Getting Their Hands Dirty For Torah
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Getting Their Hands Dirty For Torah

Where the classroom is a garden and the lessons encompass everything from sustainability to ‘radical amazement.’

Tend your garden: SAR students are part of GrowTorah program, which teaches about ecology, personal growth and connection to God. Courtesy of GrowTorah
Tend your garden: SAR students are part of GrowTorah program, which teaches about ecology, personal growth and connection to God. Courtesy of GrowTorah

For Yosef Gillers, weeding is an apt metaphor for the process of teshuva, preparing for the High Holidays in this month of Elul. He’s an educator whose classroom is the garden, where he imparts lessons of science and Torah as he urges students to dig their hands into the soil to learn about ecology, sustenance, personal growth, gratitude, charity and connection to God.

The founding director of GrowTorah, Gillers builds and teaches in gardens in Jewish schools and a community center in the New York area. The organization, now in its fourth year, aims to “cultivate a more passionate, compassionate and sustainable future driven by Torah values.”

Inch by inch, row by row, the students, under the guidance of Gillers and GrowTorah staff, plant string beans, kale, cucumbers, tomatoes, kohlrabi, strawberries, parsley, garlic, eggplant and more. After watching it all grow in their regular visits to the garden, students —from nursery to high school, along with senior citizens — get to pick the ripe vegetables and fruit and enjoy them. The excess is donated to groups like the Bronx Jewish Community Council and the Center for Food Action in Bergen County.

“It’s a beautiful opportunity to teach the laws of charity related to our agricultural heritage, to put lessons into action,” Gillers says.

“We’re not solving hunger. Others are working on that. We are educating about issues in an impactful way, recognizing the agency and ability to give and to work toward changing systemic problems that lead to food insecurity.”

When students return to school next month at SAR Academy in Riverdale, one of the participating schools, they will have a chance to plant several varieties of lettuce and other fall plants. Through Chanukah, they’ll be harvesting the crop, and then they’ll begin turning the gardens over for the winter, to pick up again in March. Although the gardens are not certified organic, GrowTorah practices all organic growing practices.

“Upon first entering the garden, we invite the students to experience as many moments of ‘radical amazement’ as they can while working and learning in the garden, to cultivate a deep sense of emunah [faith] from a positive place,” Gillers says, referring to the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s sense of the individual’s encounter of nature.

We are trying to make Torah more relatable and more relevant.

Depending on the students’ ages, he provides source sheets for related text study, whether about agriculture in ancient times, measuring a garden to set aside a corner for the poor, blessings over food or compassion for insects and animals. (The youngest students do a bug hunt.) For Sukkot, he’ll teach about what the harvest festival was like in ancient Israel and how our ecology and landscape is different.

“We are trying to make Torah more relatable and more relevant,” Gillers says.

He explains that he and his staff are landscape consultants and experiential educators; he wants to expand his staff and also train teachers in the schools to do the work. One of the questions he’s asked most often is about how to get serious recycling started in schools, and he tries to assist with that. The GrowTorah website (GrowTorah.org) features gardening tips, recipes and study sheets accessible to the larger community.

Gillers, 31, grew up in Newton, Mass., in a family that valued gardening. As the youngest, he usually got the least-preferable job of taking out the compost. He remembers first experiencing the kind of radical amazement he tries to impart while on an Orthodox Union-sponsored 14-day canoe trip for teens to northwest Ontario during the summer after 10th grade; the teens built an eruv, camped out and studied Torah at their campsite alongside the river. There, amidst the awesome beauty of the outdoors, he began to see connections between Jewish spirituality, Torah, nature, God and people.

“The rabbis encouraged us to look deep into ourselves, making a personal connection with God, in this natural setting. My tefilla [prayer] came alive, seeing all this beauty surrounding me, sensing that there’s a bigger picture, someone running the show. This was a lot more real than anything that had been described in the classroom. “

A garden is a pretty small thing, with powerful impact.

At Washington University, he majored in environmental studies and a few years later began working with Amir, an organization that built educational gardens at summer camps. His work focused on Jewish summer camps, and there he was inspired to try to bring a similar program into schools.

“A garden is a pretty small thing, with powerful impact,” he says.

In 2015, Gillers introduced GrowTorah at the Frisch School in Paramus, New Jersey, and the following year brought the program to SAR Academy and SAR High School in Riverdale and Ben Porat Yosef in Paramus, and later brought in other schools as well as the Kaplan JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, N.J. Right now, all of the day schools the program works with are Orthodox, and Gillers would like to expand into all sorts of Jewish schools as well as community centers. At the Tenafly JCC, he brings in nursery school students and seniors to garden together, and also includes people with special needs.

“The goal is to bring educational gardens to every Jewish organization across North America. There’s so much you can do with it that’s meaningful and personally engaging, in a way unlike any other media for teaching.”

Rabbi Binyamin Krauss, principal of SAR Academy, explains that SAR believes in learning through experience. “This project is a great way for kids to connect to the environment and learn how nature works in the middle of the city, through a Jewish lens. We hope to find opportunities to — no pun intended — grow it.”

Camp update #5: Our natural #tiedye shirts came out BEAUTIFULLY!! Campers hung their shirts out to dry in the sun, before the next steps in this awesome #naturaldye process! On this bright sunny day, we owe a huge thank you to @beyond_coastal for sponsoring our #sunscreen. Their products are made with natural ingredients, and they are one of the pioneering #reefsafe sunscreens.  Even though we’re not diving underwater, our sunscreens ultimately end up in the ocean. When we teach about compassion for creatures, we mean ALL creatures, everywhere on the earth! Thanks for supporting us in showing compassion to all of the wildlife – on sea and on land. #compassion #animalwelfare #sea #ocean #yellow #jewishfarmcamp #campgrowtorah #summercamp #jewishsummercamp

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At SAR, the rooftop garden with a view of the Hudson River is named Gan Ilan, in memory of Ilan Tokayer, a graduate of SAR Academy who died suddenly at age 25 in 2011. (The name Ilan means tree.) Gan Ilan is a memorial to his vibrance and his interest in Torah and science — he was studying winemaking at the time of his death.

Jessica Haller, an SAR parent with children at both the academy and the high school, says, “It seems that in 2018 nothing is more important than kids getting outside and getting their fingers into the soil. It’s an experiential and hands-on way to learn about our world and God’s world. The kids love it.”

Haller, who is the vice-chair of the Jewish environmental organization Hazon and is involved professionally in environmental studies and policy as well as technology, says, “Yosef is a changemaker and a doer, dynamic and engaging with the kids. He’s up there on the roof building garden boxes, teaching and organizing, and really loves the earth and the connection to Torah.”

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