EAST GREENWICH – In his expansive yard, where chickens roam through the trees, Temple Torat Yisrael's Rabbi Aaron Philmus lights a fire, which quickly draws participants in the Teva PVD program to its warmth.
Led by Rabbi Philmus and Teva co-founder Tiferet Rose, the Teva PVD program provides a space to explore nature’s relationship to Judaism for fifth- through eighth-grade students at the Jewish Community Day School of Rhode Island, as well as alumni and extended community members. In its third year, the group meets one Sunday each month, usually in Philmus’ yard, to nurture various outdoor skills while learning about the seasonal cycles of the Hebrew calendar and its holidays.
The idea of activating Jewish thought through nature is based on the environmental organization Hazon, which develops programming that “strengthens Jewish life and contributes to a more environmentally sustainable world for all,” as it states on its website, https://hazon.org.
One such program is Teva, which was founded in 1994 with a mission of showcasing how Judaism is deeply integrated into nature – and vice versa. Teva and Teva PVD use awareness activities to heighten the senses to develop a more intentional and meaningful relationship with nature and to encourage children to live in tune with the land and agricultural cycles.
The website states that the philosophy is “immersing participants in the natural world and providing structured activities to sensitize participants to nature’s rhythms [to] help them develop a more meaningful relationship with nature, and deepen their own connection to Jewish practices and traditions. This process also facilitates personal growth, community building, and a genuine commitment to Tikkun Olam, healing the world.”
Before Teva PVD was founded, fifth-grade students at the Jewish Community Day School of Rhode Island, in Providence, attended a four-day immersive Teva program at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, in Canaan, Connecticut. Rose, of Providence, found that many of the alumni of that program were looking for more regular nature experiences in Rhode Island.
She and Rabbi Philmus initially took willing students on occasional hikes to destinations including Borderland State Park, in Easton, Massachusetts, among other excursions. In 2019, they began meeting monthly in Rabbi Philmus’ yard.
“The magic was that, during COVID last year, when we started up again regularly in the fall, a lot of things were canceled, but because we were completely outside, we were able to do these offerings, and people really responded to it,” Rose said.
They plan each meeting around the Jewish calendar.
“We try to connect the Jewish calendar to the seasons we’re experiencing now, and just have kids get to reflect on their own experiences in nature, like how does Passover connect to springtime for them,” Rose said.
On this particular overcast Sunday in mid-April, a group of eight children added hay to chicken coops and tumbled compost before convening around a fire. It was during the weeks between Passover and Shavuot, a 49-day period in which Jews do the mitzvah of counting the Omer. This time frame signifies the start of the barley harvest, when, in biblical times, Jews brought sheaves to the temple as a means of thanking God for the harvest. This Omer period symbolizes the link between Passover and Shavuot using nature.
Rabbi Philmus explained these concepts around the fire as a bundle of barley was passed around, bringing the metaphor into physicality. A hike into the woods followed, to further exemplify these concepts and connect them to the living world.
“Teva thinking is really about diving into the roots of Judaism, which are connected to nature,” Rose said.
HANNAH ALTMAN (email@example.com) is the content producer for the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island and writes for Jewish Rhode Island.