Nigel Savage takes the long view

Nigel Savage takes the long view

Hazon director to speak on Judaism and sustainability in Teaneck

Nigel Savage is thinking about the long term – and how it intersects with the Jewish tradition.

Take, for example, the shmitta, or sabbatical year – the culmination of the biblical seven year cycle in which, according to the Torah, no agricultural work may be performed.

As executive director of Hazon, the Jewish organization devoted to sustainability and environmental awareness, he has started planning activities to tie in to the next shmitta year, which begins in about 18 months, on Rosh Hashana 2014.

Nigel Savage

But he also has some thoughts about the following cycle, the one that begins in the fall of 2021.

“What would it take to help the whole Jewish world look at the whole cycle of 2015 through 2022, and charge themselves seven-sixths of the cost of everything for six years, so that in the year starting in 2021, Jewish life was free, synagogues were free, day schools were free?” he wonders.

“It would be profound to have that whole conversation. Maybe we can’t make it free for everybody, but maybe we would like to say that for anyone who has an income under X, synagogue membership would be free, day school would be free. Would we like to do that?”

In other words, Savage wants to take the ancient idea of shmitta, with its yearlong Sabbath, its break from day-to-day economics, and consider applying it to contemporary Jewish life. This sort of challenge to the Jewish community to reconsider its business-as-usual in light of classical Jewish values is at the core of Hazon’s mission to bring the ideas of sustainability and environmentalism to the Jewish community.

“We’re working to create a healthier and more sustainable Jewish community and a healthier and more sustainable world for everybody,” Savage said.

On Sunday morning, Savage will talk about these ideas at Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Sholom.

Savage came to the Jewish sustainability movement after a career on the London equivalent of Wall Street, where he managed investments for the Rothschilds.

Then he took time off to study in Israel. An invitation from a friend for a cross-country bike trip from the Mediterranean to the Kineret changed his life.

“It was the first time I was really outdoors,” he said. “I started connecting to the Israeli environmental movement, and to the Jewish tradition in relationship to the world. I felt getting outdoors and pushing ourselves physically was good for us, and a great way to bring Jewish tradition to life.”

Savage came to New York and launched Hazon in 2000. Its first project: a nationwide Jewish bike tour. Its scope soon expanded to include food conferences (featuring demonstrations of kosher slaughter). In December, a merger with the Isabella Freedman Retreat Center in Connecticut was announced, giving the organization its own environmental Jewish farm.

The organizational growth has coincided with a change in public perception of food.

“When Hazon was started, people were very nice to me and very polite, but in retrospect, the thought bubble over their head was saying, ‘What is he talking about?’ It started with us phoning people and wanting to engage people. Now the phone is ringing off the hook,” Savage said.

He says that members of his organization don’t want to be stereotyped as Jewish environmentalists “who bang you over the head and say ‘baal tashchit'” – the Torah’s prohibition on wanton destruction – “and say you have to A, B, and C. We’re interested in thinking through issues, engaging tradition, and providing the opportunity for people to figure out things for themselves.

Thinking things through does not translate into simple. Hazon has a 60-page food guide and audit to help synagogue and day school leaders think about their food policies. Its anthology of Jewish source texts related to food is 130 pages long.

As Jews, Savage said, “We’re engaged in 3,000 years of Jewish food traditions: keeping kosher, eating matzah on Pesach, eating cholent on Shabbat, saying blessings on food.” He wants to expand the mindfulness around eating to ask a different set of questions: “How are animals treated? How is the land treated? What do we think about genetically modified food? What do we think about teenage obesity?”

The work of the Jewish food movement, he said, is to show that the two sets of conversations about food – the traditional Jewish one and the contemporary one – are not separate.

“A growing number of shuls are thinking about the kind of food they’re serving. Does the fact that a two-liter bottle of soda has a hekhsher, a kosher certification, mean we should serve it if the rates of diabetes are going up and the plastic takes a thousand years to decompose? Let’s ask some of these questions for real, and through a Jewish lens,” he said.

What does it mean to eat sustainably?

“It may mean eating a balanced diet. For most of us today, it means partly unlearning how we grew up and eating less saturated fat, less meat, less tuna fish, more vegetables, more greens. Generally eating a diet that’s healthier for us as human beings. That’s a diet that will help us to lose weight, and to die less of the diseases of contemporary society like heart disease and cancers and diabetes.

“In terms of the land, it probably means using fewer pesticides and putting a lot more thought into soil quality. The quality of the soil in the U.S. has been depleted because we’re not treating the land properly.

“Healthy and sustainable in relationship to the atmosphere means putting out less methane and carbon dioxide. That means having fewer cows, because methane has a significant impact on climate change.

“The Jewish rhythms around eating turn out to be healthy,” Savage said. “When I worked on the English version of Wall Street, I ate great meals five days a week. Our grandparents ate well on Shabbat but the rest of the week ate much more simply. The rabbis of the Talmud fasted on Monday and Thursday.

“If the whole world ate like the rabbis of the Talmud, the whole world would be a healthier place.”

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