It is not often that so many parts of my life flow together at one moment: Judaism, Riverdale, Israel and the natural world. I was browsing through the biweekly newspaper the Jewish Link and came across an article by Tamar Weinberg on a new garden project at both SAR Academy and SAR High School run by GrowTorah.org.
Yosef Gillers, 29, and I chatted one beautiful fall morning about his enthusiasms. A graduate of Washington University in St. Louis where he majored in environmental studies with a concentration in education, he found his focus early on. David Fox, a college friend who was a philosophy major with business smarts, brought a confluence of interests and goals. David, with his philosophical commitment to social justice through stewardship of the environment, created Amir (www.amirproject.org). This is accomplished by sending trained personnel to summer camps around the country teaching the campers how to grow various vegetable crops and by this modality engaging the campers to consider wider issues of human need and ecological requirements. Their curriculum, “Hunger,” was written for their 2015 programming. The second curriculum for 2016 was “Jewish compassion for Animals.”
Yosef Gillers, however, felt that there was a dimension missing. Having spent many years in Jewish day schools with their dual curricula – secular and religious studies – he sees the world through a wider lens. For those unfamiliar with Orthodox Judaism – it is not merely a series of ritual acts but a “Culture in a Scroll” – the Torah – detailing all aspects of life with a profound emphasis on social justice. He felt that the Amir programming should be expanded for day school students.
Ancient Israel was an agricultural country and it was renown for olives, dates, pomegranates and wine grapes. The Torah clearly mandated that the poor had rights to some of the foodstuffs grown by all farmers – in the form of a certain tithing as well as taxes in kind. GrowTorah’s ethos is working off these ideas.
The program was brought to the SAR schools by Reva Tokayer, a local parent. She had become aware of the program when Yosef was working at another day school in Manhattan. The Tokayers – Reva and Dr. Aaron - created the Neta Ilan Foundation in memory of their son, Ilan Yechezkel, who died too young. The two gardens, one at each of the SAR complexes, are named Gan Ilan – Ilan’s Garden.
Gan Ilan was constructed with six 4-feet by 8-feet raised cedar beds. Last season saw crops of grape tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, basil and much, much more. Come spring, he wants to add six more beds so as to add some perennials to the mix as well as have more area for present choices. SAR High School has a vertical garden hanging in front of the huge windows that are so sunny. This year, they grew primarily salad greens and herbs. In the high school, they are also starting a composting program.
While gardens need to be planted early in the growing season, many of the crops mature after school lets out for the summer. Although Gan Ilan was automated using drip irrigation – originally developed in Israel – Yosef needed someone to step in and check on it over the summer. In stepped Alex Weisberg of the Moss Café on Johnson Avenue. A one-time organic farmer working in a variety of agricultural venues, he is now a Ph.D. student at NYU with an interest in early Judaism, ancient agricultural practices and environmental studies. He got to know Yosef through the Moss Café and clearly they had common interests. Alex was also able to offer some useful suggestions as well. Although the garden did not require serious care, it was important to know that someone was available as backup in case of problems.
As of now, the program is running in four schools. Each school receives half a day per week which comes out to four-five hours. One hour is devoted to maintenance of the system and the balance is devoted to the students. During that timeframe, he meets with four to six classes in blocks of 40 minutes. In addition, he is training some of the in-house teachers so they can use the garden when Yosef is not available. At present there is a waiting list of schools that have expressed interest.
So, I have brought together Judaism, Riverdale and botany. But what is the Israel strand that I mentioned at the beginning of the article? Monotheism was born in Israel and is a gift given to the rest of the world. Since I am reporting presently from Israel, it seemed like a natural.