Jewish environmental education gains a foothold


NEW YORK, Aug. 28 (JTA) — Gavriel Goldman is standing in a park in the Rocky Mountains, a few yards from the white water of the Poudre River.

Gesturing to a pine tree beside him, Goldman, an energetic middle- aged man with a slight drawl and long blond hair, says, “Do you know, it’s never stated in the Bible what kind of tree the tree of life was?”

Why not, he suggests, have a group of Hebrew school or day school students look up all the words in the midrash used to describe the famous Garden of Eden tree and then go to the woods to find the tree of life?

How about using a trip to the forest as a springboard for talking about family trees, or to discuss the section of Psalm 92 comparing righteous people to date palms and cedar trees?

“We tend to shove things up here too much,” he says, pointing to his head. “If you want to get to the feeling part of Judaism, nothing is better than nature.”

Around him, a group of people, gathered in Colorado for the conference of the Coalition for Alternatives in Jewish Education in nearby Fort Collins, nod their heads and murmur approvingly.

Goldman — director of the New Jersey YMHA-YWHA’s Jewish Nature Center — has become the unofficial dean of a small but flourishing movement: Jewish Environmental Nature Education.

Consider these recent developments:

• For the first time ever, this year’s CAJE conference offered a full track — 23 sessions — on Jewish environmental education. Attended by 700 different people — more than a third of the entire conference — the sessions ranged from a field trip to Poudre Canyon to “Teaching God In Nature” to “Contemporary Environmental Issues as Seen through Jewish Tradition” to “Ecology and Kabbalah: Restoring Cosmic Blessing.”

• Jewish nature centers have sprung up in the past decade in such places as the New York area; New Jersey; Malibu, Calif., and — most recently — near Atlanta. The oldest, the Teva Learning Center — which has facilities in upstate New York and the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts, offers educational retreats for students at almost 40 day schools in the northeast. Others like the Shalom Nature Center in California run an environmental day camp and extensive programming for college students.

• In a two-year-old program funded by the New York-based Nathan Cummings Foundation, more than 20 college students and recent graduates have been trained to teach about Judaism and nature at Jewish summer camps.

• Goldman and others are in discussion with several Jewish seminaries as well as the Jewish Community Center movement to create a graduate program that would lead to a masters degree in Jewish education and a certificate in environmental education.

On the one hand, Jewish environmental and nature education is about using outdoor activities like hiking and wilderness retreats to engage people in discussions about God and Torah.

But it also about is teaching people to care for the earth, using traditional Jewish concepts such as “bal tashchit,” the idea that humans have a responsibility to care for the earth.

The Teva Learning Center, for example, does both, starting its program for sixth-grade day school students with an “awareness curriculum” that consists of exploring in the woods, while talking about Jewish blessings and prayers that express appreciation for nature.

“In day schools, kids have been saying these blessings forever and often it’s become stale for them,” said Nili Simhai, co-director of Teva. “Often, by the time they’re hitting the teen years they’re getting resentful of having to do it, and this puts a new spirit into it.

“This is a chance to say to kids that when we read this psalm and it talks about the glory of the mountains dancing, the person who wrote it wasn’t inside mumbling it under his breath, but outside saying, Wow,” Simhai said.

From awareness and blessings, the sixth graders move on to concepts like bal tashchit and ecological cycles.

“We also talk to them about community and Jewish wisdom, about how to treat other human beings as well as the planet,” Simhai said. “The most important thing we try to do is give them a sense of connection to their planet and to their tradition at the same time.”

The Shalom Nature Center’s college programs have a less structured curriculum.

Kendra Striegler, a student at the University of California at Los Angeles, went on the center’s weeklong canoe trip down the Colorado River last spring.

“What was really cool about it was if anyone doubted there was a creator before that trip, no way would they still,” Striegler said.

“The experiences we had were so amazing that it just couldn’t have happened by chance,” she said, marveling over the “formations of rock, the way the sun would set over the valley, the whiteness of the sand on the sandbars.”

Striegler, who grew up in a very secular household and recently became more interested in Judaism, said the trip’s leaders would “take Jewish issues and apply it to the natural world, but it wasn’t, like, Let’s study Torah. We used Torah in what we were doing, but it wasn’t the focus, it was just applied.”

Next summer, the center will launch the Shalom Outdoor Leadership School — SOuLS — for college students and recent grads, a program that will teach wilderness skills as well as Torah and Talmud.

But while the field is growing, American Jewish life and its educational institutions have not gone completely green.

The CAJE conference may have had sessions on Jewish environmental education, but the dining hall still served each meal on styrofoam plates.

And one has only to look at the carpool line waiting outside most suburban Hebrew schools and day schools to spot a fair number of gas-guzzling Sport Utility Vehicles.

At the end of the Teva retreat, the kids pledge to make environmentally conscious changes in their own lives — like not running the tap water while they brush their teeth — and plan an environmental class project, like planting a garden together or reducing the amount of styrofoam the school uses.

But the class projects — often unrealistically ambitious, like getting all disposable dishes out of the school cafeteria — have had mixed success.

To help, Teva hopes soon to hire a full-time staff person to work more closely with schools after the retreat program.

“What’s toughest for kids is coming back, then having to deal with things like speaking with the principal or writing letters, very adult things,” Simhai said.

Nonetheless, Jewish environmental education no longer seems as radical as it did less than 10 years ago, when it was not uncommon for Jewish environmentalists to be compared to idol worshipers and for mainstream Jewish leaders to label nature education a frill that schools did not have time for.

In 1994, when Goldman gave up a comfortable job as curriculum coordinator at Cleveland’s bureau of Jewish education to pursue the dream of teaching Jewish environmentalism full time, he and his family lost their house and went bankrupt.

Increasingly, those in the field say they are winning acceptance — and interest — from mainstream Jewish institutions.

“Five years ago when I said I was going to be a Jewish environmental educator, people would say, What are you talking about, what do those three things have to do with each other?” Simhai said. “Now people say, Wow that’s so exciting, I know someone else who’s interested in doing that.”

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