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Jul 23 2014

How Do I Teach My Suburban Kids to be Environmentally Conscious?

By at 4:20 pm

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My husband is vegan, we’re raising our children as vegetarians, and we even started our own vegan cheese company. But I have a confession: I am still woefully ignorant on many food-related environmental issues.

Food labels, GMOs, and the intricacies of recycling and composting intimidate me, yet I want to make educating myself and my children about these issues a priority. I want eco-consciousness ingrained in them from an early age, much like I want them to enjoy physical activities and speak a second language. I know firsthand that it is much, much harder to change your lifestyle and habits later in life. A few years ago, I wagered with my husband that I could stay vegetarian for a summer and lost the bet halfway through when our friends invited us to the best steak house in New York. Actions speak louder than words, especially when you can’t talk with a mouthful of meat!

But the sad fact is, it’s hard for my children to learn eco-friendliness at home. We drive everywhere; we fill our garbage bin to overflowing every week; much of the food on our plates comes wrapped in packages and no longer resembles what it looked like when it first came into being; and we live in the suburbs, shielded from the natural rhythms of the earth. How am I supposed to help them make informed choices when I am not well informed myself?

I recently went to a talk at the JCC about Jewish farming and met Sarah Chandler, one of the speakers. Sarah is the director of “earth-based spiritual practice” at Adamah, the largest Jewish educational farm in North America. I mentioned that I really had no idea how to teach my kids about “earth-based spiritual practice,” and she mentioned they offer farm vacations with a children’s program.

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The wheels starting turning in my head. What a great way to get kids to learn about farming, food, and the earth! But how did they connect those concepts with Judaism in a meaningful way for children to understand? And was there something I could learn from their expertise to teach my own children these lessons at home?

Sarah invited my family to come by the farm and see what they do. Since we had already signed up for a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) share from their farm, this was also a great opportunity to see where our food was coming from.

So we packed up the kids and headed out for Canaan (fitting name for a Jewish farm!) in Connecticut’s pastoral Litchfield County. It is breathtakingly beautiful in that sleepy corner of the world.

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Shamu, the director, greeted us and graciously took us on a private tour of the facilities and the farm. Our son loved seeing the goats and the kitchen where they make artisanal goat cheese. He saw chickens thriving on the leftovers from dinner from the night before (they like to joke that these compost-eating chickens are kosher pigs), played with a giant caterpillar, and jumped on tree stumps as if they were lily pads. With nature trails, a lake, and critters galore, this was every little boy’s dream for summer fun. But my questions remained. I could see how easily he could fall in love with nature here, but what would he learn about being Jewish, and how could it be brought home to the suburbs?

After asking many, many questions (thank you, Adamah, for being so patient), I came up with this list as a starting point for our family. You’ll have to check back in with us in a year to see what kind of progress we have made. I would love to hear your suggestions to add to the list.

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1. Take the kids out into nature often and observe what is happening. Talk about what we see and bring stuff home (dirt, seeds, bones, leaves, etc.) to discuss and examine further.

2. Grow something together. A small plant, and herb garden, a flower bed, a vegetable garden. Discuss each phase, planting, watering, etc.

3. Acknowledge and express gratitude for food. Sarah helped me understand that you don’t need to recite a traditional blessing to take pause and honor the source of your nourishment. You can help your children get creative by singing brachas (blessings) or even helping them to write their own original blessings.

4. Join a CSA and volunteer. Lead by example. Teach them about community supported agriculture–what it is, why we do it, why it is good to be a part of.

5. Read books. “Beautiful Yetta, The Yiddish Chicken” is one of my favorites. Sarah suggests “Noah’s Wife: The Story of Naamah,” “Cheesecake for Shavuot,” and “Harvest of Light” for Hanukkah.

6) Try a farm vacation! A place where the entire family can engage all of their senses in farming, the earth, food, and sustainability.

These aren’t just lessons our children need to be taught, but they are lessons that I think we, as parents, need to learn as well.

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