Jewish Educational Gardens Are Sprouting in the GTA

 Written by teacher, Andrea Schaffer:
טו וַיִּקַּח יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-הָאָדָם; וַיַּנִּחֵהוּ בְגַן-עֵדֶן, לְעָבְדָהּ וּלְשָׁמְרָהּ.
15 And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to work it and to keep it.

“And the teacher took the student to the garden, and put him in the garden, to touch, to see, to smell and to hear, and the child learned and understood.”
Sabrina Malach,
Director of Outreach and Development for Shoresh 
As I crouched in the soil of a garden bed of the Toronto Heschel school garden, on that first sunny Sunday in May, weeding with my two year old nephew, a few of my grade two students and a future JK student, I was taken by the joy that each child of every age and each parent and teacher, was experiencing as they worked together to prepare the garden for the growing season.  It quickly became very clear to me that the Heschel community, teachers, parents and students alike, truly value what the garden provides for the school. This first Sunday in May also marked Heschel’s famous Mitzvah Day where the community comes out in masses to support numerous projects to help the Toronto Jewish Community. Students learn about tikun olum by experiencing the joy we get from actually doing it. Part of Mitzvah Day includes parents, children and teachers volunteering their time and tools to work together to weed, till the soil and build new garden beds. This year was my first time participating in this day of giving and I was amazed and inspired by the sheer ruach that the Heschel community brings to their garden; parents, children, and even families from the neighborhood, worked for hours in the sun, shleping and digging away with smiles on their faces. Some children were even working with parents to prepare a salad to share with the hard workers; an authentic way to foreshadow the results of the work that was being done.

 Students in the Heschel School Garden
I am thrilled to have learned that school gardens are blossoming all around the GTA, including among the Jewish Day Schools, as administrators and teachers are learning the value of providing students with authentic learning experiences and time well spent in our natural environment. The Toronto Heschel School prioritizes this kind of authentic education while also working hard to be a leading Eco School among the Jewish Day School network.  Ellen Kessler, the legend behind the Heschel garden’s inception, once said, “In order to teach our children to protect our environment we need to first nurture their relationship with it.” Through her hard work and dedication, the Heschel garden has blossomed and curriculum that includes outdoor education has continuously been developed. Today, the garden enhances our students learning about plants and soil, and animals and insects. It provides authentic opportunities to practice measuring area and perimeter and of course, allows children to literally taste the fruits of their labor. However, even more importantly for our Jewish Day Schools, the school garden allows students to practice many of the teachings of the Torah genuinely and practically. To learn about the sweetness of honey on Rosh Hashannah students get to run about in the garden, observing the honey bees at work. To prepare for the harvest festival of Succot students reap the last remnants of the Heschel garden’s veggies. To understand the brachot we say upon eating fruit of the ground students get to see the amazing feat of a seed’s transformation in to a plant and to more impressively, taste the result of this seeds achievement. Authentic experiences such as these lead to real learning and real understanding. It cannot be overstated just how much a school garden can help teachers teach for understanding, and at Heschel this is a goal in every subject, in every lesson. As this school year comes to an end Heschel’s grade three students are busy preparing their famous salad project where students, as a part of a math unit, plant and harvest vegetables to serve an end of year  salad to the entire student body. This of course, comes after spending weeks estimating the mass and quantity of veggies needed to feed more than two hundred students and teachers. These students are applying their math skills while also learning the value of having a sustainable natural source of food that can provide for its community; an important lesson for young city dwellers.
In its early years, Shoresh worked closely with Heschel to design and to develop the garden. Today, the successful Kavannah Garden and the Heschel school garden are forerunners in providing Jewish students with opportunities to explore our rich Jewish connection to the environment. Toronto is privileged to have these urban gardens to enhance the established Jewish education that our community is fortunate to have and it is wonderful to know that other schools in the GTA are succeeding at doing the same. The fact that the Heschel students just can’t wait for Mitzvah Day to arrive so that they can participate in preparing the garden for its growing season, and the fact that during recess students run to the garden to chase the butterflies and walk around the new garden beds, is a testimony to the contribution that the garden brings to the school’s community. Just as Sabrina, the director of outreach for Shoresh, so passionately expresses, take the students to the garden to play with soil and they will learn about soil. Show the students bees at work and the complex process of pollination can be understood. In essence, keep us in the garden where we began, to work and protect the land, and of course, from a teacher’s perspective, bring the children outside, to smell, to touch, to see and to truly understand the wonders of our natural world. 

Shoresh Staff Training: Getting in touch with that inner child

Written by Shoresh Intern, Deb Cole

One of the key components to any staff training is to engage in activities that will allow one to better understand who they are working with. In the case of gardening and outdoor education, it is best to participate in interactive children’s games that teach youth how plants grow and the importance of both working and protecting the land. And what better way to learn to teach than becoming children ourselves? Staff training included learning about the connection between Jewish holidays and plants through a scavenger hunt, and learning about competing habitats through salamander tag where everyone has a “tail” and if it gets pulled then you are out for a period of time. And as much as we were trying to get into the heads of children, we also realized that we were not so different. We asked similar questions such as “where does the water from the stream flow from,” we loved getting our hands dirty in the soil, and enjoyed dancing in the rain.
Our team finding shelter in the greenhouse
Staff training included a dynamic group of 9 individuals from all walks of life. Some of us are undergraduate students wanting to pursue a career in Jewish education; others are parents who want to dedicate their time to volunteering their skills. What lured me to Kavanah Garden was the desire to be outdoors combined with gaining a better understanding of food sustainability and sharing this knowledge with others.

Growing up in an urban city, it can be difficult to understand and appreciate how connected we are to the land. Many children do not understand where their food originates from, and may conclude that Loblaws is the source of it all.  Shoresh Kavanah Gardens provides an opportunity for these city slickers to get outside and gain hands on learning to grow fruits and vegetables and value the hard work that it entails. What may appear to be a small garden, soon becomes an intricate and complex ecosystem containing a variety of different plants and animals. After three days of learning about the wealth of the land, I already feel more appreciative of its beauty and more aware of the nature that surrounds me on a daily basis.

This year’s staff includes:
Our amazing director – Risa Alyson Cooper
Our director of development – Sabrina Malach
Two educators – Rachel Rosenbluth and Daniel Joseph
And 6 interns: Tamar Krauss, Nora Bergman, Deb Cole, Simone Weinstein,                                                                 Elysa Keshen, Amalia Wolf

Staff training was a great kick off to what will an amazing summer filled with learning, dirty hands, big smiles, and raspberry covered faces!

The Roots of Bela Farm.

“How did you end up with a farm?” people ask me. “Has it been in your family for a long time?” “Do you live on it?” “What do you grow?”

“Well,” I say, sheepishly. “We don’t. The farm is kind of like a cottage.”

But it’s not at all. Before the farm we had a cottage up on Sparrow Lake near Muskoka. It used to be a summer camp that was then left abandoned. We lived in one of the old cabins, which we shared with my aunt and uncle and cousins, and all of our relatives lived in other bungalows around the lake. Our two families would take turns coming up for the weekend since we couldn’t all fit at once. Even just our family was a tight squeeze. But I have only fond memories of my brothers and I nestling into bed with Grandma in one of the two bedrooms. Almost every time we arrived for a weekend, there would be a blank space where an appliance had once been, maybe the toaster or the fridge. It wasn’t hard for someone to get in. In fact, I don’t recall if there was even a lock on the door.

The cabins were falling apart, but as a kid I didn’t notice. I was too busy playing with snapping turtles and building things out of sticks and running down to the lake to catch up to my brothers. At some point, everyone started moving out of the bungalows and building houses. AC units were put in. Big screen TV’s and DVD collections. Motorboats replaced canoes and their engines ripped through the quiet. Some neighbors even built swimming pools.

When I was thirteen, my grandmother was diagnosed with colon cancer. While in the hospital waiting for surgery, Grandma kept talking about how all she wanted to do was to sit on the porch at the cottage, looking out onto Sparrow Lake, listening to the loons and the whistle of the train. She would then realize that the cottage wasn’t like that anymore. The lake was now polluted, the motorboats drowned out the loons, the view was disrupted by big fancy houses. And it took forever to get there because of all the traffic. It was a lost paradise. Sitting by Grandma’s side in the hospital, my mom promised herself that if Grandma got through this, she was going to find a place for her like the old cottage.

Grandma did get through the surgery. And Mom remembered what she’d promised herself. After she took Grandma to her first chemotherapy treatment, she drove to Georgetown to meet with a real estate agent. It was a cold, snowy day in February.

“I’m looking for a small, peaceful place, close to Toronto,” Mom said.

“I’m going to show you a few properties,” the agent replied. “The first one isn’t at all what you’re looking for, but I want you to see the different types of places that are close to the city.”

This first property was a 15-acre plot of land in County Wellington, just one hour outside of Toronto. The interior of the house was far from my mother’s simple tastes, but she knew that would be easy to fix. Mom fell in love with the land and the structures on it—the big hill, the pond, the stone wall, the stables, the barn, all of which were covered in snow. The next day she put in an offer and it was ours.

When Grandma was well into chemotherapy, Mom finally took her out to the farm. She settled Grandma in an easy chair on the wraparound porch with a view of the pond, covered her in a blanket, and went in the house to make her a cup of tea. By the time she returned, Grandma was fast asleep.

Grandma woke up an hour later a different person. Rejuvenated. They both felt that the farm had healing properties. Now every time Grandma goes out to the farm, she has her tradition: she lies down on the porch, Mom covers her in a blanket, goes in to make her a cup of tea, and comes out to find Grandma sleeping soundly like she never can in the city.

I’ll admit: I wasn’t happy when my mom told me she was selling the cottage and buying a farm. I thought it was a crazy idea. All I could think of was: no lake, no forest, no cousins next door. But now I wouldn’t give up the farm for anything. After many naps on the porch myself, I can attest that there is something in that country air which does us wonders. I see the vision my mom had, her foresight. She was looking for a sanctuary for her mother and recreated the bygone days at the cottage, but she also did more. My mom saw an opportunity to preserve a piece of beauty and sustenance and history in the changing Canadian landscape, a piece of something you cannot find in city or suburb.

Since we got the farm, we have dreamed of digging. We don’t want merely to enjoy the view. We want to get dirt under our nails. We want to go back to the basics, to live closer to how my grandparents lived in Hungary, my grandma who sewed all her clothes and my grandfather who owned a flourmill. We want to eat food we’ve grown, be cleansed by a swim in the pond, take pleasure in the sleep that comes so easily after a hard day’s work. When someone asks me what we grow on our farm, I want to hand them a homegrown tomato or apple or carrot and say, “Here, try this.”

 This beautiful post comes to us from writer and photographer, Alisha Kaplan. For more info about Alisha, visit: