Through Hazon, Jewish Detroiters find a roadmap to health and sustainability.
The Midrash in Kohelet Rabbah teaches: “When God created the first man, He took him and showed him all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him, ‘See My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are. And everything that I created, I created it for you. Be careful not to spoil or destroy My world — for if you do, there will be nobody after you to repair it.”
The connection of Jews to the natural world is woven throughout our texts and ritual practice. Our holidays begin and end at sundown. We pray at sunrise. We have a tradition of agricultural holidays, such as Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot.
So, it is not surprising that Hazon, the Jewish nonprofit inspiring healthier and more sustainable communities since its inception in 2000, is providing a pathway for Jewish organizations, returning us to our roots and building organizational capacity to lead the Jewish movement to respond to environmental change.
Hazon (which means vision) is the brainchild of Manchester-born visionary Nigel Savage. With generous gifts from the D. Dan and Betty Kahn Foundation and the William Davidson Foundation, the Detroit office was opened in 2015.
“It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
— Pirkei Avot 2:21.
Seal of Sustainability
Hazon launched its Seal of Sustainability program in 2016, which is both a badge of honor and a commitment to engage congregants and constituents in environmental leadership. It is conferred upon a cohort of Jewish organizations who agree to audit their practices, form a green team and implement three sustainability projects.
Hazon provides funding for those projects. Many organizations want to engage in healthier, more humane and sustainable practices but don’t know where to begin. The Hazon Seal of Sustainability
offers an organization a clearly defined roadmap to environmental health.
Thirteen Metro Detroit organizations have signed on to the Seal of Sustainability program since 2016, and they are hard at work on a wide variety of projects.
Clergy, educators and lay leaders are clear that sustainability connects with Jewish values.
“Bal Tashchit, an ethical principle in Jewish law, rooted in Deuteronomy, means do not destroy,” said Congregation Shaarey Zedek’s Rabbi Aaron Starr during a recent sermon. “So, I ask, what is the tipping point in your life that encourages you to take one more step in fulfilling our obligation to protect the world we live in?”
For Shaarey Zedek, that tipping point came two years ago, after Starr’s wife, Rebecca, was invited to Hazon’s home in the Connecticut Berkshires — the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center — to attend the Hazon Food Conference, which addresses food justice, Jewish culture and our tradition’s connection to the natural world. The Starrs determined Shaarey Zedek must do more.
Sue Salinger, managing director of Detroit Hazon, along with Brittany Feldman, manager of Sustainability and Outdoor Engagement, support 13 Jewish organizations in Southeast Michigan, in a plurality of settings and Jewish affiliations, as they participate in the Seal program.
“The people who work for Hazon are very knowledgeable … amazing things started to happen once they got involved,” said Jodi Gross, Adat Shalom’s director of Adult Learning and Youth Engagement. “The partnership is a really big piece.”
One of Adat Shalom’s Seal goals was purchasing recycling bins for all its classrooms, which was made possible by a grant from Hazon. After completing an energy audit, the synagogue switched to LED lights in its social hall, with more changes in the works.
Inspiring a New Generation
A recent Pew Research Center Survey reports that more Americans of all denominations, including Jews, describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” Yet, Hazon is bucking the trend and bringing Jews back into the fold by offering opportunities to engage with Judaism in new and meaningful ways.
Many, who may have felt forgotten and left out of other Jewish spaces, now have a seat at the table.
Cantor Rachel Gottlieb Kalmowitz of Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Township notes that sometimes change is imperative. She heads Temple Beth El’s green team. “It’s not what a cantor would typically do, but it was important; so, I said I would take it on.”
And, she added, “Hazon made it very easy for us. We took the audits and looked through what we could reasonably do.”
Congregation B’nai Moshe in West Bloomfield, another Seal site, ranks sustainability efforts high on the shul’s list of priorities. It participated in a Hazon-organized CSA distribution (Community Supported Agriculture) that gives participants the ability to buy directly from a farmer. “We are able to achieve some of our financial goals by being environmentally conscious,” said Executive Director Steven J. Fine.
Hillel Day School has taken bold steps to connect its students to the natural world, with novel projects in its greenhouse.
With Hazon’s guidance, and added help from its PTO, the school in Farmington Hills is now on track to restore a wetland and pond area behind the school. “Phase I includes cleaning up the invasive buckthorn that has taken over the wetland area, which we have begun work on this week,” said Scott Reed, Hillel COO.
“Eventually, we’ll spread wood chips and create a living fence,” Reed said. “Phase II may include an area for a rock garden, more plantings and a cistern.” Reed hopes to get the greenhouse club and summer camps involved as things progress.
Congregation Shir Tikvah in Troy is also getting assistance from Hazon in removing invasive species and updating a sensory path in its garden.
With plans to go solar, Rabbi Herschel Finman is leading Jewish Ferndale to become the city’s greenest building.
Tamarack Camps has stepped up to create powerful connections to nature. While long-term goals are to change operational policy, Fletcher Raftery, assistant director of Tamarack Adventure and Retreat Center, notes, “I don’t think anyone loves change, unless they’re personally invested in the change or modified practice. Our agency has made a commitment to making steps in becoming more sustainable, but every change needs to be analyzed for its feasibility.”
And while city, suburbs and rural areas have different food and sustainability needs, Hazon is bridging some divisions through common goals. It is re-establishing the history of blacks and Jews working together for social change and continuing to develop urban farming partnerships with its partner Oakland Avenue Urban Farms in the North End of Detroit.
Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue, Detroit’s only original remaining synagogue, has a strong and growing commitment to
sustainability. According to Executive Director Arlene Frank, not only are they mindful of sustainability, but her green team is also made up of many green industry professionals.
Detroit Jews for Justice recently joined Hazon and has created near zero-waste events at its gatherings. DJJ connects Jews to advocacy and has water justice as a current campaign. DJJ, Repair the World and Kibbutz Detropia are new this year with projects in the works.
What is the common thread binding institutions together to work toward a healthier, more humane and sustainable world? Our home address: Planet Earth.
“We are blessed with an incredibly passionate group of people at a wide variety of organizations, who have essentially teamed up with Hazon to do their part to care for the planet,” Salinger said. “The Metro Detroit Jewish community is taking its place at the forefront of Jewish environmental responsibility. We are working to create a world our children can live and flourish in.”
Kalmowitz summed it up. “As we see our country becoming more divided, let’s come together to make the world a better place — we must each do our part.”
Karen Couf-Cohen is a writer, public
relations consultant and green team member based in Franklin.