Nine-year-old Leedaar Alon giggled as she lowered a bright light over a metal grasshopper, setting the solar-paneled toy into a nervous skitter. Behind her, other fourth-graders in her class at the Congregations of Shaare Shamayim raced tiny cars using the same "solar" technique.
On Sunday, Hebrew lessons took a back seat as the entire religious school rotated through a series of activities focused on conserving the environment. Upstairs, high-school-age volunteers passed out materials to assemble terrariums in plastic soda bottles. Down the hall, students watched an irrigation demonstration while another class in the nearby auditorium took turns pedaling a bike hooked to a battery, that, in turn, powered a blender. In exchange for their manual labor, students were treated to samples of the smoothies they'd helped make.
The special day was designed not just to celebrate Tu B'Shevat, the Jewish festival of the trees that falls this year on Jan. 20, but also to kick off a new curriculum that will continue environmental lessons in the virtual world — and across the ocean.
Through the interactive "Eco Connection" program created by an Israeli environmental education organization, Sviva Israel, students at Shaare Shamayim and at least two local day schools will connect with peers in the Netivot-Sedot Negev region of Israel to explore their ecological footprints in the context of Judaism.
"We're always trying to find ways to talk to our kids about real life, and how it fits into Jewish life and Jewish text," said Jacques Lurie, executive and educational director at Shaare Shamayim. "We suffer from what most supplemental religious schools suffer from, which is resources. So when someone comes along and says, 'I have a program, and it's tried and it's tested,' it's like manna from heaven."
The $20,000 project is the latest addition to the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's ongoing Partnership 2000 initiative, which has funneled more than $4 million over the past decade to the city's designated sister community abroad. This year, $570,000 went toward youth leadership and educational programs, professional development for Israeli teachers, mobile study labs, training for low-income women, assistance for families who need therapy or access to religious education and other community programs. Some of the money will also be distributed to Philadelphians who will travel to the region or develop Israel-focused programs for their synagogues.
'Exploring a Global Issue'
Jeri Zimmerman, director of Federation's Center for Israel and Overseas, said the Sviva Israel project complemented the philosophy that connections to Israel begin with personal relationships, and seemed like a timely way to bring the partnership into the broader community.
"It's utilizing modern technology exploring a global issue from an Israeli, Jewish lens," explained Carmi Wisemon, executive director of Sviva Israel, after a recent trip to the United States to introduce the program at Shaare Shamayim, the Saligman Middle School of the Perelman Jewish Day School in Melrose Park and Abrams Hebrew Academy in Yardley. So far, those are the only Philadelphia-area schools involved, though Federation officials said others may join.
The curriculum, which includes a T-shirt-designing contest and community service projects, spans three years, assuming funding can be continued. Wisemon or a Boston-based staff member visits each participating school at least three times per academic year to train teachers and lead workshops with students. Local teachers handle up to six other hands-on lessons that focus on tikkun olam, clean technology and Jewish environmentalism.
At the center of the program is a colorful, interactive Eco Campus website, new this year thanks to a combination of seed grants. On the site, students can log into their customized virtual school to post assignments on a blog, play educational games, calculate and compare their ecological footprint, view videos and share photos with other students in the Philadelphia/Netivot-Sedot Negev network. At the end of the year, the students use live video conferencing over the web to present their projects to their partner schools abroad.
This kind of technology, Wisemon said, gives schools a taste of the benefits of social networking. Teachers can see how making virtual connections to real-life actions helps engage students with Jewish tradition and the environment, he said. Too often, "what's taught in Jewish schools today appears not to be so relevant and so modern to your average kid," he said. "We'd like to show them that Jewish sources in Israel can be relevant to what happens outside of shul and outside of school."
By connecting with peers in Israel, he continued, the students see how their lifestyles differ and what impact that has on the environment. For instance, he said, they might notice that Israeli children are more likely to walk to school, while that's simply not feasible for many Americans. Or they might learn that recycling rates are higher in the United States, while Israelis tend to reuse the materials themselves more often.
"They see that the problem is global and not local," Ben Pinker, assistant principal of Judaic studies at Abrams, said a few days after Wisemon visited the school's sixth- and seventh-graders with letters and friendship bracelets from pen pals in Israel. The students made similar bracelets to send back, repurposing thread from old sweaters.
Building a shared sense of responsibility with Israeli kids is particularly nice, Pinker said, because they may even have the chance to meet when the eighth graders travel to the Jewish state on a graduation trip.
The Students Were Buzzing
The technology component can be more of a hurdle for supplemental religious schools, which don't always have computer labs. The third-, fourth- and fifth-graders at Shaare Shamayim will share 25 new laptops that the shul just purchased, said Lurie. Though teachers will just dive into that over the next few weeks, Lurie's already talking about bringing elements of the program to the entire congregation, perhaps using it as a jumping-off point for discussing water conservation in Israel.
Certainly, Sunday's kick-off event got the kids buzzing.
"I didn't know that solar panels could be so fun," 8-year-old Laura Rubenstein said, referring to the solar-powered toy cars and bugs. "I thought they were serious things."
Grinning, Rubenstein triumphantly showed off the compact-fluorescent light bulb she'd won for answering so many questions throughout the day, which presenters at the various stations rewarded with paper tickets.
She and another girl scooped their tickets into a pile — to save for next year, Rubenstein explained with a conspiratorial smile.
And if there's a different game then?
"We'll throw it out," she said. "No, no," she corrected herself, wagging an index finger: "We'll recycle them."
While this is Philadelphia's first foray into the Eco Connection program, nearly 60 schools in Israel and four U.S. states have secured grants to use it since Wisemon and his wife, Tamar, created Sviva Israel in 2007. Elsewhere in the region, the program is running in Wilmington, Del., and five cities in New Jersey.
Aside from doing cool things like talking to Israelis and making bits of glass out of sugar as part of a lesson on how much energy it takes to develop glass, students at Kellman Brown Academy in Voorhees, N.J., said they learned the importance of rethinking the various ways they interact with the environment.
"I didn't really think how leaving one piece of paper in a recycling bin can start changing the world slowly," said 11-year-old Julia Wolf, who helped post the letters that her class wrote to their Israeli counterparts on a group blog last year.
Added Gabriella Meltzer, also 11: "Now, every time that I'm going to throw out a piece of paper that has nothing on the backside, I keep it. Every time I leave the room, I turn out the light.
"You know that you're only making a little difference," she said, but if everyone joins in, "a little difference can make a really big difference."