The Topsy-Turvy Bus: Spreading Awareness in Style

by Jonathan Dubinsky

Our ancestors from Europe came to New York in all types of vessels, but I am pretty sure none of them arrived on an upside-down school bus, fueled by used vegetable oil. The second annual Topsy-Turvy Climate Change bus tour set sail for the UN Headquarters in Manhattan on the evening of October 22, 2009, seeking to rally Jewish communities across the country and determine where they stand when it comes to environmental awareness, action, and advocacy. While our ancestors could only hope to improve their lives, our bus screeched into the Big Apple ready to change the world: spreading awareness about climate change and asking how we as a Jewish community can make conscious life choices that reflect our beliefs, with the goal of becoming a brighter or lagoyim (light unto the nations).

The Topsy-Turvy bus is powered by a unique used-vegetable oil processing system unlike any on the road today. The Jewish sage Rambam (Maimonides) taught, “Righteous people… do not waste in this world even a mustard seed,” applying the principle of baal taschchit (do not destroy) to all forms of wasting, even food waste. In Rambam’s spirit of conservation, the system enabled us to rescue restaurants’ used vegetable oil, which would normally be thrown away, and clean it so it could power the bus. Unlike standard stationary processing systems, our system allowed us to process fuel while driving.

The project was an initiative of the Teva Learning Center, a 16-year old nonprofit which excavates the ecological wisdom inherent in Judaism and renews Jewish society through connection with the natural world. In 2009, Teva launched an East Coast bus tour celebrating solar energy used on Birkat haChamah, a little-known holiday honoring the sun. More recently, partnering with fellow environmental group Hazon, Teva launched a cross-country tour coinciding with the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference and with Chanukah, a holiday about conservation of oil, to spread the word about the Jewish Climate Change Campaign.

On this tour, our first destination was the United Nations, near the heavily polluted East River. There, we met with Janos Pastor, director of the UN secretary-general’s climate change support team, who blessed our journey by pouring some local, used veggie oil into our bus’ fuel tank. Then, like the Bal Shem Tov and his band of Chassidim traveling Europe to spread joy and Torah, we left the environmental promised land of New England to be out with the Jews of America. Among our destinations were Jewish day schools, Hebrew schools, and college campuses.

Although the Jewish communities we visited often were concerned about global climate change and had some level of environmental consciousness – after all, they had invited the Topsy-Turvy bus to visit – community members usually weren’t sure what they could do. We developed a three hour program designed to empower Jews to take action. At each venue, we performed a musical skit about the greenhouse effect and set up stations where students learned to design solar ovens out of recycled materials, toured our bus, and pledged to take specific environmentally-friendly actions.

At one station, crew member Elizabeth Cossin showed students a solar oven, made out of an old cooler and a pane of glass, that could heat up to 275 degrees. Most people hadn’t realized the greenhouse effect could be replicated on a small scale to harness solar energy – an eco-alternative to burning coal. They left the station thinking creatively about do-it-yourself environmentalism, ecotechnologies, and the power of the sun. We also helped explain the differences between “global warming,” “the ozone layer hole,” and other confusing terms that appear in the news. We conveyed to students what scientists believe about the atmosphere and took the opportunity to relate a little-known success story: the hole in the ozone layer, a problem that humans helped mitigate through an international agreement.

As the students poked around on the bus, they passed around a lump of coal. “Does anyone know what this is?” I asked. “I’ll give you a clue. 60 percent of all of the electricity in America comes from it.” Most had never touched or seen coal before, but one brown headed, 12-year-old boy from Arizona chimed in, “I know! It’s charcoal!” In fact, I responded, it was coal – fossilized plants and animals said to be over 90 million years old. In a moment of what Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement,” most jaws dropped in hearing that most of the world’s energy comes from burning the fossils of our ancestors.

At the end of the session, crew member Pesach Stadlin encouraged students to take a pledge in honor of the Earth. Rachel Playe, the documentarian, recorded students committing to one of the actions they learned about in the relay station. In most cases, participants learned working to solve climate change can be fun – riding bikes, planting gardens, coming together as a community – and were eager to make a long-term commitment. For example, one student from Scottsdale, AZ stood in front of her entire school and said: “I pledge to work with my school to make a garden in the old soccer field in order to grow food,” she said. “There is so much sun that we could be harnessing here!” The rest of the students affirmed her pledge by saying, “Cain y’he ratzon,” “We support you!”

Jonathan Dubinsky “Capt’n Red Beard” is special programs coordinator for Teva Learning Center and coordinates the Topsy-Turvy Bus. He has worked professionally as a mechanic, organic farmer, hazardous-waste manager, and teacher, and studied environmental science at the University of Kansas.

image: Rachel Playe

This post is from the just-released PresenTense Our Environment issue; you can also subscribe to PresenTense Magazine and receive this, and future issues, delivered directly to you.