Putnam Valley, N.Y. — On a brisk, sunny Sunday morning last month, a group of children, ranging in age from 5 to 12, and their parents walked from the parking lot at the Eden Village Camp here to a wooded clearing overlooking a lake. Two of the older students, prompted at times by the rabbi who accompanied them, led the morning prayer service.
After the service, the children learned to make bread from flour they threshed themselves under the direction of educators at Eden Village Camp. It was all part of an outside-the-box religious school experience that Peekskill’s First Hebrew Congregation, a Conservative synagogue, launched this year.
“We could have done what we did here anyplace,” Rabbi Lee Paskind said about the prayer service. “What we’re going to do next requires a farm. We need to be thinking about what Torah teaches us about the world, about food and our responsibility to people who have food, and people who don’t.
“In America, there’s the big idea that we should be closer to what we eat, that we should have a relationship to our food and the farmers who grow it. Learning about the needs of our area is part of tikkun olam.”
With only 12 students in the Hebrew school, Rabbi Paskind knew they “wanted to kick it up several notches,” he said. “We wanted something really experiential.”
Working with consultant Susan Ticker from the Jewish Education Project, the synagogue explored various innovative models before developing the Jewish Learning Experience, a hands-on approach, with a focus on tikkun olam.
“We’re about sparking and spreading innovation in Jewish education,” said Cyd Weissman, director of congregational learning at the Jewish Education Project, which gave the synagogue a $1,000 grant for the project. What impressed the organization about First Hebrew’s initiative, she said, is that “they’re taking on a serious approach to innovation. They’re countering the force of the old model, where children learned about Judaism. This is lived Judaism, which has deep, rich content.”
It also helped that Rabbi Paskind “took it on very seriously,” said Weissman. The community is “willing to turn things upside down and take a risk. What they produced is something people should pay attention to.”
To entice families, and remove any barriers to inclusion, the program is free for synagogue members for the first two grades (except for a modest book fee).
While the students attend slightly more conventional classes at the school to acquire Hebrew language and prayer skills, it’s emphatically not your typical Hebrew school. It’s not even called Hebrew School anymore. Instead, participation in the Jewish Learning Experience is “project based learning,” said Rabbi Paskind. Besides the farm-to-table program April 26, students have also made posters and comic strips exploring how people should relate to those with disabilities, as well as an Israel-themed fair. Students also helped develop their own siddur.
For 12-year-old Madison Kagan, a seventh grader from Cortlandt Manor, the experience affirmed her sense that “it’s better to be more connected with the environment and growing your food.”
Eden Village Camp, a nonprofit organic farm that is based in Jewish values and traditions, was a fitting setting to inculcate the lessons First Hebrew wants to impart to its students and their families. The farm regularly donates a portion of what it grows to the East Fishkill food pantry and has a garden designed around the Hebrew calendar (for example, growing horseradish and parsley for the month of Nissan, when Passover takes place).
“This is the first year we’re doing this, so we’re learning how to create these projects,” said Rabbi Paskind. “Kids have ownership. The beauty of it is that this is real learning, in the way people learn in solving problems.”