman are Merging!

Monday December 3rd 2012 / 19th Kislev 5773

New York

Dear All,

Sometimes our lives cross and crisscross in unexpected ways.
Things that one thinks are incredibly significant prove minor; and minor or accidental decisions can change one’s life.

So it was for me in the summer of 1998. That was when, for the first time, I visited Isabella Freedman; spent time at Elat Chayim (then in Accord, NY); and met people like Adam Berman (who went on to direct Isabella Freedman and to found Adamah), Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Nili Simhai (currently the director of Teva) and Rabbi Dr Arthur Waskow.

Not more than a few moments’ thought went into the serendipitous construction of that summer. But encountering those people and institutions led me to found Hazon, late the following year. And today, things go full circle: we’re announcing that Hazon is merging with Isabella Freedman (which includes Elat Chayyim, following a merger a few years ago). The Teva Learning Alliance, until now a part of Surprise Lake Camp, is also going to be part of the new Hazon. (Click here to read the official press release.)

Why did we do this, and what will change?

At one level (happily) it involves no change at all. The values and vision that underpin Hazon are strongly shared by Isabella Freedman, and vice versa:

  • We both believe that immersive multi-day experiences (retreats, bike rides, conferences) play a unique and vital role in reframing Jewish tradition, in transforming people’s live, and in weaving a stronger and more inspirational Jewish community. Other than for kids (summer camp) and young adults (birthright) the American Jewish community has under-invested in such retreats, and we’d gradually like to change this in the future.
  • We’re both significantly engaged with leadership development. How do we re-frame what Jewishness is or could be? How do we tease out the places where Jewish tradition’s understanding of how we relate to the natural world critiques some of what today we assume is “normal?” How do we connect and network young leaders so that they can support and encourage each other for a lifetime to come? This area includes Hazon’s work in curriculum development, the support we provide to the growth of Jewish CSAs, the platform we’ve created for the Jewish Food Movement overall, and the determined work we’re already doing in preparing for the next Shmita year in 5775 (September 2014). For Freedman this includes their Jewish Greening Fellowship, spurring institutional transformation through leadership development; and it especially includes the Adamah and Teva programs, whose alumni fuel vibrant Jewish life of all sorts across the country;
  • We both have a strong commitment not just to what we do but to how we do it. Both organizations care passionately about inclusive community. We’re both explicit in seeking gender equality, and in running as many extra miles as we need in order to be organizations in which someone who might be in a minority in the room – for having a different sexuality, or age, or religious background – is made to feel especially welcome. Both organizations engage the front edge of Jewish religious development (new ideas, new liturgy, new forms of practice) and seek to make the most observant and traditional members of our communities feel at home. (When Hazon organizes a retreat or a ride somewhere other than at Freedman, we send in staff and volunteers in advance to build an eruv – a symbolic domain beyond which an observant Jew doesn’t carry on Shabbat. We do this even though only a minority of our participants observe the rules of eruvim. And – yes – we’re pretty happy that Freedman already has its own eruv.)

And it’s not just that our values are shared, strongly held, and will not change. It’s also important to say: this is not one of those mergers where you put two organizations together, fire a bunch of people, and thus save money. David Weisberg and I (who will together run the new postmerger Hazon) think that both organizations are understaffed. Over time we need to increase headcount, not reduce it.

So if many things will not change because of the merger, why are we doing it? The simplest answer is: More impact.

In the last two or three years it has become clear that after 15 years of investment in “start-ups” in the Jewish community, we now need to devote different sorts of resources to enable a smaller number of organizations to really go to scale. Doing this is vital if we’re serious about transforming American Jewish life (let alone enabling the Jewish community, as a community, to have any impact on some of the greatest issues of our time, such as developing sustainable food systems, or seeking to prevent even worse climate-related destruction for generations to come).

Becoming a larger single organization – with a wide variety of programs, and revenue-streams, but with shared educational resources, and a single fundraising department, communications department, finance team, website, database etc – will enable us internally to be more specialized and to devote more resources to particular tasks. Externally it will enable us to orient ourselves more determinedly around the needs of others– to offer to individuals and to institutions a wide range of resources from a single website and a single staff-team.

This is important because the growth of the Jewish Food Movement, of Jewish outdoor education, and of Jewish environmental education in the last 10 years is incredibly profound – and it’s still incredibly under-resourced. Under the radar of American Jewish life, – and despite a community that is in overall terms trending flat to trending downwards, by a variety of metrics – remarkable things are happening. The Adamahniks and Tevaniks are fanning out into the rest-of-their lives: becoming rabbis, educators, farmers, leaders of all sorts. Many of them, along the way, are founding or leading their own institutions: Becca Weaver and Leora Mallach at Ganei Beantown (Boston); Jakir and Netsitsa Manela at Pearlstone (Baltimore); Risa Alyson Cooper at Shoresh in Toronto; Vivi & Yoni Stadlin at Eden Village in Putnam Valley, NY; in the Chicago area, the Margulies family at Pushing the Envelope Farm, and Jill Zenoff at the Gan Project; Zelig Golden and Julie Wolk at Wilderness Torah in the Bay area. Plus people like David Fox at Amir, in San Francisco, and Robert Nevel in Chicago at KAM Isaiah.

We are no longer an alternative to organized Jewish life; for a growing number of people, we are Jewish life. We’re weaving the Jewish community of tomorrow, and it’s happening today. The kids who go to camp at Eden Village or Ramah Outdoors, who go with their school to Teva, who go on to do a trip with Jewish Farm School, who teach at Teva, who live at Adamah or Urban Adamah – these are people who take for granted that there is no distinction – and should be no distinction – between learning and growing Jewishly, between celebrating our ancient tradition, and between being good citizens of our small fragile planet.

In our very first ride, in the summer of 2000, Hazon set out not only to touch people’s lives directly, but actively to support other great people and organizations. That summer our riders raised $32,000 in sponsorship, and WE gave away 100% of what we raised. (100% because I believed that a tooth-fairy would support Hazon’s work indefinitely in the future; that is definitionally not a sustainable business model.) Since then the percent that we have given away has steadily reduced – but the dollar-amount we’ve given away, and the other ways that we support people and organizations, has steadily grown.

In the next ten years, we want this merger not so much to fuel our own growth as to help drive positive change across the American Jewish community. That’s what this merger is most about. Here’s some of what we need:

  • High-quality Jewish food education in every day-school, every Hebrew school and every synagogue – so that we’re connecting a 2,000-year old history of keeping kosher and of Jewish food traditions, with the deepest possible understanding of where our food comes from, and what it is to eat healthily as an individual, as a community and as a society;
  • High-quality Jewish retreat centers – at Isabella Freedman and around the country – so that far greater numbers of people can experience a taste of living in Jewish space and time;
  • New resources for rabbis and educators, to support them in teaching and leading in a way that’s grounded and inspiring;
  • New ways to take Jewish people outdoors – not just for our kids, and not just at summer camps. That’s what Hazon’s bike rides are about, that’s what Teva’s Yitziah program is about, that’s what Wilderness Torah has done at its retreats. This in turn needs more training, more resources and more coordination;
  • New ways to connect to Israel. Through our rides, through our Israel Sustainable Food Tour, through Siach, we’ve seen that food and environment are profound ways to connect to Israeli Jews, (not to mention new ways to start to build relationships with Israeli Palestinians, with Palestinians and Jordanians and other neighbors in the region). We’d like to play a role in helping to strengthen and renew the American Jewish community’s relationship with Israel;
  • New ways to bring Jewish tradition to life. An institution like Elat Chayyim is, in a sense, an R&D unit for the whole Jewish community. What the Jewish Renewal movement pioneered – in relation to the status of women, to sexuality, to the language of prayer, to silence, meditation, yoga, the encounter with Buddhism, with Sufism, with Hinduism, with the ecstatic prayer and movement of born-again Christians: these things are not for all Jewish people, and they don’t need to be. But those of us – including me – who come from somewhat more traditional backgrounds, or who practice Jewishly in more traditional ways, shouldn’t fail to recognize how influential – and how fundamentally good – that R&D work has been, often without subsequent accreditation.

There’s more to be said, but I hope you get the point. Overall: I’m incredibly proud of what together we’ve accomplished in the 13 years since the Nash family first gave me the money to found Hazon. But I also note, overall, the challenge of asset allocation in American Jewish life. The installed capital base of the American Jewish community – all the synagogues, day schools, camps – is probably worth more than $10 billion. The total value of family foundations established by Jewish families is almost certainly in excess of $50 billion. Yet the total revenues of all the Jewish green organizations – broadly defined – is barely $10 million. That’s probably up 10-fold in a dozen years, but it’s still less than a fraction of one percent of the annual revenues of American Jewish life. Given the vitality of food, the environment and the outdoors as profound gateways to Jewish life and to social change, that just doesn’t make sense – and we’d like to help change that in the coming years.

In the coming year we’ll work hard, internally and externally, to build the new enlarged Hazon. We invite your help and your involvement in multiple ways. These organizations and programs have grown because of the passion and commitment of our staff, our board members, our volunteers, our participants and our funders. In the coming year we’ll be reaching out in new ways to ask questions and to invite feedback and involvement going forwards.

I want to end by noting that this is the time of year-end appeals. A growing number of people are proud to be Hazon stakeholders. Lots of us – me included – are members of shuls that we don’t necessarily go to each week, or we write checks to organizations that we don’t necessarily interact with every week or every month. But we pay dues because, even if we’re not there, the shul or the organization is; and we want it to be there, and to do what it does. So whether you’ve been recently to one of our Rides, or you’re coming to our Food Conference next week, or this year you were part of a Hazon CSA, or a member of your family was touched by work that we did – even if one of these things isn’t true for you, we hope that you’ll send a year-end check –or, better yet, become a monthly sustainer – because we stand for things that I know so many of you believe in.

From a standing start 13 years ago we’ve grown incredibly. We reach people who are affiliated and unaffiliated; orthodox and Reform; we work with a wide range of institutions, across the country. We’re renewing Jewish life in powerful ways, and we’re taking practical steps towards creating a better world for all. Please become a Hazon stakeholder – please give us a year-end gift, or make a commitment to become a monthly sustainer. Click here to give a donation.

Thanks – and wishing you a happy Chanukah and a healthy and peaceful new year,


Nigel Savage

Executive Director, Hazon

PS. I’m thrilled to announce that, thanks to the generosity of an anonymous supporter, if you’ve never supported Hazon before, your gift will be matched up to a total of $5,000.