Bicycle treks promote the environment

Jewish cyclists in the United States are backing a variety of environmental causes as they ride.For someone who didn’t ride a bike until the age of 31, Nigel Savage is trying hard to make up for lost time. The English-born …

Jewish cyclists in the United States are backing a variety of environmental causes as they ride.For someone who didn’t ride a bike until the age of 31, Nigel Savage is trying hard to make up for lost time. The English-born investment-fund manager-turned-inspirational-guru, now 39, has led two “Jewish Environmental Bike Rides,” one an 11-week-long trek across the United States from Seattle to Washington, D.C., in the summer of 2000, the other a 100-mile spin down the Hudson Valley into Manhattan this October.

The declared goal of the rides, sponsored by Savage’s organization, Hazon (Hebrew for “vision”), has been to raise money for Jewish environmental projects. To date, they have brought in $50,000 for a wide range of causes, such as the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, an advocacy clearinghouse that has recently brought rabbis together to lobby President George W. Bush against drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wilderness Reserve. Other beneficiaries include Britain’s Noah Project, an umbrella for eco-Jewish groups, and Israel’s ecologically conscious Kibbutz Lotan.

But for the ever-ambitious Savage, the rides are also about something more.
“We aim to bring Jewish people together across denominational differences to raise environmental awareness in our community,” he said.

They have attracted scores of participants from across the spectrum, ranging in age from 12 to 69, in religious affiliation from Orthodox to Reform to militantly secular. They have included former New York mayoral candidate Ruth Messinger, as well as a gay cantor, a vegan rabbi, and a bar mitzvah boy.

Even with well over 3,000 miles on his odometer, the stocky, bespectacled Savage – in his distinctly non-aerodynamic array of outsized, embroidered Bukharan kippah, facial hair and breeze-catching tzitzit – doesn’t quite strike you as prime cyclist material. He would be the first to admit this.

“As a kid I didn’t really do anything especially physical,” he said. Nor, he adds, did his experience of the outdoors extend far beyond lowering the top of his convertible. “I didn’t really discover Planet Earth until the fall of 1994, when I was learning at the Pardes Jewish studies institute in Jerusalem, and a friend invited me on a sea-to-sea hike, from the Mediterranean to the Kinneret.”

That experience changed him, Savage said. “It was the first time I faced a real physical challenge – and I did it in Israel. Right from the start, connecting with Planet Earth was intertwined with connecting with Jewish tradition.”

Savage had gone to Israel for a sabbatical from investment banking with Rothschild’s in London. He never went back to that work. Instead, he came out feeling invested in something else entirely. He describes himself as an “environmental ba’al tshuvah,” a born-again Jew devoted to the proposition that Judaism and environmentalism fit into one unified outlook. He cites kashrut as an example. “What you eat – what’s fit to eat, which is what kosher means – is an environmental issue.”

In 1998, the New York UJA invited Savage to lead Yitziah (“Getting Outdoors”), a three-week wilderness retreat in North Carolina for Jewish educators in association with Outward Bound. Eventually, Savage realized that the only way effectively to share his new passion with others was to give it a permanent base camp.

In March 2000, he and his future wife Jo Sassienie moved from Jerusalem to New York to launch Hazon. Funded initially by the Nash Family Foundation, which supports Jewish educational projects, Hazon is what Savage calls a “venture-capital house for Jewish ideas.”

Some of its dream projects include creating an alliance among the many Israeli and Diaspora Jewish backpackers in Nepal, working with locals to clean up the travel-related environmental damage in Kathmandu; improving the nutrition of yeshivah students; and introducing a physical challenge component into synagogue, Hillel and Jewish Community Centers programs worldwide.

Savage believes his organization is pointing the way toward the last of these with its Jewish Environmental Bike Rides. Both the cross-country and New York rides integrated studying Jewish texts, as well as praying together and with the Jewish communities they passed through – often with helmets instead of yarmulkes, and tallitot draped precariously over rain slickers.

And this winter, three of Hazon’s ride alumni are helping staff the first-ever “Israel By Bike” component of the “birthright Israel” program, which gives Jewish students a free trip to Israel. In late December and early January, the trio will guide four groups on a series of rides from the north to Jerusalem.

Savage hopes some of the 180 participants will then join Hazon’s planned 2003 Cross-U.S.A. Ride. “It will be a chance to deepen their Jewish knowledge and commitment, to meet other Jewish people, and to make the world a better place,” he said.

There are also rides in the works for New York and the West Coast in 2002, listed on the organization’s Web site: Hazon Vision.

Savage said environmentalism offers a model for recreating a Jewish vision which is focused enough to unite people, yet broad enough to be inclusive. “It’s rooted in Jewish tradition,” he said. “It’s expressed in Jewish language. Yet it’s accessible to a remarkably wide range of Jewish people and important to those who are most universalistic as well as those who are more traditional.”