Even diehard “reduce, reuse and recycle” proponents have to get something new occasionally.
Just before Rosh HaShanah, the 18-year-old beacon of Jewish environmentalism, the Teva Learning Center, acquired a new website, new logo and new name: Teva Learning Alliance. A few weeks later, it became one of 50 nonprofits included in the seventh annual Slingshot: Resource Guide for Jewish Innovation.
Since its founding at the Hudson Valley’s Surprise Lake Camp, Teva — not to be confused with the Israeli pharmaceutical company or the American sports sandals company that share its name, Hebrew for “nature” — has, through its camp-like retreats, exposed thousands of teachers and kids to Jewish teachings about nature. Now it is dispatching its “Topsy-Turvy” bus all over the country, is in discussions with several universities about developing a formal training program in Jewish environmental education, and is collaborating with the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel on an interactive online curriculum.
Nili Simhai, 39, is Teva’s longtime co-director and widely known as a mentor in the field: several Jewish environmental nonprofits, including Adamah, Eden Village Camp and the Jewish Farm School, have been created by her former students and staff.
Q: What is the purpose of Teva’s rebranding?
A: When I came to Teva in 1997, we were literally one program, in one place, that day schools came to, and there were only two or three organizations dedicated to this kind of work. In the 14 years that I’ve been at Teva we’ve grown to essentially work with the majority of the players in the Jewish community: not just day schools, but congregations, JCCs, camps — whoever calls us … We’re no longer talking about putting Jewish environmental education out there or creating Jewish environmental education: we’d like to see all Jewish education look more like what we do at Teva. The Jewish community and Jewish education would benefit from a greater infusion of experiential learning and a deeper rootedness in Jewish ecological literacy.
Can you tell me a little about Teva’s used-cooking-oil-fueled “Topsy-Turvy Bus” [two yellow school buses welded together, with one upside down on top of the other]?
It’s evolved into a mechanism to reach out to communities not located in big Jewish hubs, and let them know about the great work being done by all the Jewish environmental organizations. It’s also incredibly eye-catching and gets people to ask questions. … It’s sort of an emblem or calling card for the Jewish environmental community, and the curricular focus on every tour has been around energy issues and imagining a different future.
How do you refuel it, and what’s inside the bus?
It turned out that sushi restaurants were one of the best places to get oil, because their oil is very clean and less filtering is required. So [when the bus arrives in a new city] they form relationships with restaurant owners and ask, “Can we have the oil that’s in your dumpster in the back?”
Inside, we took out most of the seats, because the staff sleeps and lives on it while they’re traveling. We added an indoor classroom, with a mini kitchen and worm composting. We carry around a solar oven and a bike that generates energy and makes light bulbs light up, and set those up as different educational stations when we visit places.
How did you end up at Teva?
I was on a path to get a master’s degree in conservation biology or entomology when I got a summer job working in environmental education at a local park system in Cleveland. I had an aha moment where I realized I loved nothing more than teaching, but once I realized I wanted to go into the education side, not the research side, I had the problem that every job seemed to require you to work on Shabbat. And not just work, but to actively violate Shabbat. I wished there were someplace I could go and do this in a Jewish context, and then I saw a job listing for Teva.
Where did you grow up, and what was your Jewish background?
I was born in Iran. We left in 1979 [after the Islamic Revolution], when I was 7, and fully integrated into the Jewish Ashkenazi community of Cleveland. I went to the Agnon Day School [a pluralistic Jewish school]. I taught Hebrew school in college [Ohio State University] and was often the one to lead or start programs at the Hillel. I was one of those Jewish poster kids: I loved being Jewish.
Where do you live now? I’ve heard that you, your husband and your [4-year-old] son have a very green home.
We live in Millerton, N.Y., midway between Surprise Lake and Isabella Freedman Retreat Center [where Teva runs retreats for day school students and teachers]. When we built our house, we tried to use as many efficiency standards and green building standards as we could. It’s round, with a bunch of solar panels, and we are trying to re-establish a native meadow outside.