On July 1, I will be installed for a two-year term as board chair of Hazon, “the Jewish lab for sustainability.” I know my experiences over the last 30 years have given me the knowledge and passion to move this 20-year-old national Jewish environmental nonprofit organization forward.
The primary focus of Hazon is to educate Jews of all ages to take action to reduce their carbon footprint and, by doing so, improve the environment for themselves, their families, and the rest of us.
Hazon educates through immersive experiences at a number of locations, including its Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Conn., and by training young, environmentally knowledgeable Jews, through its JOFEE (Jewish Outdoor Food, Farming, and Environmental Education) Fellowship program, to disseminate information through JCCs, day schools, synagogues, and other institutions throughout the country. Hazon has also created the Seal of Sustainability, which is awarded to Jewish institutions that have implemented environmentally sustainable initiatives, including the use of solar energy and recyclable materials for meetings and social activities.
My wife, Alyson, and I moved to the area in 1989 when I was recruited by the Jewish Community Foundation of MetroWest (now Greater MetroWest) to be its new executive director. Then, as now, this region’s federation and foundation are blessed by talented and dedicated staff members and smart, passionate, and indefatigable volunteer leaders. I had the privilege of working at the foundation for more than eight years before rejoining the private sector and have proudly served on its volunteer board for many years. I also recently stepped down as a board member at Daughters of Israel after serving for 16 years.
I learned several lessons in Greater MetroWest that will help me greatly at Hazon:
• To engage people personally and deeply to volunteer and donate to a nonprofit endeavor, there must be a purpose they can feel passionate about.
• People give to people — an individual must have a personal connection before they will give generously. It just doesn’t work to be solicited by an organization you know little about, which knows little about you, and by someone you do not know.
• Great value must be placed on time — meetings should not be held without a good reason, and meeting agendas must be interesting and succinct.
• The best organizations reflect a true partnership between staff and volunteers. Staff should execute the policies formulated by the board; the board should not micromanage staffing issues.
• Board members should have their views heard. The CEO and board chair should, if possible, reach out to members individually and with some regularity.
• One of my mentors used to quote an old saying about fund-raising: “To sell a hat, you have to wear a hat.” To have others take them seriously, leaders must make a meaningful capacity gift to set a standard for others to follow. As much as we would like to focus our attention on programs that nonprofits run, they need money to survive.
One of my passions since I was a Nebraska-born teenager is bicycling, and suburban New Jersey is blessed with beautiful, bucolic countryside for cycling. Over each of the last 30 years, I would estimate that I biked more than 1,000 miles through Essex, Morris, Union, Sussex, and Somerset counties. Whether it was the diversity of the flora, the rolling hills, the humming of the crickets, or the sounds coming from the rivers and lakes around me, during my rides I have felt spiritually connected to nature. We are blessed in our area of the state to live both close to New York for commerce and culture as well as to farmlands, parks, and forests to enjoy and connect with our environment.
Sadly, I’m not sure that the environmental and climate change crisis has been discussed as a Jewish issue with any breadth, regularity, or intensity. Many of our holidays are based on agricultural cycles, but our view of the environment is mostly text- and holiday-based. And while many people enjoy walking, running, camping, cycling, etc., those activities generally seem disconnected from the practice of Judaism. Through my involvement with Hazon, I see more clearly how the concept of environmental protection is connected to Judaism.
At Hazon retreats I have seen young Jews — often secularized and uninvolved — become turned on to Judaism by learning how our tradition interprets our relationship with the environment. They have also become enthusiastic about their Jewishness by recognizing that there is a growing community of like-minded Jews who care deeply about the environment and are concerned about the potentially cataclysmic damage caused by climate change.
As we envision what the Jewish community will look like in 20 years or more, I hope that Hazon can take significant responsibility for building a stronger, environmentally sensitive Jewish community that takes the concept of repairing the world literally.
Richard Slutzky recently retired from the financial services industry in New York City and is moving from Maplewood to Egremont, Mass. For information about Hazon, visit hazon.org.