Arad, Israel — Tu b’Shvat, the tree-planting holiday, was fast approaching, so it seemed only fitting that the project being run by the environmental education organization Sviva Israel for a group of sixth graders at the Chalamish School in this southern Israeli town would involve seeds and soil.
To prepare for this, the most recent installment of Sviva Israel’s flagship project, Eco Connection, Carmi Wisemon, the organization’s founder and director, and his wife, Tamar, director of media and technology, carried in buckets of soil and pebbles and began to spread old newspapers onto the desks.
Soon after the kids arrived, so, too, did a small group of Americans from New Jersey, all members of the steering committee of the New Jersey/Delaware-Arad/Tamar Partnership 2000. Following bilingual introductions, the Americans distributed personal notes and friendship bracelets made by students from the Temple Beth Miriam Eisenberg-Bierman Religious School in Elberon, N.J., from old sweaters and an unraveled baby blanket. Not long ago, the Israeli kids sent notes and friendship bracelets made of an old sweater to their peers in New Jersey.
Seated beside the students in small groupings, the New Jerseyans cut plastic soda bottles in half so they could be used as terrariums. Others spooned out pebbles, activated carbon, soil and seeds for the herbs that would hopefully grown in two weeks’ time.
The mood was boisterous, the noise deafening, and the students asked the kinds of questions (“Does my bottle have too much water”; “When will things start to sprout?”) that signaled their engagement.
“It’s interesting,” 11-year-old Idan Kindah said of the Eco-Connection program his class has participated in for two-and-a-half years. “Because of what I’ve learned here I’m careful to preserve water and electricity. I used to shower for 15 minutes. Now, it’s five minutes, tops.”
This is the kind of response Wisemon has been encountering ever since he launched Sviva Israel in 2007. More than 50 schools in Israel and the U.S. have benefited from the organization’s programming. Funding comes primarily from Jewish federations via Partnership 2000 of the Jewish Agency and private donors.
Right now, Eco Connection has a network of eight Israeli and nine American elementary and middle schools whose students jointly study the program’s environmental curriculum. During the first year, students learn how to measure their personal ecological footprint and ultimately how to reduce it and apply it to their schools and communities.
A major component of the curriculum is Reduce, Reuse and Recycle, and students learn, for example, why limiting the use of resources (reduction) is even more vital than recycling. Class projects have focused on food (not wasting it, composting it); transportation (public transportation, walk/bike to school days); and clothing (clothing exchanges, no shopping days).
During the second year, studies focus on Israel and the environment. Students learn about Clean Tech, Israeli water technology and solar energy.
During the drive down south from his organization’s headquarters in Beit Shemesh, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Wisemon said the organization is realizing its three goals: to raise the standards of environmental education in Israel; to create partnerships between Jewish youth in the U.S. and Israel; and to acquaint kids from every background with the Jewish sources “that relate to the environment and other modern issues.”
Last month, the Eco Connection’s user-friendly curriculum was supplemented by Eco Campus, a bilingual online platform and social network for schools that includes virtual schools, kid-written blogs, a gallery to post photos, videos and text documents created by the schools; an ecological footprint calculator, games and more.
The seed money for Eco Campus came from Microsoft Israel R&D (research and development) after the proposal won a company competition aimed at increasing environmental awareness in Israel. Microsoft’s staffers volunteered their time and expertise to help get the project up and running.
“The Eco Campus helps keep students connected to the material and one another even when they’re not at school,” Tamar Wisemon said, noting that the website offers “a safe” online experience. “One of the first things we teach is the importance of online privacy, safety and respect.”
The Wisemons who are Orthodox Jews, have made great efforts to include schools from all shades of the Jewish spectrum, from Orthodox to Reform, “because environmentalism is universal and we want to create the feeling that every child is part of one Jewish community,” Tamar said.
Tamar noted that after-school Hebrew/synagogue schools are often not invited to participate in ongoing educational initiatives involving Israeli schools and American day schools.
“They’re marginalized,” she said. “We’re bringing them into the mainstream.”
Sivia Braunstein, the American chairwoman of the New Jersey/Delaware-Arad/Tamar Partnership 2000, said Eco Connection has had a real impact on both the American and Israeli students.
“First of all, the American kids are learning Hebrew and the Israeli kids are learning English. I’ve been to classrooms in the U.S. and seen how they are using the holidays and Jewish values to teach environmental issues — it gets the kids involved. It’s fun, hand’s-on and interesting.”
If they are able to find the funding, the Wisemons hope to have 600 schools in their network by the 2014-‘15 school year.
“The programming is in place. All we need is the funding,” Carmi Wisemon said.