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Jewish schools are in a garden state of mind
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Jewish schools are in a garden state of mind

Preschoolers sow and reap as educators tout back-to-nature lessons

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

The garden at Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange is quiet now, its stalks brown and withered. But over the past two years, the synagogue’s preschoolers have grown zucchini, peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, and mini-pumpkins. They also tried corn, gamely but unsuccessfully, according to director Iris Ehrlich.

Parents typically help the children plant and water the vegetables in spring, and children attending the school’s camp continue watering and weeding through the summer. One year the three-year-olds harvested their cucumbers and made them into pickles.

Gardens are sprouting all over area Jewish preschools. In the last year or two, five different preschools dedicated spaces to digging, planting, sowing, reaping, and marveling at the wonders of cultivation. At least two of these were created in the last few months alone, and two include not only gardens but also outdoor classroom space for conducting lessons in everything from art and science to yoga en plein air.

Currently, preschools with gardens and/or outdoor classrooms include Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel and Oheb Shalom, both in South Orange; Temple B’nai Or and Morristown Jewish Center Beit Yisrael, both in Morristown; and the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston, which uses its outdoor classroom and garden for both preschoolers and early elementary grades.

Most have created the gardens and/or outdoor classroom by reclaiming unused areas near their buildings. They can be simple — at Morristown Jewish Center the garden consists of three raised soil-filled boxes adjacent to the playground; at Oheb Shalom the plot was already landscaped and set aside for a garden.

Or they can be more complicated. At Sharey Tefilo-Israel, Carol Paster is planning a space that includes a gardening area, a sandpit, a water area with a pump and trough, an art section with slate drawing surfaces, and a building space equipped with blocks. Other areas will accommodate bikes and music and drama activities. Paster has received $9,000 in donations to create the environment and is working with professionals in the area of Jewish early education gardening to plan the space and create the curriculum.

Early childhood directors ascribe all kinds of benefits to these gardens, from developing fine and gross motor skills, to encouraging the use of imagination, to keeping behavioral issues at bay. Mostly, they describe it as an antidote to a confining 21st-century childhood.

“Children are not exposed to being outdoors on their own anymore — digging, dreaming, discovering,” said Paster. “They are so busy going to soccer, ballet, basketball, and gymnastics that they do not have the luxury of dreaming outside,” she said.

“It’s about balancing green time against screen time.”

The Kushner school also views its garden activities as a corrective to a young life lived chiefly indoors.

“We are constantly discussing the changes that have taken place from generations ago when children played outside and learned about their world through natural experiences,” said principal Susan Dworken. Today, children are not “connected to nature because without encouragement most children no longer go outside to play. Many who do go outside do not know how to play, discover, create, cooperate, or use their imagination.”

Dworken said playing and learning outdoors can have a beneficial effect on children’s growth and development.

When children spend less time outside, she said, it “seems to increase behavioral problems, extra energy, [lack of] focusing, anxiety, depression, and attention deficit disorder, whereas more time outside increases an understanding of the natural world, relieves stress, and reduces undesirable behaviors.”

Jennie Rubin at Temple B’nai Or also pitched the benefits of experiential education alfresco.

“This reinforces to them that learning happens all over the place,” she said. “We know that preschool children benefit greatly from experiential learning. Measuring growth, documenting natural occurrences, using scientific method, and appreciating the miracle that is nature are all part of the expected benefit of this space.”

While environmental awareness has been rising since the 1960s and 1970s, today’s school gardening movement is often traced back 15 years to the Edible Garden, a California farming and nutrition program founded by restaurateur Alice Waters. Thousands of schools now use gardens to teach academics and strengthen the connection between “farm and table.”

It is only recently that the movement has come into its own in the Jewish arena.

Jewish farming and Jewish community gardens, in particular, have “blossomed” in the last five years, according to Jakir Manela, founding director of Kayam Farm at Pearlstone, the first Jewish community-based educational farm in North America. Located at a Jewish retreat center just outside of Baltimore, Kayam offers educational programs for schools and synagogues.

“In the last five years, the Jewish farming movement has grown tremendously in our ability to bring farming and gardening into mainstream Jewish institutions and local communities,” Manela said.

He places Kayam in a second wave of Jewish environmental initiatives. Its forerunners are places like Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut; the Teva Learning Alliance (formerly the Teva Learning Center), a Jewish environmental elementary education program created at Surprise Lake Camp in 1994; and Adamah, the environmental fellowship for adults based at Isabella Freedman.

Kayam held its first Jewish early childhood garden education conference last summer; Paster was there, and she will be cochairing the 2012 conference. She has been consulting with staff from Kayam through each step of developing her outdoor classroom and garden.

With the exception of Paster, each early childhood program created its garden without the help of a larger umbrella group, but all have been influenced by the growing interest in “going green.”

Rubin called the garden a “natural evolution” of her synagogue’s public commitment to the environment that began in earnest four years ago. She also points to a push from today’s preschool parents, who grew up with environmentalism.

Gardening becomes Jewish, the educators say, when they are able to incorporate abstract Jewish values into broader lessons about natural life cycles, vegetation, and health. Preschool teachers attach garden activities to concepts like tikun olam (repairing the world) and shomrei adama (stewardship of the earth).

Manela said Kayam offers a curriculum in which Jewish education is integrated into the farming experience.

“When you walk on the land and think about the different brachot [blessings] we say on different species,” he said, “we realize that the brachot require us to know how each plant grows — is it in the ground or on the tree?” (For foods that grow from the ground, the blessing is “borei pri ha’adama”; for food that grows on trees, “borei pri ha’etz.”)

Kushner Academy takes this one step further with its garden, created, like other preschool gardens, from outdoor space no longer used for its intended purpose.

There, in addition to lessons about plants and how things grow for preschoolers and early elementary students, the children have learned a Jewish twist on composting — only those items that get the pri ha’etz or pri ha’adama blessing can go into the composter.

“We do not put anything into the compost unless it came from the earth,” explained teacher Bluma Acocella. “Therefore, ‘mezonot’ items, those that are mixed with other ingredients like eggs, oil, or unknown preservatives or chemicals” don’t go in the compost, “and ‘shehakol’ items like milk, cheese, yogurt, and fruit roll-ups — obviously not grown from the earth” — also don’t go in, she said.

At Morristown Jewish Center Beit Yisrael, Fern Spitzer, head of the preschool, explained how the garden can be used to integrate the Jewish holidays into lessons and be used to perform mitzvot. In time for Rosh Hashana, preschoolers there watched bees and learned about making honey, the traditional food for the New Year. Later in the fall, they dug up and potted pansies they had planted to share with senior citizens.

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