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Holiday Feature Eco-conscious Day Schools Offer Students New Takes on Kashrut

January 14, 2005
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As Jewish children around the world prepare to celebrate Tu B’Shevat by eating fruit and planting trees, students at the Jewish Community High School of San Francisco will take the holiday one step further. They’ll spend the holiday, Jan. 25, at a science symposium called “The Green World,” where they’ll work on projects that explore the impact of plant life on the earth’s ecosystems.

This unusual holiday celebration reflects the school’s mission to combine academia with Jewish and ecological values. The mission also is reflected in the school’s eco-kosher lunch service, which offers an organic, vegetarian kosher meal every school day.

“We wanted to offer quality, healthy food, particularly in light of studies on teenage obesity,”says the school’s head, Rabbi Edward Harwitz. “As Jews, we have to think about the educational component of everything we do. Eating is a primary activity of our lives; we do it at least three times a day. In our school, we didn’t want our lunch service to just be a food vending program, or for students and faculty just to get something to eat. We wanted them to understand this is not merely an opportunity for us to stuff our faces.”

He continues,”It’s a principle as old as the Mishna: When three people sit together, there must be a spirit of Torah. A wonderful context for that is breaking bread together.”

At a school assembly when the new lunch program began, students learned about the importance of eating healthy food and of recycling. The lunch program, students were told, would have a no-waste policy: Everything from plates to cups to utensils would be 100 percent biodegradable.

There would be no need for trash cans in the lunch room, which instead would be furnished with bins for recycling and compost.

It’s a Maimonidean approach, Harwitz says, bringing Torah values into daily life.

“Utilizing the composting facility properly is not hard, but it does raise consciousness,” he said. “A week ago a student asked if we could think about using recycled paper, recycled paper towels. Students and I are now doing research on the cost effectiveness, and presenting our findings to the director of finance and operations.”

According to Noam Dolgin, associate director of the New York-based Teva Learning Center — one of several national programs spearheading the Jewish ecological movement — the JCHS lunch program is on the cutting edge of growing environmental activism in Jewish day schools.

“No other school has anything as extensive,” he says.

Through its Bring It Back to Our Schools program, Teva helps students and teachers across the country develop ways to be more environmentally conscious, both at school and at home.

“Each student, each school, each class makes a commitment to make changes in their personal lives or in their school — to turn off lights when they leave a room, to turn off water when they brush their teeth, to bike instead of drive,” Dolgin said. “They sit down with us and figure out what they can do to make their school a greener place — composting projects, getting rid of Styrofoam, using washable mugs instead of disposable cups, recycling paper, planting gardens.”

There are other Jewish days schools that are ecologically aware, according to Dolgin. He points to the Gesher Community Day School in Fairfax, Va., as one that is exceptionally committed to ecological issues.

The school is getting a new facility and the landscaping, which will include a number of gardens, will be ecologically sound.

The school also will include an “edible classroom,” where teachers will integrate gardening projects into science and home economics curricula.

“Environmental values care for creation, stewardship of the planet and ethical treatment of animals,” Dolgin says. “All of that is intrinsic to the Bible and writings of the rabbis and Jewish philosophers throughout the centuries.”

Jewish educators must use apply these values to the 21st century, he says.

According to Jesse Alper, director of food services at JCHS, diet is a key element of an environmental ethic.

“Throughout the course of human history, all food was grown organically, regardless of culture or locale,” he says. “It wasn’t until the rise of the chemical industry in the 1950s that the introduction of synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides changed agriculture as we know it. What’s even worse than that is the corporate takeover of our food system. What that means is that we have highly processed, chemically produced food of little or negative nutritional value.”

The result, he says, is especially destructive to youth.

“Over half of American youth are now categorized by the government as being clinically obese,” Alper says. “It’s an epidemic that no culture in world history has ever known. Childhood diabetes in the past 10 years has gone off the charts. We are the richest nation in the world and our children are malnourished. They are not getting the building blocks they need to be healthy and defend themselves from sickness and disease.”

Alpai Michaels, 14, a JCHS student, used to have the eating habits of a typical American teenager — burgers, fries, candy and soda. When JCHS introduced its eco-kosher lunch program, Alpai began to eat differently.

“What I eat here makes me think a little more about what I eat,” Alpai says. “I still like to eat junk food, but I don’t eat it as much after school, mostly because my parents are trying to live up to the salad bar.”

The school’s salad bar offers everything from organic salad mix to organic tangerines, from organic tofu to organic eggs, from Israeli feta cheese to gourmet garlic croutons.

The school’s environmental activists seem especially excited by the ecological aspects of the lunch program — aspects they helped develop.

“A few of my friends and I have been trying to green up the school, make it more environmentally conscious,” says Josh Meltzer, 16. “It’s an ideal I have. I would like us to live in a more sustainable society.”

Alyssa Olenberg, 17, is working with others to get the school to run on solar energy. She is especially happy about the composting bin.

“I personally use the compost bins even when it’s not from the salad bar,” she says. “When I have a banana peel or something, I can just come downstairs and put it in the compost bin.”

Most students, however, seem more concerned about the taste and variety of the food than its ecological sustainability.

“I think it’s nice that the school is being environmental and organic, yet offering good food at the same time,” says Eliana Greenberg, 14. “I relate to it more as tasty and healthy food.”

“It’s more of a mystery, more of a surprise,” agrees Daniel Porton, 16. “We don’t know what” Alper “is going to bring out.

“Every day he has a different food thing. One day we have sushi, sometimes we have burritos, Spanish- style food. Other times we have salads and sandwiches, falafel,” Daniel says. “Every time it’s just different, and we don’t know what to expect. That’s the joy of it.”

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