Cultivating Compassion and a Connection to Jewish Environmentalism in Modern Orthodox Day Schools

By Yosef Gillers

[This article is the third in a series written by participants in the Senior Educators Cohort at M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education.]

“I want to start composting at home. Can you help me?” I was asked this question over and over again during the summer of 2014 when GrowTorah started a gardening program at Moshava Ba’ir, a B’nei Akiva camp located in New Jersey. It was not a question that kids typically asked in this camp, and it blew me away every time I heard it. The answer, of course, was a resounding “Yes, I can help you!” But the question that remained unanswered was, will the kids continue to compost at home once camp is over and they no longer have an opportunity to experience a communal gardening program, or will this activity fall by the wayside like other fun things they learn at camp, love doing for about eight weeks each year, and then forget about until the next summer?

And then I started to think: if the garden is such a powerful educational tool at summer camp, why not bring it to schools so that kids can experience it all year long? (I know many fellow Jewish educators have worked tirelessly to answer the broader question: how can we bring the magic of camp into school or replicate it throughout the entire year?)

For me, the question pertains specifically to Modern Orthodox day schools, because this is the community in which I was raised and where I work. The conventional Modern Orthodox education I received taught me some of the core halachic concepts that are tied to the earth and environment, but it was lacking in its application of these concepts to the real world environmental problems I went on to study in college. So I refined my original question to: what if we could engage the students at Modern Orthodox day schools with Jewish environmental values in an experiential way?

Driven by these questions and my experiences at camp, I created GrowTorah in 2016 to explore how to craft a replicable and scalable Torah gardening model for the Modern Orthodox day school system.

At the heart of our work with educational Torah gardens are two driving values: empathy and compassion. Though these values are at the core of so many mitzvot (commandments), and many schools teach these values in class, our students rarely learn them through experience. Gardening provides a platform for exploring these and other core Torah values, such as ma’aser (tithing), Jewish environmental values (and laws pertaining to how we treat the land), and compassion for creatures, in an experiential, learner-centered way.

Another core value, bal tashchit, is a serious obligation to not destroy or waste. At SAR High School in New York, we address this precept by having the students create a seedling incubator by using bottles that they collected from the school’s trash bins. The students then weigh all of this diverted waste to “measure” the degree to which they have prevented their school from violating bal tashchit. This process also sustains a healthy soil ecosystem in the school’s garden, helping to grow hundreds of pounds of vegetables. The prohibition against wasting has thus been turned into an opportunity for innovation, pushing us to minimize, or even better, eliminate, waste from the school. Imagine a school that upcycles large trash items, such as bottles, into hanging planters for their garden and recycles the rest; or uses cardboard and paper waste as mulch in its compost, which is fed with all of the school’s food waste!

When the students are working with the garden’s healthy soil, they begin another unit about tza’ar ba’alei chayim, the laws pertaining to proper treatment of God’s creatures. The worms that wiggle around the garden provide a perfect example. Oftentimes, children’s first reaction when they see a worm is either “eww” or “let’s cut it up and see if it survives.” In our gardens, every little creature provides teachable moments, so the students get to learn about all the amazing things each creature does for our garden and ecosystem. For example, bees teach us about pollination, and worms teach us about decomposition. When we encounter them in our garden, we are reminded to make sure that our systems are balanced: do we have enough habitat for our pollinators or should we plant more pollinator-friendly flowers? Instead of perpetuating fear and cruelty, we are cultivating compassion and appreciation.

When the time comes for harvest, students measure and calculate how much of their crop they are obligated to donate to the needy, exploring the relevant Jewish laws to determine which local food pantry meets the criteria for donation. In addition to the tzedaka boxes that collect coins in their classrooms, the students build symbolic pe’ah (corners) in their gardens from which they will donate a portion of their produce, using calculators to determine the exact quantities that they need to donate, according to Jewish tithing.

Last year, as I was working to develop our educational model, I was fortunate to be a participant in the M² Senior Educators Cohort (SEC). Through my experience in the program, I gained significant tools and resources that have helped us to modify our lesson plans to make them more meaningfully and intentionally curated learning experiences. The process I learned in the SEC is to first identify the core values at the heart of every lesson, and then determine the activities that will best enable the learners to explore these values. Use and design of space are other critical modalities to consider; each individual school’s garden is designed specifically to best serve their learners and participants.

GrowTorah currently runs programs at SAR (for preschoolers through high school) in Riverdale, New York, and at The Frisch School, Ben Porat Yosef, the JCC on the Palisades and Maayanot Yeshiva High School in New Jersey. So far, the feedback from the schools, students, and parents has demonstrated that the gardens are having a far-reaching impact, and schools are requesting family gardening workshops, home composting kits, tutorials, and more.

Imagine a future where every Jewish day school has an educational Torah garden that serves as a laboratory for students to learn and live out Jewish environmental values with their bodies, hearts, and minds. Starting with lessons for early childhood and continuing with scaffolded lessons for students as they progress through 12th grade, we could deeply influence future generations to care for the earth with every radish they grow, harvest, and donate.

Yosef Gillers is the Founding Director of GrowTorah in the greater New York area, and a graduate of the inaugural Senior Educators Cohort (SEC) at M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education. SEC is generously supported by the Maimonides Fund.

Applications will be open soon for Cohort 3 of the Senior Educators Cohort.