Seeds of knowledge
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Seeds of knowledge

Solomon Schechter students learn the ABCs of gardening

Heather Rabinowitz and her daughter Liana, 
a Schechter student, work in the garden together. Photo by Veronica Yankowski
Heather Rabinowitz and her daughter Liana, a Schechter student, work in the garden together. Photo by Veronica Yankowski

“Inch by inch, row by row, gonna make this garden grow.

All it takes is a rake and a hoe and a piece of fertile ground.

Inch by inch, row by row, Someone bless the seeds I sow.

Someone warm them from below, ‘til the rain comes tumbling down.”

Peter Seeger sang those words, and their earnest lilt provided the background music for many childhoods.

But think about them. Where does that “piece of fertile ground” come from?

The Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County’s home is a converted public school in New Milford, a straightforward, pleasant-looking, efficient building with a courtyard in the middle. The courtyard is shielded by two sides of the building and opens out to playground equipment beyond, and is visible from the school’s beit knesset, its synagogue, where all the students gather every day.

It’s gone through a number of incarnations since Schechter moved into the building a quarter century or so ago, including, most recently, a flower garden.

Ms. Bejar, who also teaches at the school, talks about garden with Taya Schwartzbard, Eli Nanus, and David Asulin.
Ms. Bejar, who also teaches at the school, talks about garden with Taya Schwartzbard, Eli Nanus, and David Asulin.

It’s full of children, from pre-kindergarteners through eighth-graders, who love the chance to plunge their hands into rich, fragrant soil. And it’s full of teachers who love to make connections between what kids learn in the abstract and what they can experience with their senses, and to make connections between Jewish values and their students’ American lives.

Fertile ground!

Debbie Bejar of Teaneck — whose two sons graduated from Schechter, which runs through middle school, and who is a Judaic studies teacher and learning specialist there — also is the school’s “resident horticulturalist,” she said. “I’m an avid gardener. I’ve been gardening for most of my life. And I lived on a kibbutz in Israel and picked up some pointers there too.”

Eliana Apter looks at a small plant from the Schechter garden. Photo by Veronica Yankowski
Eliana Apter looks at a small plant from the Schechter garden. Photo by Veronica Yankowski

The school had a much-loved building manager, Bruno Brenson, also a gardener, who cared particularly about organic gardening; at one point, he and a teacher decided to plant in the courtyard. “They put in plants native to New Jersey; it was sort of in the shape of New Jersey,” Ms. Behar said.

Mr. Brenson died in 2009, and the school decided to honor his memory by taking the garden he loved and using it in ways he hadn’t thought of. “Bruno’s Garden” began in 2010 with two vegetable beds, Ms. Bejar said.

Ricky Stamler-Goldberg is the Jewish studies principal at the lower school. There is a bit of a chicken-and-egg dynamic about the garden, she said; sometimes teachers look at it and see an obvious lesson, and at other times they have an idea and ask to have it made flesh (or, perhaps, made vegetable).

“We have conversations about the value of water,” she said. “We pray for rain.” The school’s gardeners have far more control over the small plot of land than farmers do over vast fields, but still some crops flourish and others wither. “It is an interesting concept to say ‘Look at what grows and what doesn’t,’” she added.

Schechter’s resident horticulturalist, Deborah Bejar, works with students Eliana Apter, Maya Apter, Liana Rabinowitz, and parent Rachel Wainer Apter. Photo by Veronica Yankowski
Schechter’s resident horticulturalist, Deborah Bejar, works with students Eliana Apter, Maya Apter, Liana Rabinowitz, and parent Rachel Wainer Apter. Photo by Veronica Yankowski

“It gives them an appreciation for the seasons. It teaches them the value of taking care of the land, of tikkun olam — of values that get tied together naturally.”

The garden also affects the children’s behavior, Ms. Stamler-Goldberg said. “It gives them a chance to work collaboratively to make things happen.”

Lauren Goldman-Brown directs general studies at Schechter’s lower school. “The children are more careful about where they play in the garden,” she said. “They will run around it, and sit in groups in it, but they are very respectful of it, because they have created it.

“It is a nice point of integration for Jewish and general studies,” she continued. The idea of people as the guardians of God’s creation becomes tangible, even for the youngest children, as they look at the bright plants they have watched sprout and bloom.

“We also make sure to have a first fruit harvest at Shavuot, and a harvest right before Sukkot,” both harvest festivals, Ms. Bejar said. “We make the connections with the chaggim,” the holidays. “And to connect with Israel we have an Israeli salad grown in the garden, cucumbers and tomatoes.”

Because gardens are seasonal, and need tending as much during the summer as they do during the rest of the year — certainly they need more hands-on care in the hot months than they do in wintertime — children and their families can sign up to “tend the garden over the summer, and help out,” Ms. Stamler-Goldberg said. “Vegetables have to be picked and eaten! We don’t want to waste the tomatoes, basil, and other herbs.”

“There is nothing more fun than having a kid come back during the summer and notice that the sunflower is no longer shorter than they are, and that the tomatoes are in bloom.”

As a way to make American colonial history come to life, “We created a Three Sisters garden,” Ms. Bejar said. In that Native American plan, beans, corn, and squash grow together, and each provides something for the others. “The beans provide the nitrogen, the corn provides the stalk for structure, and the squash, around it, provides the shade to prevent too many weeds.”

“We have planted some miniature trees — dwarf fruit trees and a fig tree. We have blueberry and raspberry plants. It helps children know the difference between ‘pri ha-adamah’ and ‘pri ha-etz,’” — the fruit of the ground, aka vegetables and berries, and the fruit of the tree, including apples and figs. (Once the children know that, they can know which blessing to make before eating.)

Eitan Elias looks at a plant he holds in an adult-sized gardening glove.
Eitan Elias looks at a plant he holds in an adult-sized gardening glove.

Most of the time, Ms. Bejar continued, “The kids are quite separate from the land outside, and from knowing how food grows. It doesn’t come out of a plastic bag.”

The garden is as complete an ecological system as the gardeners can make it. “We also have perennial herbs and flowers,” Ms. Bejar said. “It is a butterfly garden. We chose plants that provide nectars to butterflies because we wanted to attract them to the garden, and we planted milkweed for the same reason.

“Butterflies are beautiful, and they are also endangered, and we have to protect them.”

There is much for children to learn from the fluttering loveliness in the air. “The kids were learning about butterflies in pre-K, so I did a little presentation to them about monarch butterflies, and how they need milkweed to survive,” Ms. Bejar said.

“We also plant sunflowers near the vegetables, to attract bees. We need butterflies and bees and birds for fruits and vegetables to grow.” If the plants are not fertilized — a service those creatures provide as they go about their own business — there will be no new ones.

“We provide the butterflies and bees with a habitat, and they provide us with a service. It is mutual. “We teach kids about that. We teach them about the need for earthworms, too. It is all part of creation It is all necessary. We have to respect it.”

There are other beds, each with its own theme. “Some are more connected to science and engineering projects, and some to the social studies curriculum,” Ms. Behar said.

“Debbie approached me with the idea of using the garden to align with what we are learning in social studies,” fifth-grade teacher Abbie Dinowitz said. “The kids have been learning a lot about colonial life: What did they eat? What did they farm? What did they wear? What was their government like? What was day-to-day life like? We needed a more experiential way to answer those questions.”

The children knew from books that “you couldn’t just go to the store to buy your tomatoes, but the experiential aspect — they first planted seedlings in containers and watched them grow inside, and then transplanted them outside and cared for them there — allowed them to ask different questions about it,” including what the technology would have been like, and what varieties of tomatoes would have been available.

Eliana Abed and Isabel Gross investigate the Three Sisters garden, with its interdependent beans, corn, and squash.
Eliana Abed and Isabel Gross investigate the Three Sisters garden, with its interdependent beans, corn, and squash.

“It hit them about how different life was then, about how people couldn’t refrigerate things, couldn’t just go and make a salad,” Ms. Dinowitz said.

“The kids learned that what they planted in that garden either had to be eaten right away or preserved or stored,” Ms. Bejar added. “Turnips and hard squash are preserved in root cellars. Beans are dried. Lettuces could be eaten right way. And herbs and even some flowers had medicinal purposes.

“A major goal is that children should learn an awareness of their environment and of nature, and feel awe at creation.

“Everything they see out there has a purpose,” she concluded. “It is also beautiful — but it has a purpose. They learn to observe when they are outside. They learn to ask questions. They learn to think critically — and they also learn to develop a sense of awe when they see how well it all works together.”

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