A Tree and Me: How the Israeli Ministry of Education uses agriculture to instill Jewish Identity

By Linna Ettinger

The soil was crunchy, warm, and dry, and the heat of the sun teased our backs as we used our lily white suburban hands to awkwardly plant tree saplings in a teaching farm in Haifa. It was my first time planting a tree, and I suspect it was the first time for others in the group as well.

My work colleague, Rachel Raz and I, were leading a group of early childhood educators to Israel for an educational seminar to learn about the Israeli approach to early childhood education. The objectives of this Boston-Haifa Early Childhood Educators’ Connection Israel Seminar, made possible with the support of Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP), were to give educators in our group authentic Jewish experiences and knowledge, to enable them to bring Israel and Judaism back to their classrooms and to the families in their community. Our itinerary made it possible for us to learn about the history of Israel, the rich diversity of Israeli society, the inspiring spirit of innovation of Israelis, the structure of the Haifa early childhood municipality, and the relationship of agriculture and farming to Israeli and Jewish identity.

We learned that in Israel, nature and agriculture are a core element of Israeli and Jewish identity. Every school child is taught the name of every wild flower and tree indigenous to Israel, every animal indigenous to Israel, and the names of every edible plant grown in Israel, especially those plants that have a ritual role in holidays (i.e. seven species, or sukkot plants). Since we were visiting right near Tu B’shevat, trees were in several teaching environments.

In addition to visiting over a dozen preschools, several kibbutzim, the Netafim drip irrigation factory and the Bedouin entrepreneur Mariam, who started her own herb-based cosmetic company called Bat Ha Midbar, we also were treated to a visit to the Children’s wing of Hadassah Hospital, where we saw their school setup, to ensure that children continue with their schooling with trained teachers. Hadassah hospital found that children who continue with their schoolwork routine enjoy a shorter recovery time in the hospital. Even in Hadassah hospital, we saw the theme of trees utilized to teach about the holiday of Tu B’shevat. We noticed that both Hebrew and Arabic writing were used on the posters.

In Israel, trees are also used to teach about the seasons. In this Milo art center, a resource center for students and teachers, a leafless tree being rained upon represents winter in Israel. Each school in Haifa visits the art center four times a year, once a season.

Respect for nature is further reinforced by the use of recycled materials for planting vegetable gardens. In the garden below, recovered countertops and other scraps of wood are used to create the walls for the garden beds in this preschool backyard garden. All of the plants the children have grown in this garden are edible or used for the holidays.

In every classroom, there is a nature corner or nature center with photos of trees and parts of trees for children to explore. Some examples are shown below:

Trees are also used to teach about Judaism and Jewish texts. An example appeared on the wall of a building in the teaching farm, Gan Karmit. Gan Karmit is a teaching farm. Schools bring children to the farm on a regular basis. Gan Karmit also runs workshops for educators to teach about the connection between agriculture and Judaism.

It was amazing to observe how many ways nature and trees in particular can be used to teach about Judaism and Israeli identity. We all gained a renewed respect for nature and agriculture during our Israel Educational Seminar. More information about our Israel Seminar can be found on our blog: www.2017israelbhecec.blogspot.com

Linna Ettinger is the Assistant Director of the Early Childhood Institute at Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts. Linna is also co-chair of Adult Education at Temple Emunah in Lexington, Massachusetts and is a group leader for the Community Leadership Program of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. More information about Hebrew College’s Early Childhood Institute, the Certificate in Jewish Early Childhood Education and the MJEd – ECE program can be found http://www.hebrewcollege.edu/early-childhood-institute. More information about Temple Emunah can be found at http://www.templeemunah.org. More information about the Shalom Hartman Institute can be found at https://hartman.org.il. Linna can be reached at lettinger@hebrewcollege.edu.

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