Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi
Working to protect people and our shared planet.

On Climate: Less Kvetching. More Action.

Nigel Savage with Former Israeli Prime-Minister Naftali-Bennett. Photo credit and courtesy of Hazon.
Climate hero Nigel Savage (R) with former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (L). Photo credit and courtesy of Hazon.

“Less Kvetching. More Action.” It’s the slogan on a sign Nigel Savage was carrying at an environmental rally. It also sums up his personality, impact, and his message for us as we approach the high holidays.

A deeply caring, inspiring and strategic leader, Nigel Savage founded Hazon in 2000. Under his leadership, the organization, today known as Adamah, became the largest environmental organization in the American Jewish community.

I have known and respected Nigel for decades. The results of his heart, soul, intellect and action are tremendous. Today he is writing, teaching and coaching; he’s an ambassador for Adamah; and he’s senior climate advisor to Canadian philanthropist Stephen Bronfman. I interviewed him in Jerusalem, where he now lives. His message is one that everyone should read at this season as we reflect on our past, present and future.

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi: How did you get interested in working on environmental issues? Is this connected to your Jewish involvement and identity?

Nigel Savage: I had a first career in finance, in London, and I was a young lay leader – a member of the Board of Deputies, one of the founders of NIF in the UK. Somehow, I understood that we were over-consuming the world. From my first paycheck I started a monthly donation to Friends of the Earth. I had spent some time on kibbutz as a teenager. Later I was influenced by people like Bonna & Shmuel Haberman-Browns, Michal Smart, Jeremy Benstein and Alon Tal. I don’t see Jewish tradition as just “religion,” or culture, narrowly construed. For me it’s always been a prism through which to try to live well, in the world, in the broadest sense.

Nigel Savage picking beets with Leket on one of Hazon’s Sustainable Food programs. Photo credit & courtesy of NSS.

What were you thinking about when you founded Hazon – and how did your vision evolve over time?

We started with the bike rides, but they were the means to an end, not an end in themselves. We catalyzed the Jewish Food Movement (because we all eat – and our food choices and food waste have a considerable impact in the world.) We launched the Hazon Seal of Sustainability, developed projects like Siach, Hakhel, and the Jewish Youth Climate Movement. We have been significant supporters of the Arava Institute. We did strong content work, especially on shmita, and a range of important convenings.

But beyond all this, and just as importantly, we steadily made the case that you can’t be talking seriously about the future of the Jewish people if you’re not addressing environmental issues. It’s not either/or. We all have to address climate issues. We need to start with education – learning about the consequences of our actions; and then action – changing our behaviors; and then advocacy – speaking up for change, particularly in the institutions where we have a voice.

What have you been doing since stepping down as CEO?

I continue to support Jakir Manela (their CEO), Rachel Siegal and the whole team at Adamah. Adamah is poised to have an enormous impact in the next decade, which the Jewish world really needs.

I’m coaching some leaders in the US, and finding that very satisfying – not least because the people I’m working with feel I’m being really useful to them.

And then I’m working with Stephen Bronfman and with Birthright Israel. Stephen and his sister, Ellen Bronfman Hauptman, gave a very significant gift to start to green Birthright Israel. It’s important and consequential in at least three different ways.

First, 800,000 young Jewish people have done Birthright in the last 20 years. It’s vital to help the next 800,000 to address the climate crisis, to understand that that’s a part of what it means to be Jewish – and to do this from a place of hope, not anxiety.

Second, there’s an intention to have a knock-on impact in the Israeli travel market, to start to influence hotels and vendors to reduce their own impact, looking at the food they serve, the power they use – what are known as Scope 3 emissions, in a technical sense. JFNA and the new Israel Travel Alliance are starting to think about this.

And then thirdly, it’s not an accident that Birthright was one of the first 20 organizations to sign on to Adamah’s Jewish Climate Leadership Coalition. Birthright is trying to model that addressing environmental issues needs to become core to every Jewish institution in the diaspora, every enterprise in Israel.

Nigel Savage (L) ith Irit Klein and Yudit Guralnik, planting trees at a pilot Birthright program on climate. Photo credit & courtesy of NSS.

Where do you see the Jewish world and Israel going on these issues?

I give huge credit to friends and colleagues in the environmental movement, in Israel and in the American Jewish community, for what’s been done thus far. But we have to raise our game.

President Herzog is committed to these issues, and his Climate Forum is important. But it’s tragic that, as well as everything else, this Israeli government is missing in action. They formally committed to passing the Climate Bill – but they haven’t done it. There’ll be a big Israeli presence at COP 28, but there is no seriousness at the policy level about effecting change. So, in Israel we need to build capacity across the entire environmental movement.

In the private sector, climate tech continues to gather steam. Jewish investors globally are clearly devoting more money to these sectors. I was the first outside investor in Arava Power, way back when, and it’s satisfying to feel that your investment dollars are making the world a better place in some way. There’s an immense opportunity to deploy Jewish assets – including philanthropic assets – much more impactfully in this space.

And beyond what’s currently happening, I think we need some kind of think-and-do-tank, that can identify multiple different opportunities for the greatest impact – and then martial resources from philanthropy and ultimately government and the private sector, so that we’re significantly increasing our impact. And help bring new funders and stakeholders into active engagement on these issues.

There were so many extreme weather events this summer, so many people died. We have to do way more, both in mitigation and adaptation. We need to help key stakeholders to step up, more effectively. More focus, more leverage, more impact.

Many people find the climate issues overwhelming. What would you say to them?

There’s a famous line from Pirkei Avot, that is hugely relevant to this moment. “You’re not required to complete the task – but neither are you free to desist from it.” So for anyone who sits on the board of any Jewish institution, any foundation, literally: put these three questions on the agenda of your next meeting:

(1) What should be our achievable medium-term goals, to reduce the environmental impact of this organization and to support positive change however we can?

(2) How do we weave this into the fabric of our day-to-day work, so that this commitment to sustainability is part of our core mission, not a thing separate from it?

(3) What are the next steps to get this started?

Boards need to commit time and then money to these issues. Foundations – all foundations, not just “climate-focused” foundations – need to be putting this on their own agenda, and also supporting their grantees in making these sorts of commitments. Yad Hanadiv have played an extraordinary role in Israel, and a number of other foundations and funders are stepping up. Stephen Bronfman has been involved in both environmental work and Jewish leadership for 30+ years, and he’s now putting these pieces together. He’s encouraging and to some extent challenging other leaders to step up. I’m hopeful we’ll see significant movement in the coming year.

I’d add that the whole issue of carbon offsets and decarbonization seems complicated, but it’s really not. The products and the frameworks will continue to change over time. But each of us individually, each institution, corporation and government – we all need to reduce our negative impact, and commit hard dollars to projects that will make a further positive difference in the future.

Nigel Savage holds a sign that largely sums up his personality and impact: Less kvetching. More Action. He’s standing with film-maker & activist Sandi DuBowski at a climate rally in New York. Photo credit & courtesy of NSS.

We’re heading towards the Jewish new year. There’s a war in Ukraine, turmoil in Israel, rising antisemitism. You founded an organization whose name was Hebrew for “vision,” and people know you as someone who is thoughtful about the connections between Jewish tradition and the wider world around us. Any final thoughts in relation to the new year?

Yes, the world is a bit scary right now, it’s depressing, and it’s important to acknowledge that.

But at the end of the day, despite everything, we’re incredibly blessed. Any of our great-grandparents would think us so lucky to be living today.

Jonathan Sacks used to distinguish between optimism – the expectation that things will get better – and hope, which is more like a vision for a better future – and leaning in to help bring it to fruition.

So, I’m not optimistic, but I’m profoundly and genuinely hopeful.

If every person leaves shul at the end of Yom Kippur saying, ok, as well as whatever else I’m going to do, I’m going to put this on the agenda at my organization, we’re going to reduce our impact, we’ll start to raise our voices, and we’ll give some money – that’s how change begins. That’s how we’ll strengthen Jewish life. And that’s how we’ll look ourselves in the mirror and feel that we’re part of the solution. That’s teshuva in 2023 – in 5784.

About the Author
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is the co-founder/director of the Mizrahi Family Charitable Fund (a DAF). She has worked directly with presidents, prime ministers, 48 governors, 85 Ambassadors, and leaders at all levels to successfully educate and advocate on key issues. In July, 2023 Mizrahi was appointed to serve as representative of philanthropy on the Maryland Commission on Climate Change. She has a certificate in Climate Change Policy, Economics and Politics from Harvard. Her work has won numerous awards and been profiled in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Inside Philanthropy, PBS NewsHour, Washington Post, Jerusalem Post, Jewish Sages of Today, and numerous other outlets. Mizrahi has published more than 300 articles on politics, public policy, disability issues, climate and innovations. The views in her columns are her own, and do not reflect those of any organization.
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