Hazon conference draws hundreds hungry for Jewish food movement

Nearly 100 menorahs holding 700 candles on the sixth night of Chanukah lit up the conference hall as 565 voices joined in prayer.

There is a reason the Hazon Food Conference tries to align itself each year with the Jewish celebration of freedom, human rights and miracles.

It is because, as one rabbi reminded conference-goers, “We are all in this world to fix it.”

Almost every speaker and teacher at the gathering, held Dec. 24 to 28 at Asilomar Conference Center in Pacific Grove, suggested as much.

Hazon promoted the idea that some of the most pressing issues of our time — how food is grown and how far it travels, how animals are raised and how they are slaughtered, how what we eat and where it comes from impacts the ecosystem in which we live — could be transformed by the collective will and vision of the American Jewish community.

“We are most interested on the impact of these four days on the other 361 days of the year,” said Nigel Savage, founding director of Hazon (meaning “vision” in Hebrew), a Jewish environmental nonprofit.

More than 550 people attended this third annual conference, held in California for the first time. About 160 people came from the Bay Area, another 40 from Southern California and the rest from throughout North America.

They represented all denominations of Judaism; vegetarians and omnivores; vegans and raw foodists. There were farmers and urban foodies; Torah scholars and devotees of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” author Michael Pollan; rabbinical students and Birthright alumni. There were couples with infants, teenagers, 20-somethings and retirees.

“Everyone can relate to food,” said Oren Massey, a Berkeley resident who attended with his wife, Debra, and their two children, as well as his mother.

Massey came looking for comrades interested in building a Jewish co-housing project rooted in sustainable living.

David Kantor came from Pasadena to reinvigorate his “green” commitment. Mark Fishman, a longtime butcher in Kansas City, Mo., came to take part in a turkey shechita (kosher slaughter). Falynn Schmidt of San Francisco is neither a farmer nor an activist; she’s never even been on a farm. She just came to see what the buzz was all about.

“Food is where we can open a broad enough door in which so many can come,” Massey said. “It’s an access point for Jewish pluralism.”

Hazon, founded in 2000 in New York to promote the ecological benefits of bike riding, widened its focus four years ago to include food sustainability and Jewish agricultural education.

At this largest-ever conference — which drew twice as many people as last year’s — there was a palpable sense among many that the Jewish food movement, spearheaded by Hazon, is on the cusp of something big.

“There is a new cadre of young Jewish farmers,” said Zelig Golden, an Oakland resident who helped plan the event. “We are primed to truly shine our communal light.”

Sessions ranged from hands-on workshops such as worm bin composting, pickle-making and yoga, to lectures on a Jewish perspective on meat-eating and vegetarianism, genetically modified foods and the ethics of kashrut in a world of industrial meat production.

“We’re Jews — there’s an ethical dimension to who we are,” Rabbi Morris Allen, who is developing an ethical kashrut hechsher (certification), said during a panel discussion on the ethics of kashrut.

“That’s not to say that kosher food today is not kosher, but that we can do better.”

Added fellow panelist Rabbi Steve Greenberg, “When food is kosher, what do we culturally hear? That it’s decent.”

If the community as a whole does not embrace the ideals of the eco-kashrut

movement, “we will ultimately end up demeaning what Judaism and kashrut mean, and undermine the Jewish people whose laws are wise and just,” Greenberg said.

Despite the high level of expertise on the panel — which also included Rabbi Seth Mandel, who oversees glatt kosher meat production for the Orthodox Union — audience questions and comments were welcomed as part of the conversation.

It’s this grassroots approach that fuels the still-evolving Jewish food movement.

“What is the Jewish food movement, where is it going and how do we get there?” Hazon founder Savage asked conference-goers. “You are all stakeholders.”

Savage also unveiled Hazon’s agenda for the next seven years to put food and food policy at the center of American Jewish life.

It outlines specific goals, such as establishing at least 180 chapters of Tuv Ha’Aretz, a community-supported agriculture program linking people to the farmers who grow their food. Another aim is to make Jewish food and environmental education a distinct discipline taught in day and congregational schools.

Hazon’s agenda is posted on its Web site (www.hazon.org), so anyone can read it and submit ideas for the future and direction of the Jewish food movement.

“Everything we do is about enabling Jews to make a difference in their lives and in the world, while also strengthening Jewish communities,” Savage said. “We are building an organization and a movement that helps bring people’s visions to fruition.”

JTA contributed to this article.

Jewish food movement plants roots on West Coast

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.