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.