New York -- Monday night, 19th January 2009 / Going from MLK Day into President Obama's Inauguration.
by Nigel Savage
Sometimes people ask me why I came here to found Hazon. Today, on Martin Luther King Jr Day and less than 24 hours before Barack Obama swears the oath as President, I want to give part of the answer.
I think you have to grow up somewhere else – as a Jew in England, for instance – to understand that the United States is a Jewish country. It is not only a Jewish country: it is also a Buddhist country, a Moslem country, an Italian country, a gay country, an Hispanic country. But it is, to me, a Jewish country, as it has been for Jews since before the War of Independence.
Remember that in England the Archbishop of Canterbury still sits, by right, in the House of Lords. If Prince Charles followed Tony Blair's example and converted to Catholicism he would forfeit his right to the throne. In France one may still talk of a "Frenchman" and presume a normative Frenchness that excludes those who are Jewish, or Moslem, or black. The exclusion of Jewishness from normativeness is true in every country of the world except two: in Israel, which is a Jewish country because it is a Jewish country, and in the United States of America, which is a Jewish country because it is not a Jewish country but it also isn't anyone else's country either, and thus is no less Jewish than it is Protestant or Catholic or anything else.
This might seem a trivial thing, but it turns out it is not.
The palpable excitement ahead of the inauguration is partly a commentary on the last eight years. We have been passengers in a vehicle that has been badly driven. It has skidded off the road so many times that most of us are bruised somehow, and some a lot worse than just bruised. So there is a sense of hope because a new driver is about to take the wheel. On the night of the election I sobbed uncontrollably, could hardly stop for two days, and it was not because Obama was the first black president but because at a time of great need we would have a president of high intelligence, of thoughtfulness, a president who seemed determined to address serious problems seriously. (Also a president who had respect for science and data and for the English language and an understanding – amongst other things – that climate change and a range of environmental challenges needed to be addressed with integrity and commitment.) In aggregate: a new driver, who gave us legitimate hope that he knows how to drive and understands the responsibility of this unique vehicle.
But there is also something larger that derives from Obama's being the first black President. To me it makes him also the first gay president, in some ways the first president who will be a president of the world as well as merely of America and, yes, the first Jewish president. The story of America, despite its nominal secularity, is deeply religious. The very idea of the United States is a sort of secular religion. Obama's relationship to his grandparents and his children, his lifestory and the way he explicates it, point towards his significance in the narrative of America as a secular religion, and they prompt us to think about the significance of our religion and our people in all this.
Knowing that three billion people will watch President Obama being sworn is a reminder of how big the world is - and of how few Jews there are. Even if we punch above our weight – even way above our weight – we can still accomplish only so much. If we really mean to be a light to the nations we had better understand that our light is only so bright, and there are many other lights out there.
But then again: Yisrael Campbell's comic monologue begins (and I paraphrase): "the Milky Way is huge, billions of miles across, with hundreds of millions of stars. And I'm just one person, and yet I'm all I think about…" We are a small minority but we are also deeply significant. We should be able to hold both these two truths.
I founded Hazon because I believe in the significance of Jewish tradition and of the Jewish people and I believe in America. Not that I don't believe in Israel; not that I don't consider myself a Zionist; not that Israel isn't central to my life, and my life committed to the future of Israel. But I reject a world of either/or, and my affirmation of the centrality of Israel to Jewish life is balanced by my freely chosen commitment to the American Jewish community. When people look back two centuries from now, what happens in our day in Israel will turn out to have mattered a great deal to the future of the Jewish people. But what happens here in the American Jewish community will also be vital to the future of the Jewish people – and to the future of America, and of the world.
And thus Hazon. Hazon literally means vision, because vision really matters. Vision is about seeing in this world but also in the world of our imagination. In the famous words of RFK, "some see what it is and ask why; I see what might be, and ask, why not…?"
Hazon is a rejection of negativity and fear in Jewish life. It's about a sense of possibility. It's about people celebrating Jewish tradition at the same time in different ways, and then joining together for a meal, or a bike ride. It's about believing that we best do Jewish education when we address wider issues and not just our own parochial ones. It's about rejecting false choices between the particular and the universal. It's about seeing that it's possible to bring kids and 20-somethings and 40-somethings and 70-somethings together and have the whole be greater than the sum of the parts. It's about understanding that a 3,000 year old tradition of "keeping kosher" has what to say, today, about food deserts in our cities and how food is grown in this country and how animals are raised and that we need to do something about people who are hungry in the world on the day when Barack Obama becomes President Obama. In aggregate, it's about believing that we really can create a healthier and a more sustainable Jewish community, - and in doing so, truly build a healthier and more sustainable world for all.
So Hazon is about recognizing our significance. The world needs America at its best, and America needs the Jewish people at its best, and the Jewish people needs each one of us – literally, you, and me, and all of us – doing the best we can do, working together, seeking to combine our talents and interests and capabilities as effectively as we possibly can.
And thus we as an organization are playing a distinctive and increasingly significant role in enabling and encouraging American Jews – and Jews in other countries, including Israel; and Americans of other backgrounds, not just Jews – to be our best selves, to step up as part of a broader human ecosystem, in a way that is consonant with how I think President Obama will inspire us and challenge us in his inauguration.
In being here I'm inspired by the Torah, by the rabbis of the talmud, by the Rambam, by Heschel and Soloveitchik and Ben Gurion and Reb Shlomo, by Mickey Rosen and Alice Shalvi and Blu Greenberg. And I'm also inspired by Ben Franklin, Walt Whitman, Teddy Roosevelt. Emma Goldman and Lincoln Steffens. By Chaney and Schwerner and Goodman. By Warren Buffet and Eleanor Roosevelt, by Keith Haring, by Aaron Sorkin and Michael Pollan, by Adam Berman and Nili Simhai and Reb Arthur Waskow, by Ruth Messinger and Ari Wallach and Mik Moore, by Anna Stevenson and Nati Passow and Phyllis Bieri. And by President Obama.
When I look back I see that since we began in 2000 Hazon has grown and flourished, and our work has accelerated in these last few months, even as the world has slid into a spiral of crises.
When I look forward I know that the world's problems are intimidatingly large. The loss of confidence in the banking system will not easily be fixed, or jobs regained that have been lost. Inflation looms behind the avalanche of money now being printed. Paying the interest on the enlarged US federal budget deficit will tax us for a generation. Israel faces tough challenges. The recent travails of the Jewish community will persist for a good number of years. And behind these problems lie global scorching, climate change, species extinction, the despoliation of the world's oceans, huge global disparities of wealth and poverty, and an underlying system of overconsumption that damages the world and impoverishes generations yet to come. I support market systems (in general) as a good way to allocate resources in a free society; but the recent market collapses have made crystal clear the underlying deficits of our very way of life. It will be our challenge, as the century unfolds, to rethink how best to re-balance freedom and prosperity for ourselves and for future generations.
And yet I feel an extraordinary sense of hope, and not from a place of naïve optimism, and not from idol worship either.
I believe we will in due course respond to all these challenges because it turns out that leadership matters, hope matters, and a sense of possibility and determination makes all the difference.
The world's problems will be no different tomorrow – the day after the inauguration – than they are today, the day before. Yet what will change will be the new president, the thousand people he will appoint, the tens of millions whom he will influence directly and the few billion who will think afresh about what it means to be alive in the 21st century.
I'm under no misapprehensions about his infallibility. But from this day onwards, no-one will forget that America stands for possibility. No-one will doubt that the best parts of America's secular religion have been reinforced in an extraordinarily powerful way. It's not just that Obama himself seems set to be an impressive president. It's that it is almost impossible to imagine someone of his background or skin color elected leader of Britain or Germany or Russia or frankly anywhere else. Obama's election says something not only about who he is but about the country that elected him. His election reminds us not only of what he is capable but of what we ourselves are capable.
For Hazon, this is an end and a beginning. In September we completed the first full shmita cycle of Hazon's existence and Obama's inauguration marks the end of the first full presidency of Hazon's existence. The next shmita cycle ends on September 13th 2015, and if he's reelected, President Obama's term will end on January 20th 2017.
What will the world look like in 2015 or 2017? How will we have fared individually and collectively? Thinking about this is like looking at the Yom Kippur liturgy writ large – who will live and who will die, who by fire and who by water? It prompts us to look back and to look forwards.
President Obama's election inspires me, but so too does seeing the work that Howie Rodenstein has done in building the Israel Ride. I don't know what to do about Israel and Gaza, but I know that what David Lehrer is doing at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies – student by student, day by day, made far harder by recent events – builds true peace, one person at a time. In the last few years we've raised over a million dollars for the Arava Institute, and another million for Jewish environmental initiatives – our own and others – in the US. We've been the occasion of marriages made and children born, of countless friendships established and strengthened. People have met us, heard about us, read about us, joined us, helped us. More than two dozen farms and 40 or more farmers are supported by Tuv Ha'Aretz; people in local food pantries ate nearly 18,000 lbs of our leftover food last year. Teens are growing up taking what we do and what we stand for entirely for granted – as they should. We're playing a unique and increasingly vital role in networking and supporting an entire movement, a generation of young and young-at-heart American Jews who are renewing our relationship with land and with food and in doing so are writing an inspiring and important chapter in the future history of American Jewish life.
Last month 560 people came to the largest event in Hazon's history – a 4-day Food Conference that was extraordinary in its energy and in the remarkable group of people who were there. In the coming weeks we'll publish and invite feedback on the national 7-year goals for the Jewish Food Movement which we launched at the Food Conference. And we'll announce a new initiative to mobilize the Upper West Side Jewish community to support a range of measures that will create more livable streets for all who live here; something that we hope will inspire equivalent work in other parts of the country.
Hazon is a trust, and we each play a unique role in taking that trust forward. Every staff member and every board member, every member of the NY Ride steering committee, every person who rides or supports a rider (more than 7,000 in 2008 alone), the nearly 2,000 members of Tuv Ha'Aretz, the people who write on The Jew & The Carrot, the students baking challah and selling it, the people at the Food Conference, the many organizations and individuals we partner with… each makes Hazon what it is, and effects change in the overlapping ecosystems of which we're a part.
In May 2000, when we cycled out of Seattle Hillel on our first Hazon Ride, I couldn't have imagined 9/11 or much else that has happened in the world. But even as our programs have grown and evolved, our central values have been remarkably consistent. (If you're interested, check out what I wrote that May )
I'll end with this thought. Jewish tradition often locates a fast day before a feast day – Ta'anit Esther before Purim, the Fast of the First Born before Pesach, Tsom Gedaliah just after Rosh Hashanah but before Shabbat Shuvah and Yom Kippur.
So as MLK Day goes into Inauguration Day, I've been thinking about this relationship between commemoration and celebration, about America's greatness and its weaknesses. (For some reason I remembered what Arnold Toynbee once said: America is like a big dog in a small room; "every time it wags its tail, it knocks something over.")
And in thinking back, I'm very much looking forward. I'm ready for the Inauguration, the poetry, the incredible crowds, the hand on the bible, the speech, the tears, the festivities.
And I feel reminded to thank each one of you for your kindness, your patience, your incredible support, and also for being understanding if I forgot someone's name or didn't reply to an email.
I assume that President Obama will offer an injunction that we each be our best, that we take some responsibility for the world and for the imperfections that need to be fixed. I trust that as we listen we'll be inspired, as Jews and as part of the wider global family. I hope that we'll rise to the President's challenge not only as individuals but also as Hazon stakeholders, so that together we'll bring new vision to life, within and beyond the American Jewish community. And I pray that we'll be able to look back at the end of this shmita cycle, and at the end of President Obama's second term, and know for sure not only that America is a better place and the world a better place, but that we have played a distinctive role in making that so.
P.S. The JCC in Manhattan does an annual celebration for MLK day. This is the quite extraordinary video they made for the occasion.
To sign up for one of our Israel Rides or our New York Ride, or to join Tuv Ha'Aretz in one of 32 locations this spring, or to support our work generally, go to www.hazon.org.
Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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