Third in a series of posts this year (2014-2015), highlighting Jewish early childhood centers that are creating outdoor learning environments and developing a nature-based curriculum.
“It all started with a potato project” on Martin Luther King Day two years ago, says Cheryl Karp, Preschool Director at Hewlett East Rockway Jewish Centre Nursery School. Cheryl describes it as a sensitivity project about differences that turned into an intensive science project.
The children were each given a potato to touch and look at. Then the potatoes were collected and put into a large bag. When the children were asked to pick out their original potato, they couldn’t do it. Cheryl shares that the challenge in identifying their own potatoes led to several subsequent activities that helped the children get to “know” their potatoes’ differences better, including measuring their size, drawing their shape, watching them change over time and even caring for their potatoes at home during the February break. Eventually all the potatoes ended up back at school and planted in what has became HERJC’s wonderful Mitzvah Garden.
Cheryl can’t tell the continuation of this story about the development of the Mitzvah Garden without giving credit to amazing volunteers who have helped make it happen the past two years, first and foremost Larry Gottlieb, who has become their master gardener. Cheryl says that it was Larry’s personal passion for growing vegetables at his home that has influenced all of the gardening activities at HERJC since the garden was created. Visiting a number of successful gardening programs on Long Island and in Westchester, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of having a parent or community volunteer be part of the upstart of a program or in many cases playing a continuous lead role in making things happen. A few examples that come to mind immediately where this has been the case are… (and please share your program’s success engaging volunteers in the comment section below):
- Congregation Kol Ami Early Childhood Program, White Plains, NY
- Larchmont Temple Nursery School, Larchmont, NY
- Chai Center Preschool, Dix HIlls, NY
By calling it the Mitzvah Garden, Cheryl and the leadership team at HERJC send a decisive message that they have a values driven approach to gardening that seeks to bring the community together AND help their community directly. This is an institution that prides itself in all of the combined activities that are part of the HERJC Cares initiatives which are dedicated to serving the local community, the Jewish people and Israel. It’s no doubt to me that the Mitzvah Garden is likely the icing on the cake, or maybe it’s the pickles in the relish for the HERJC Cares initiative.
The garden beds at HERJC sit neatly along the back of the building in previously underutilized space. I love when I see even the smallest grassy spots at legacy institutions reclaimed for greater purposes (especially when it’s for the children) and this garden certainly exceeds all expectations. There are about 6 or 7 rows and each row is quite long, probably 16′ or more. There is a simple wire fence separating the garden beds from the adjacent walkway. The area inside the fences houses the beds, two plastic compost drums, supplies and access to water and hoses. Marking the area is a surprisingly humble sign that reads “HERJC MITZVAH GARDEN“.
WHY IT WORKS:
There are several reasons the Mitzvah Garden has become such a success story at HERJC. Here are a few that easily rise to the top:
1. A knowledgeable and dedicated garden volunteer who helps orchestrate all the details including what to plant, planting and harvesting schedules, and tracking success in pounds of vegetables being donated.
2. An easy communication system between Larry and Cheryl (director and volunteer) that helps them coordinate the children’s access to the garden on a weekly basis. They discuss the best day, what will happen, tools and equipment needed, and even the weather. All of this is done through phone calls and emails.
3. An enthusiastic and proud leader. Cheryl beams as she shares what they’ve accomplished and what’s yet to come. I can’t imagine that she’s not the school’s most vocal advocate and champion for their nature curriculum which must be infectious on her staff and families in the school.
4. The deliberate and consistent sharing out of their success through bulletin articles, posters on the wall, and amazing pictures of the children knee-deep in nature.
5. Rooting it all in Jewish values. Gardening is fun and educational for the children, but it is also a deeply Jewish activity. Hewlett East Rockaway’s Mitzvah Garden provides the children and families with opportunities to help others, to bring the community together, to heighten everyone’s sensitivity about food needs and healthy eating, and to care for living things.
6. A larger nature initiative at the school which includes caring for animals (you have to see the guinea pig’s grand hotel), composting and recycling bins, and using the garden as a year-round learning environment in and out of the classroom.
Last year the children in the preschool helped plant, care for, and harvest over 800 lbs of vegetables that were donated to the Far Rockaway Outreach Center. What makes this such a special garden for me is the community aspect of it all. From the volunteers that Larry includes in the process to the participation of the congregation’s religious school students and USYers, everyone feels they are contributing and indeed they do. Making this type of coordination look easy, isn’t. And so I left HERJC taking a few last pictures of the now empty Mitzvah Garden that I know will be a bustle of activity come Spring, feeling a little prouder of my community and the schools that are impacting our Jewish families through nature and Jewish values.
Click here for the previous post in this series.
See the collage below for more documentation from my visit and from Cheryl’s collection.