In another lifetime, I was an outdoor educator. My work involved taking kids to play, and sometimes live, in the woods. For several years after college I worked as a teacher at Nature’s Classroom, a five-day residential environmental education center, and as a wilderness guide for Outward Bound. While there was nothing Jewish about either of these programs, during that time I experienced a kind of spiritual awakening. I felt closer to the Divine on a mountain peak and in a desert canyon that I ever had in synagogue. Not terribly interested in becoming a pagan, I started to search for ways to merge these two, seemingly opposing, spiritual words – Judaism and Wilderness.
These days, the Jewish world is teeming with wonderful outdoor and environmental programs. But in the early 90’s, this was relatively new ground. There were Jewish camps with strong wilderness programs, but there wasn’t usually any Jewish content to the expeditions. There were Jewish day schools attending centers such as Nature’s Classroom, but they followed the standard public-school curriculum. The only difference was that the kitchen got kashered for the week.
I had a relatively simple idea which has blossomed, thanks to many extraordinary educators and visionaries, into an amazing program. Why not start an environmental education center just like Nature’s Classroom – where children come with their whole grade, spend 4 or 5 days in a rural camp, go on daily hikes, observe the wonders of nature, and learn environmental ethics – but make it Jewish? Teach sacred texts about caring for the world, recite blessings about the wonders of nature, pray outside, and see that Judaism can be fun…or maybe even a little bit cool?
Out of this small idea was born the Teva Learning Center, which I had the immense pleasure to direct in its first year. It has grown beyond my wildest dreams thanks to a few people who didn’t think I was crazy, a few who did, and a lot of people with other crazy wonderful ideas. Check out their website – and consider a contribution. They’re doing great work.