Let it rain

Let it rain

Jack Flamholz Water Sustainability Project to launch in Teaneck public school

Jack Flamholz teaches chess to one of his grandsons. (Flamholz family)
Jack Flamholz teaches chess to one of his grandsons. (Flamholz family)

Jack Flamholz, who lived in Teaneck and died last October, was a Renaissance man, his wife, Beverly Luchfeld, and their daughter, Eta Flamholz, said.

He earned two master’s degrees, one in computer science and one in physics, and there are books about computer science and physics on his bookshelves, they say; they vie for space with works, in many languages, of fiction, of poetry, of mathematics, of philosophy, of history and of the many other interests that engaged his ever-questing intellect.

One of those many passions was sustainability, particularly water sustainability. (That is a subject — a looming catastrophe, really, according to many experts — that is becoming increasingly pressing for many people. It is coincidental but not surprising that this year’s One Book One Community selection from the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey was Seth Siegel’s “Let There Be Water.”)

He was passionate as well about education, and Jewish values, and Israel, and being an American.

In his memory, Ms. Luchfeld and Ms. Flamholz are combining all of these passions into a pilot project that will launch at the Hawthorne Elementary School in Teaneck on Tuesday, May 23. Using the technology and curriculum developed in Israel, the school will begin to recycle rain runoff to use for flushing toilets and watering gardens. The students will be able to learn about problem-solving, sustainability, and conservation. They’ll have the opportunity to try it for themselves.

The technology and the ideas behind it are elegantly simple. The water will be collected in barrels made of PVC, shaped so that sediment will settle into their pointed bottoms. Students will be able to turn a spigot and let the sediment out every day. The water will run through a series of pipes and barrels, driven by gravity, until it is clean and usable. (It will not be potable, but that is not the point.) Then it will be pumped to the school’s toilets and its newly planted garden, and to anyplace else where it might be used.

(The system’s use of gravity from the top down, and then pumps from the top up, is similar to the way New York City apartment buildings move their water from the rooftop tanks to apartments, although of course that water is not from the sky.)

At the same time, Ms. Luchfeld is switching her own house over to the rainwater conservation system. Mr. Flamholz had been an active volunteer at the Teaneck Creek Conservancy and it too will switch over. Ms. Luchfeld’s house will rely only on conserved rainwater for toilet flushing and garden watering, but she will be able to go back to Teaneck’s water supply easily, should a drought make that necessary.

In early fall, after the holidays, Ms. Luchfeld and her family and the Conservancy will begin running shuttle buses that will move people around those three sites — the house, the school, and the park — so they can see how the system works in action.

Mr. Flamholz, who grew up in Brooklyn’s East New York, was educated at the Crown Heights Yeshiva, the Manhattan Talmudic Academy, and then Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute and Columbia University, where he earned his two masters’ degrees. He kept those two parts of his intellectual and emotional education — the deeply understood and profoundly and honestly lived Jewish part, and the dispassionate solution-searching analytic part — as cornerstones of his life throughout the 67 years he had to live it, his wife and daughter said.

These barrels, in a school in San Diego, are like the ones about to be inaugurated at Hawthorne Elementary School. (Flamholz Family)
These barrels, in a school in San Diego, are like the ones about to be inaugurated at Hawthorne Elementary School. (Flamholz Family)

He also had a quick mind, a rapier wit, and a formidable knowledge base, according to the friends who roasted and then eulogized him.

So, all things considered, it makes sense that a project with as much potential for doing simple, large-scale good as this one would appeal to him. He wrote what his wife calls a blueprint for it. “Sustainability, like charity, begins at home, so let’s start with small, affordable, achievable demonstration projects on the grounds and in the building,” he wrote. “Concrete achievements, no matter how small, will make us more credible.”

So his family, which includes not only his wife and daughter but two sons, Avi and Bezalel, decided to make this blueprint, which he did not have the time to implement, become reality.

The project was tried first in Israel, where it was called Yevul Mayim; its champion there, Amir Yechieli, will be at the Hawthorne School on May 23, and he will talk about it.

“My husband learned about the project about six years ago, when he and our sons were in Israel and visited Amir,” Ms. Luchfeld said. “They toured some of his 150 schools, and were duly impressed.

“Amir had rain barrels to collect water on the roof of his own home in Jerusalem, and even though there is so little rain there, he is able to take care of his own home, his shower, the garden and the toilet.”

When they decided to put Mr. Flamholz’s plan into practice, his wife and daughter chose the Hawthorne School over a day school for a number of reasons. First, it is in Teaneck. Mr. Flamholz always had wanted it in Teaneck; he wanted to work in collaboration with the Conservancy, and anyway, Teaneck was his home. “We have relationships with the town, with the mayor, with the Teaneck Creek Conservancy,” Ms. Luchfeld said.

Also, “day schools’ priorities — and correctly so — are Jewish education,” Ms. Luchfeld said. “We didn’t feel we could have as wide an exposure there.”

Ms. Luchfeld and Ms. Flamholz decided that an elementary school would be a better site than a high school; “elementary school students are not jaded, as high school students are,” Ms. Luchfeld said. Although Bergen County is studded with yeshiva elementary schools, there are very few in Teaneck — another reason to work with a public school.

But there were deeper and more emotional reasons at work as well. “My husband was very much an American Jew,” Ms. Luchfeld said. “He was so proud to live in this country.” Public schools are very much part of the American way, and he wanted to work with that truth.

And lastly, “Hawthorne has an impassioned teacher” who will be able to teach about sustainability with the depth of feeling that Mr. Flamholz also had. “That is what swayed it,” Ms. Luchfeld said. “I am so pleased about it.”

It all comes together, she said. “My husband was a person who wanted a just society. A fair society. Principles were critical to him. And so was the earth. He was a physicist, and physicists understand not only the esoteric but also the concrete.”

It is a simple, concrete idea — take rainwater and use it again. Do not let it vanish. Collect it. Reuse it. Value it. It’s American, it’s Jewish, and it is healing.

What: The Jack Flamholz Water Sustainability Project will be inaugurated

Where: At the Hawthorne Elementary School, 201 Fycke Lane in Teaneck

When: On Tuesday, May 23; the rainwater ceremony will be from 9 to 9:30 a.m., and the reception and question-and-answer session is set for 9:45 to 10:15.

Who is invited: The entire community, but space is limited. To make a reservation, call the Teaneck Creek Conservancy at (201) 836-2403 or email alexa@teaneckcreek.

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