How important are earthworms?
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How important are earthworms?

OU Impact Accelerator funds startups for social, spiritual, and communal needs

These students are in the Frisch Farm Club run by GrowTorah.
These students are in the Frisch Farm Club run by GrowTorah.

What happens when first-graders come face to face with a slithery, slimy earthworm in their school garden?

Some kids may be grossed out. Some may want to squish the critter.

But at a Bergen County day school a couple of weeks ago, the sighting prompted one of the children to remind the others of a lesson they had learned recently about the Torah’s commandment to be compassionate to living creatures, and about the importance of appreciating how earthworms help plants grow. “My heart jumped for joy when I heard that,” said Yosef Gillers of Englewood.

Mr. Gillers, 31, is founder of GrowTorah, a nonprofit that develops educational garden programs for Jewish schools and communal organizations. The planting and tending goes hand in hand with a curriculum teaching relevant Jewish values such as environmental stewardship, compassion for animals, and sharing resources with those less fortunate.

GrowTorah is one of six innovative nonprofit organizations chosen for the first cohort of the Orthodox Union’s Impact Accelerator. The new program runs from November through June under the leadership of founding director Jenna Beltser and an executive board chaired by radio personality and entrepreneurship expert Charlie Harary.

“The ventures we chose for the cohort are working on critical issues in our communities,” Ms. Beltser said. “We are so impressed with the leaders of these organizations and believe in their dedication and capability to change the landscape.”

The first six organizations were chosen from 57 applicants that have worked for the last one to four years in addressing the needs of a broad range of Orthodox communal sectors, from families managing mental illness to at-risk young people.

Each will receive up to $25,000 as well as professional mentorship; access to meeting rooms and office equipment at the OU’s New York headquarters; customized courses on business skills, fundraising, and implementation strategies; collaborations with cohort peers; and in-kind support from the OU, the nation’s oldest and largest umbrella organization for North American Orthodox Jewry.

Yosef Gillers is the founder of GrowTorah.

Some of the six programs benefit Jews beyond the Orthodox world.

One of these is NechamaComfort, founded and directed by Reva Judas of Teaneck to support Jewish people following pregnancy or infant loss.

In addition to a hotline and ongoing individual, family, and group support — there are support groups in Teaneck, Long Island’s Five Towns, and Riverdale, in the Bronx — NechamaComfort trains medical personnel, therapists, teachers, funeral directors, and clergy, and brings awareness programs to communities and workplaces.

Ms. Judas, a preschool teacher and certified hospital chaplain, suffered both infant and pregnancy loss; she also gave birth to four healthy babies who now are adults.

She started the core of NechamaComfort on her own about a decade ago. Since 2016, however, it has become a fully operational nonprofit. It now has three full-time volunteers, the hotline, a social-media presence, and space at Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Northern New Jersey, which also offers NechamaComfort clients mental-health counseling on a sliding scale.

Aside from the approximately 550 people with whom the agency has dealt directly over the past three years, “not a day goes by that someone doesn’t contact us through email, hotline, Facebook, or Instagram from all around the world from every denomination of Judaism,” Ms. Judas said.

She has found that more parents, as well as grandparents, are reaching out even years or decades after a loss. “More and more people are talking about it, especially now that Michelle Obama is publicly discussing her fertility journey and her miscarriages,” Ms. Judas said.

Due to this increased demand on an all-volunteer staff, she said the accelerator opportunity “was a godsend that arrived at the right time.

“We need to be able to be financially self-sufficient in order to serve everyone who needs us,” she said. “We don’t charge for anything. NechamaComfort is truly nonprofit. We have some grants — the Russell Berrie Foundation just gave us $10,000 — but we have to raise money to help pay for the hours and hours of counseling, and for hiring office staff and social workers.”

Middle school students at Ben Porat Yosef stand in the GrowTorah garden.

Ms. Judas, Mr. Gillers, and the other OU Impact Accelerator participants are expected to put in some serious hours reading assigned material, writing up their goals and plans, attending training sessions, and speaking with their mentors once a week. That is in addition, of course, to running their nonprofits.

Since the first pilot program in the 2014-2015 school year, Mr. Gillers has implemented GrowTorah gardens at 10 sites — half of them are in Bergen County, at the Frisch School and Ben Porat Yosef in Paramus, Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, the Moriah School in Englewood, and at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly — and also provides programming for the Paramus-headquartered Sinai Schools, an educational network for students with special needs.

The JCC GrowTorah garden serves two populations on different days: a multigenerational group including seniors, preschoolers, and people with special needs; and the high school students of the new Idea School, which is housed there.

“At each site, we build beautiful vegetable gardens, where our staff teaches weekly lessons for the students throughout the growing season,” Mr. Gillers said.

“The garden provides myriad teachable moments and learning opportunities, from laws involving agricultural charities to the implications of the laws pertaining to the garden on Shabbat. Participants of GrowTorah engage with food justice firsthand, as they must decide what portion of their produce to donate to local charities. Educators can use the garden as a springboard for conversations on local, national, and global food policy. Students are inspired by the food they grow to eat more healthfully, and recite their brachot — blessings — more thoughtfully and with greater meaning and intention.”

Being accepted to the OU Impact Accelerator will help GrowTorah reach its goal of putting down roots in every Jewish day school across North America, Mr. Gillers said. “We need support on the curriculum and business side of things in order to make this program easily replicable and easily integrated into day schools in different geographical regions. And the seed funding will enable us to explore some dream concepts we haven’t been able to explore until now.”

Mr. Gillers said that students of all ages learn to appreciate the relevance of Judaism’s ancient agricultural laws and traditions, and often develop a deep, personal spiritual connection to the garden program. “One high school senior said to me last week, ‘Even though the garden is only a few feet away from the building, it feels like a totally different place — a special sort of sanctuary. I just feel so spiritual and connected to the earth.’”

The OU’s executive vice president, Allen Fagin, said that the Impact Accelerator is intended to facilitate social entrepreneurship by nurturing creative programs designed to meet pressing, unmet needs. “This creativity, coupled with guidance, mentorship, and resources from the OU, will stimulate the growth and development of these crucial endeavors,” he said.

The other four nonprofit organizations accepted into the first cohort of the OU Impact Accelerator are:

• Yedei Moshe, founded in 2018 to place teens who no longer are in school into safe, legal vocational settings — mainly in Brooklyn and the Five Towns — where they can build skills and confidence with the help of mentors.

• Imadi, founded in 2016 to provide support, guidance, and education to individuals and families facing mental health difficulties.

• Young Talent Initiative (YTI), dedicated to mentoring, spiritually inspiring, and professionally training musically talented 16- to 21-year-olds from Orthodox communities.

• Torah Anytime, a website providing free internet access to recordings of hundreds of Torah lectures given around the world.

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