Nigel Savage of Hazon on a Jewish Food Movement

An interview between Tikkun and Nigel Savage, of Hazon 

Editor’s note: Nigel Savage is the founder and executive director of Hazon, one of the most significant new organizations in Jewish life in the past several decades, focused on food policy. Tikkun magazine’s Spring 2016 print edition is focused on food policy, and this article should be read in conjunction with the articles in that issue which are not primarily focused on how these issues play out in the Jewish world, but rather on the worldwide food crisis and how to solve it. Hazon is certainly part of that solution, so we are delighted to have this opportunity to present to you some of the thinking of its most visionary leader. Rather than break up the text with questions from Tikkun, we’ve mostly eliminated the questions and tried to tie together different parts of what Nigel Savage is saying to enhance the flow of the article. To get the Food Policy edition of Tikkun, subscribe at www.tikkun.org/subscribe. To get more info about Hazon, please go to www.hazon.org
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Nigel Savage of Hazon

Tikkun: Please tell us about Hazon.

NS (Nigel Savage):  The mission of Hazon is to create a healthier and a more sustainable Jewish community and a healthier and a more sustainable world for everybody. And although that sounds like sausage machine committee language, we really mean it.

In practice pretty much everything the organization has done, one way or another, involves pointing the Jewish community or the Jewish tradition outwards to try and take on some of the most important issues of our time. With the dual purpose of on the one hand to help the Jewish community to have some impact in creating a sustainable world for everybody, while on the other hand, using that process of getting the Jewish world more focused on the environment to strengthen Jewish life.

So we launched the first CSA (the first community supported agriculture program in the American Jewish community) in 2004. Thirty years ago the local organic farmers couldn’t easily sell their produce. They couldn’t sell to the supermarkets because they weren’t producing in sufficient quantities and they also didn’t have uniform quality. And they didn’t have a way to sell directly to the consumers. The CSAs brought these farmers together  so that they could pool their resources and then And deliver the produce each week  to a local community organization.

We did the first one in 2004. We partnered a conservative synagogue on the upper west side with a farm called Gardeners Eve on the north fork of Long Island. The second year we launched a one at Metro West JCC in New Jersey and the next year we launched in Houston, DC, and Long Island. And the year after there were 10 and the year after there were 18 and its grown every year since and at this point there are a lot of Jewish CSAs across North America. Some of them have become really strong and thriving and some of them are sort of muddling through in the middle. But overall at this point there are probably 10,000 Jewish people putting 2 million dollars of Jewish purchasing power behind 50 or 60 local farms.

And our efforts grew to become the largest faith based CSA network in America 10 years later. On the one hand it’s putting Jewish purchasing power, behind local organic farms. That is one small good. Secondly it lets you and your family gets local organic produce and at a fair price. Thirdly, it enables us to reframe Jewish life so that people go to synagogue or JCC not just to go to services on Friday or Saturday, but also to meet their farmer and their neighbors on a Wednesday.  Fourthly, if people don’t pick up their produce, we give it to people in need. Our CSA give at least 40,000 pounds of produce to people in need last year.

Building on Hazon’s work to stimulate the growth of CSA’s we then did a food conference, a series of Jewish food festivals, developed curriculum materials, and a series of Israel based sustainable food tours. We helped to create the Jewish working group on the farm bill, and we’re right now poised to start to do a bunch of work on the treatment of animals.

In each of these projects we are putting forward a message: “Hey, for 2,000 years we Jews have had this notion of keeping kosher, of asking “is this food fit for me to eat?” and this question more broadly construed has real consequences in the wider world we live in today. The choices that we make around food have impact on workers, on land, on animals, on climate change and whole vast of issues And so on the one hand we want to point the Jewish community outwards to address those issues and have some kind of an impact. And on the other hand we hope and believe that process will actually help to communicate to younger Jews to see the power the resilience and the relevance of Jewish tradition.

There are CSA’s out there that are up to their third or fourth iteration of volunteer leadership and in many instances have no idea that Hazon was involved in the early period in helping to create it and we are totally happy about that. Nowadays this is only a relatively tiny piece of our work. But it is a reasonable illustrative example because it is in one sense drawing upon Jewish tradition, it’s engaging the Jewish community, its bears the possibility of firing up people who are already involved in Jewish life, of bringing new people to the door. By the way, in our CSA’s as with all of our programs, you don’t have to be Jewish to be a CSA member and we have non-Jewish members. Most of the farmers that we support are not Jewish. Our message is universal – that is really important to us. On the one hand we are really particularly engaged in Jewish life, and on the other hand we really explicitly, genuinely want to create a better world for everybody.

This focus in various Jewish communities  provides an opportunity for lay leaders, educators, and rabbis within Jewish institutions to teach people about the values underlying Jewish thinking and practices about food and kosher laws

In 2007 we first did a public schechting of three goats (the kosher way of killing an animal in preparation for eating it)  at our food conference and we called that session, “Lifting the Cellophane Vail.” Our  intent was to critique industrialized meat production in a way that enables people to ask questions themselves under their own terms without telling people what to do or not do about eating meat. That shechting had a huge impact on the people who were there. People have talked about it, written about it, blogged about it, and we have done this same thing at subsequent food conferences. This year 32 Jewish summer caps are being invited to organize shechtings so that Jewish kids around the country in summer camp can start to think about their “meat,” learning what it is and where it comes from. And we see that as part of the process of creating a healthier and more sustainable Jewish community and a healthier and more sustainable world for everybody.

Tikkun: Hazon and Adama and Urban Adama have a partnership. Last year a group of Jewish vegetarians threatened to picket Urban Adama when it was preparing to do a public shechting of a few chickens it had been raising on its farm. So what is Hazon’s relationship to the issue of vegetarianism?

NS: Yes, we are really delighted that this process, the shechting animals, is now starting to spread across the Jewish community and when we did that at our food conference in 2007, that was the first time that had happened to our knowledge in the contemporary American Jewish community in that way and we think that it has been incredibly consequential. If anybody reading this is a really, really strong vegetarian, if anybody reading this is a strong vegan, and if anybody reading this wants there to be more vegetarians and vegans in the American Jewish community, then I would argue you should advocate strongly to hold public shechting in communities across this country because in my view, the best way to critique particular industrialized meat production is to enable people to see the process of an animal being slaughtered. Although we a not going out and saying “you should be vegetarian or vegan or anything else” I think its highly that the strong net consequence of the shechting that we have done over multi-year period is to cause less meat to be eaten by those who have seen it and discussed it.

Tikkun: And so the reason that Hazon is not explicitly advocating for vegetarianism is what? 

NS: Because it’s not for me to tell somebody else what they should do. It’s incredibly arrogant and pedagogically ineffective. There are arguments on both sides of this issue. I grew up eating meat, 350 days a year (kosher meat), but somewhat unconsciously; without having any clue what I was doing or where it came from. I was veggie for three years but today I do eat meat  - but probably 10 or 15 or 20 times a year, not 350 times a year.  I know where the meat came from and how the animals were treated and I know the people who were responsible for the shechita.  I believe in mixed use farming. I am against factory farming and the industrialized meat system. Overall we should be eating far less meat, but I don’t think that people have to be vegan nor do I have grounds to tell people that they have to be vegan.

On this subject, it’s interesting that Jewish tradition famously says, which is more important, learning or doing? Learning: because it leads to doing.

This applies to Hazon’s food education work. We’re focusing on learning; and it’s fairly clear that it leads to changes in practice, both institutionally and individually.

Tikkun: Okay, right. So you want to encourage lower levels of consumption of meat, in part because you know that the growing of animals for consumption takes up a huge amount of land that could feed 4 or 5 times as many people if it were being used to grow vegetarian crops.  Is that it?

NS: Yes. And away from industrialized meat production, which I personally believe is wrong in many different ways. But Hazon has no formal policy on this.

Forget the meat thing for a second, and instead think about a main truth of Jewish life: most American Jews (and most Americans) react badly to being told what they can and can’t do. People reading this who are vegetarian or vegan: it’s not because someone told them that they had to be. They are vegetarian or vegan because they themselves went through some process which caused them to choose, freely to choose, not to eat animals. My wife was a vegetarian for 22 years and in her case it wasn’t something she read; it was that as a child she saw a tractor trailer full of cows overturn on a highway. Seeing a group of Maine state troopers shooting cows on the highway. She saw that and didn’t eat meat for 22 years –  and that was her choice.

We know that animal protein is an incredibly inefficient use of vegetarian protein. And this is how Jews ate in ancient times. They were not vegetarian – they did eat meat, but they ate it incredibly infrequently. As Michael Pollan famously recommended, they ate “mostly plants” –  and three times a year they and their families went up to Jerusalem and they slaughtered an animal and they ate meat and the priests ate meat.

So people did eat meat, but they ate it infrequently and the meat they ate was from local mixed use farms. They saw the animals die; they knew what they were doing. They were not involved in cutting down the Amazon to provide food for North America. Ancient Israelites were not eating the enormous quantities of meat we’re eating today. If we followed their example, I have no doubt that the world would be a better place and that the world would be healthier environmentally and that people would be healthier as well. But Hazon is not in the business of telling people what to do on this issue: we’re here to educate and raise questions; and we think that that leads to positive changes.

Most Jewish institutions have a Kashrut policy, different in an orthodox synagogue than a reform temple or a pluralistic JCC. What we at Hazon are asking Jewish institutions to do is to have not merely a kashrut policy but a food policy, addressing some of the following questions:  where does your food come from? How are the workers treated? How are the animals treated? How is the land treated? Do you grow any of your own food? Do you compost your food? What do you serve at simchas? What do you do at bar and bat mitzvas? How do you integrate this into Jewish education into your institution? What about advocacy for more sustainable food policies? Have you invited local elected officials to talk about the Farm Bill? Have you taken your students to visit the Department of Sanitation, and addressed where your waste goes to?

This year we are launching the Hazon Seal of Sustainability which is intended to take that frame and widen it further and try and create a pathway for Jewish institutions to think about sustainability and make systemic changes.

Tikkun: Are there criteria that you’re suggesting or are you simply saying these are the issues each congregation should decide its own?

NS: We’re creating pathways for change. So we want to enable people to ask themselves:  what eggs do you serve in your institutions? And you can go to a new website called “Buyingpoultry.com” and it will help you understand in a quite detailed way the nature of the eggs that you’re buying. What does it mean when a dozen eggs are in a box that says that the chickens are “cage free” or “free range?” What does it mean when it says that something is “organic?”

When we started our work on meat it was before the FDA closed down the AgroProcessors plant in Postville Iowa in 2008. In the ensuing 8 years a growing number of people who keep kosher in a traditional sense, have started to say “yes its true that I only eat meat that is kosher but I am starting to understand that the mere fact of it being kosher halachicly is necessary but not sufficient, in terms of a range of issues. So I want to understand where this meat came from and how the animal was treated and so on.

Hazon’s work isn’t just about food. It’s about creating a healthier and more sustainable world, in multiple ways. In the last two weeks we’ve been working quite intently in Manhattan to seek the expansion of protected bike lanes in the Upper West Side. All the data shows that protected bike lanes reduce fatalities, reduce injuries, improve the quality of life in the community and so on.

Some of the people in the Tikkun world probably have heard of our bike rides – we’ve had several thousand participants who’ve been to Rides in NY, CA and Israel, who’ve both had a great time and learned about some of the issues. We’re interested in impacting in multiple different ways. For some people it’s their first time that they got on a bike and it turns them into bike riders. For some people it’s their first step into Jewish life.

We do an Israel Ride that supports a masters program at the Arava Institute of Environmental Studies in conjunction with Ben Gurion University which aims to develop environmental leadership and brings together Israeli Jews, Israeli Palestinians, Palestinians, Jordanians, and Americans. In the 13 years since we started that ride it seems like everything has gotten worse. Israel and its neighbors have gotten worse. Inside Israel has gotten worse. The Israel diaspora relationship has gotten worse. The intra American Jewish conversation about Israel has gotten worse. And meanwhile in those years we’ve take over 1,700 people to Israel, not only to  the bike ride but to an  Israel sustainable food tour and an intentional communities tour, looking at kehilot mesimatiyot (communities of purpose). We have our Siach program to connect Israeli, European, and American environmental and social justice activists.

Even though lots of things are messed up, issues of environmental sustainability and food systems remain one those ways where it’s possible to make a difference. We’re proud of the work we’ve done in this arena in the last dozen years and we’d like to grow our impact in the next dozen years.

We are saying to the Jewish communities, if you want to be sustainable over this current Shmita cycle, start to bring people together and start to think about education and advocacy. figure out as an institution what makes sense for you to be doing so that in some way we as a community are trying to create a more sustainable world for everybody. And as you know, the process of doing this work is in certain respects steady, ongoing, boring, and un-sexy and yet, gradually, we– not just Hazon, and not just Tikkun, though we are allied and part of this– but we, a whole generation of us, are slowly but surely allowing the depth of Jewish tradition to be more deeply understood and its deep relevance to protecting the environment.

I’d like to say something about the role Tikkun Magazine has played now that you are celebrating your 30th anniversary. Just as we at Hazon feel that we gradually made a difference, I think that Tikkun clearly has helped develop a new consciousness among people,  - has brought people together, moved issues forward, not only about Israel and not only about the environment, but in a broad range of issues that were barely discussed in the Jewish world before you at Tikkun pushed them onto the public agenda.

To give one example, I particularly remember the “Yakov Levado” essay that you published. Here was an orthodox gay rabbi, writing under the pseudonym of “Yakov Levado.” I remember reading that 25 years ago and it was a really profound and important piece. In due course we learned that it was written by Rabbi Steve Greenberg, who became one of my closest friends. This is just one of many arenas in which Tikkun has had a profound impact on the generation of Jews now coming into positions of leadership in the Jewish world, sometimes not even realizing how far out and courageous it was for those positions to be articulated. And that is what Hazon is trying to do now in the area of building a sustainable world.

Tikkun: Wow, thanks for that, Nigel!

Going back to food: what about GM foods? Or facing how the food supply is modified by corporate decisions based on profit rather than on the well being of everybody and the planet. So I’m wondering if these are issues that Hazon should or could address?

NS: On the one hand I have a sense of the need for the precautionary principle in an environmental context. It’s for me an intuitive sense that we should be cautious about mucking about with the genetics of human life and biological life. On the other hand there are people who I know and respect who would argue actually strongly that in order to feed 7 billion people on planet earth there are a variety of ways that we as a human species have tried to influence crop yields and all sorts of other things in a way that is fundamentally good.

I don’t like in general just picking on “big corporations.” I actually think it’s too easy. I haven’t owned a car since 1994 and we have a contract for wind power in our apartment at home and I ride my bicycle to work.  But I take taxis and I get on airplanes and I rent cars. The oil companies are in business because I am their consumer and customer and they exist to serve us. We live in an incredibly complex world. We need to slowly and cautiously and judiciously try to understand the consequence of our economic behavior and our choices, and we need to approach this with some degree of generosity to ourselves and to others even as we try to have a lesser environmental footprint.

Hazon just filed an amicus brief, for instance, in the US Court of Appeals to defend the Clean Power Plan; it’s a critical case. So we need to advocate for good legislation.  But I don’t believe that it is simply the case that one can or should say that corporations are bad and somehow people are good. A huge amount of what is good in the world at the moment is happening because there are parts of the private sector who are addressing environmental concerns, developing clean tech and wind power and all kinds of stuff.

What’s critical is real conversation. Education, action, advocacy – each in sequence. It’s complicated, it’s important, it’s time-consuming. It’s a lifetime journey.

 
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