Teva program inspires JCDSRI students to help heal Earth

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It has been six weeks since the fifth-graders at the Jewish Community Day School of Rhode Island returned from their milestone three days in the Teva – Shomrei Adamah overnight program. The annual fifth-grade Jewish experiential learning event focuses on personal growth, community building and inspiring students to be shomrei adamah – guardians of the Earth.

During the event, held Nov. 26-29, 2018, at Camp Isabella Freedman, in northwestern Connecticut, the students enjoyed earth-themed song sessions, bonfires, making friends with other Jewish day school students, and games such as “predator-prey,” which combines food-web relationships and tag.

Another favorite activity was hiking in the snow; along the way, the children practiced radical amazement and shouted the Shema prayer into an overlook, making sound maps of the echoes. 

“Extreme hiking at night was my favorite,” said a JCDSRI fifth-grader. “It was foggy out, but you could still see for miles, and it was just beautiful.”

For many of the students, Teva was their first time sleeping away from home for more than one night. This was challenging at first for some of the students, but ultimately it allowed for immense personal growth.

“I think the mere act of separation is something that is quite hard for some of them, and there is something really powerful that takes place,” said Joseph Mirsky, JCDSRI’s third-grade general studies and art teacher, who accompanied the group. “I also love watching how the students get more and more comfortable with themselves as they stop worrying about being cool and start relaxing and having fun.” 

Teva’s staff focuses on helping participants develop a more meaningful relationship with nature, deepen their connection to Jewish practice and traditions, and realize their personal potential.

“I learned that humans can push themselves a lot further than they think they can,” said another JCDSRI fifth-grader. “Camp Teva pushed me to my limit and helped me believe in myself. My counselors pushed me by taking me on long hikes and pushing us when we were tired, hungry and cold.”

The Teva educators impart knowledge about ecology and sustainability, and encourage students to incorporate new, environmentally-sound practices in their lives.

“Teva educators are very intentional about teaching in order to bring these values back home, so that the students are not just there for a three-day eco-spa and forget what they learned after they leave,” said Mirsky. 

Teva’s staff highlights Judaism’s teachings about gratitude for food, and relates it to composting and reducing the amount of food waste. After each meal, uneaten food was weighed, with the goal of tracking and reducing waste. Over the course of the three-day camp experience, participants worked toward a meal with zero food waste.

This year’s group of about 65 children, which included students from several Jewish day schools, started with 14 pounds of post-meal waste, and lowered it to 6 pounds by the last day.

Students collected beads to symbolize categories of learning, such as ecology, awareness and togetherness. They earn their final “earth bead” after they demonstrate that they have completed their personal goal by mailing in a commitment card six weeks after the program ends.  

Jacob, a fifth-grader at JCDSRI, committed to meditating five times a week for his brit adama – earth covenant. While he admitted it was an aspirational goal, he still made it a priority to find the time to meditate about three days a week. 

“I take a deep breath, feel myself, understand myself, and I usually review the day for two to three minutes,” Jacob said. “I’m in a calm space more than when I’m busy during the day. I’m digging deeper in that moment in that standstill image in my head. It calms me to do that. It spaces me out from all the outside noises. I sometimes get angry, and when I [meditate], it calms me down.”

Jacob was excited to submit for his earth bead as a memento of the goals he committed to at Teva.

“The bead will be a reminder of how beautiful the earth is and how we have to control ourselves on what we do … not just throwing away a piece of garbage without thinking, but checking to see if it’s recyclable. You can save a lot of waste if you try ... if you just take that extra second to see if [something] is recyclable, you can save half your trash.”

Other students’ goals included creating something from the earth, becoming a pescatarian for six weeks, going from a vegetarian to a vegan twice a week, and not using any paper or plastic cups. 

“I learned a lot of things from Teva. For example, there are so many things you can do to conserve the environment and save natural resources,” Sam said. “I feel pretty accomplished because I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to do it.”

In the future, Sam plans to continue to reduce the number of disposable cups he uses.

Yael’s goal was sketching something from nature each week.

“Every week I would go out and look for something that I wouldn’t find every day, such as a beautiful leaf or stick, and I’d make a collage or painting of it,” she said. “I would sketch it and look at it. If I was in a bad mood, I could look at [my sketch] and it would calm me down.”

Mirsky was pleased with the amount of growth the JCDSRI students experienced in just three days.

“I loved seeing them go from the first night, when they were singing the songs [while] standing in the back of the room, and their bodies were just going through the motions, and then by the end they are standing on their chairs shouting with excitement,” Mirsky said.

Michelle Raskin, JCDSRI’s fourth- and fifth-grade Jewish studies teacher, said she hopes the environmental lessons the students learned will stick.  

“I think developmentally they are all able to make a change and think about how their actions impact the planet,” she said. “They can think critically about their own behaviors and how they relate to our environment and ecology.”

ADINA DAVIES is an advancement associate at the Jewish Community Day School of Rhode Island, in Providence.