Ultra-Orthodox kids grow a green thumb in ‘mitzvah’ gardens
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Ultra-Orthodox kids grow a green thumb in ‘mitzvah’ gardens

Leshomra group brings awareness of the environment to determinedly urban Haredi schools and community centers

Avishai Himelfarb, the founder and director of Leshomra, checks a watering system at a school garden in Modiin Ilit on March 22, 2017. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
Avishai Himelfarb, the founder and director of Leshomra, checks a watering system at a school garden in Modiin Ilit on March 22, 2017. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

Potato farming is not usually part of the curriculum at ultra-Orthodox nursery schools. Their neighborhoods are usually known for their density rather than their greenery. But one ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, organization is building dozens of gardens each year in an attempt to instill a love for the environment into this fast-growing community.

Leshomra is a two-year-old organization that helps plant gardens at nursery schools, kindergartens, schools, and community centers in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in an attempt to connect children in a tactile way to nature and how things grow. It aims to build environmental awareness and green practices from the bottom, through a real understanding of Haredi culture and how best to relate to people in that community.

“First you need a connection with nature,” explained Avishai Himelfarb, the founder and director of Leshomra. “If you go to a [Haredi] first-grade class and say ‘you should recycle,’ that’s not even the issue… They don’t even understand that nature exists and that you need to take care of it” through recycling and other actions, he explained.

“Maybe they know it in their brains, but they don’t experience it, they don’t know what nature is,” Himelfarb said as he looked out across Modiin Ilit, one of the first places where Leshomra started working. Many of the playgrounds in the city are covered with synthetic grass.

“People here don’t have cars, they don’t travel, and when they do travel it’s to a place with amusement parks for the kids,” Himelfarb said. “They don’t ever encounter nature anywhere. So first we need to create a situation where they encounter nature, which is gardening, or hikes, or orienteering, and during that time we talk about environmental values.”

According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, the ultra-Orthodox will make up 29 percent of Israel’s population by 2059.

Places like Modiin Ilit, Bnei Brak, and Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim neighborhoods have some of the highest birthrates in the country. In these locales as many apartments as possible are squeezed into small spaces, cutting into desperately needed public spaces and parks. Due to overuse, even the parks that are left often have little in the way of plant life or landscaping.

Although the ultra-Orthodox generally have a smaller environmental footprint than their secular and national religious counterparts because they are less likely to own cars or private homes, the sheer size of the community means it is essential for this sector to adopt environmentally friendly practices as well. But it’s impossible to educate kids to be “environmentally friendly” if they have no understanding of the environment or nature.

Sara, a teacher at a kindergarten in Modiin Ilit, holds a bowl of potatoes harvested from her garden on March 22, 2017. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
Sara, a teacher at a kindergarten in Modiin Ilit, holds a bowl of potatoes harvested from her garden on March 22, 2017. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

Leshomra now works in 85 schools and community centers in the ultra-Orthodox locations of Bnei Brak, Jerusalem, Modiin Ilit, Elad, Tel Stone, and Beit Shemesh. It mostly works with younger children, but in some places with Talmud Torah schools, or elementary schools for ultra-Orthodox boys.

Himelfarb — who grew up national religious, the Israeli equivalent of Modern Orthodox, but has since moved closer to the ultra-Orthodox world — previously worked for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, planning its activities in the Haredi sector. “But I understood that for any change to succeed in this community, it has to be people from within the community that want to change it, who want good things for the community,” he said.

He started Leshomra two years ago after running shmita, or sabbatical year, tours in the central Israeli Moshav Gimzo, where he lives. Without any advertising, more than 7,000 ultra-Orthodox kids and their parents came for tours to learn about the special Torah commandments that govern every seventh year, when observant Jews let the land lie fallow. The strong response inspired Himelfarb to pursue his dream full-time by starting Leshomra. He studied at the Mandel Institute’s Leadership Development in the Haredi Community program to help him develop the idea.

Himelfarb said he wanted to find ways to help people, especially children, connect to the environmental and ecological aspects of the Torah “outside of the study hall.” But he doesn’t explain it like that to those within the ultra-Orthodox community.

Himelfarb’s unique position, on the seam between national religious and ultra-Orthodox, enables him to speak in both languages. He can articulate the importance of Leshomra to environmentalists and outsiders, but he also has a deep understanding of what will draw the ultra-Orthodox community: the opportunity to fulfill additional mitzvot, or Torah commandments.

The gardens, like this one in Modiin Ilit on March 22, 2017, follow the commandment of kalayim, which means that each species is planted a certain distance from the other. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
The gardens, like this one in Modiin Ilit on March 22, 2017, follow the commandment of kilayim, which requires that each species is planted a certain distance from the other. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

“We [ultra-Orthodox] believe that our tikkun olam [fixing the world] is first and foremost spiritual,” he said. “Spiritual tikkun olam means living and keeping all of the mitzvot. But next to that, we also want the material world to be fixed.”

There are commandments connected to agriculture that few observant Jews have a chance to fulfill because they are not farmers. One of these is kilayim, or the prohibition of planting different species close to each other.

At the kindergartens and nursery schools, the children make their own “kilayim rulers,” practicing numbers and geometry in the process, and plan their gardens with sufficient space between the species.

The kids come home ecstatic about the opportunity to observe a new mitzvah, and their enthusiasm is often contagious, say the teachers. Rivkie, a kindergarten teacher from Modiin Ilit who declined to give her last name, recalled the excitement when she taught the students about the commandment of ma’aser, or tithes, which means putting aside 10 percent of the harvest for the Levites. In their garden tended by 4- and 5-year-old girls, 10 percent of the harvest turned out to be a single radish.

Rivkie, a nursery school teacher in Modiin Ilit, points out a chart where the students keep track of how the plants are growing on March 22, 2017. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
Rivkie, a nursery school teacher in Modiin Illit, points out a chart where the students keep track of how the plants are growing on March 22, 2017. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

They gave that lone radish to the father of a student, who was a Levite. He brought it to the kollel where he studied Torah full-time and cut it into little pieces, and all of the Levites there took a small bite.

“Everyone was excited,” said Rivkie. “From the girls to the father to all of the people in the kollel — because it was the first time they had observed this commandment.”

“It really affects people,” she said. “I see mothers come in to the kindergarten to visit, and the girls don’t show them their drawings, they run with them to the garden and they want to show them how it’s growing… The girls document every little leaf that sprouts for us.”

“We’re in a city, we’re not in a moshav or village where we’re exposed to the ideas of orchards and gardens,” Rivkie added. “We don’t even have plants here! Wherever there’s a little bit of ground, they put up a building… I think nursery schools are the only areas left with a little bit of dirt to play in.”

‘We don’t even have plants here! Wherever there’s a little bit of ground, they put up a building’

Families have also gotten into the spirit of the garden. As a year-end gift, Rivkie gave each student a mint plant to grow at home and use for the end-of-Shabbat Havdalah service, which makes use of a pleasant-smelling herb. Rivkie said one girl’s family grew so much mint they gave cuttings to their relatives, and now the whole extended family uses their own mint plants for Havdalah.

Leshomra splits the cost of the gardens with the local municipalities. Himelfarb said municipalities have been very open to the program, sometimes covering up to 75% of the costs.

Children at Sara's kindergarten in Modiin Ilit look out at the garden on March 22, 2017. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
Children at Sara’s kindergarten in Modiin Ilit look out at the garden on March 22, 2017. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

Other initiatives have tried to bring community gardens into the ultra-Orthodox community, but on a much more local level. Barak Ben Hanan, a former high-tech worker turned permaculture educator from Tel Aviv, started three community gardens at special needs schools in Bnei Brak.

“With special needs kids, [the community] is more open to trying new things,” said Ben Hanan, who is secular. “Everyone, the government, cities, and neighborhoods, needs to get a sense of urgency about the environment and try to solve issues that aren’t working well.”

Ben Hanan stressed that every community requires a different approach that respects local customs. “When I worked in Bnei Brak, they said from the beginning that I need to know how to use the right language,” he said. As a gesture toward covering his head as religious Jews do, Ben Hanan wore a big floppy hat that also protected him from the sun. By the end of the season, the students were clamoring for their own “gardening hat.”

Ben Hanan said the municipality was supportive of the year-long initiative, which included a vertical garden made of pallets and a veggetable garden. But it’s difficult for individuals and outsiders like Ben Hanan to scale up in the way that Leshomra has been able to do, since the group has built a name for itself within the ultra-Orthodox community.

Often, the teachers get so into the project they will enlarge the gardens on their own initiative. Leshomra provides monthly training sessions for the teachers who host the gardens with a staff of gardeners, who completed a 100-hour course in botany and gardening. About 85% of the participating classrooms continued the second year, although Leshomra’s support drops to just twice a year.

The garden at Rivkie's nursery school in Modiin Illit on March 22, 2017. Leshomra built the right side, while Rivkie enlarged the garden with tires on the left. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
The garden at Rivkie’s nursery school in Modiin Illit on March 22, 2017. Leshomra built the right side, while Rivkie enlarged the garden with tires on the left. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

Rivkie is one of the teachers who expanded the garden on her own after seeing how much her girls enjoyed watching things grow. Parents helped her collect old tires, which she filled with dirt. Leshomra helped her expand the watering system, and now the girls eagerly anticipate the small tendrils of oregano and nasturtiums poking out of the dirt.

There are also disappointments, like when a whole class waited patiently for a single watermelon to ripen only to discover that the fruit had rotted and ants had eaten its innards.

“It’s also part of the experience when things don’t grow,” said Rivkie. “It’s part of dealing with life — there are disappointments, and there are also so many other wonderful things.”

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