The three Rs

Pupils in Beit Shemesh learn how to reduce and recycle by calculating their ecological footprints.

Recycle 298.88 (photo credit: Tallulah Floyd)
Recycle 298.88
(photo credit: Tallulah Floyd)
In the course of our day, actions such as driving a car or throwing out plastic bottles leave an "ecological footprint" on the world - that is, how much of the earth's resources a person needs to maintain his lifestyle. On January 30, the religious environmental NGO Sviva Israel, the Environmental Protection Ministry, the Sorek Environmental Protection Unit and the Beit Shemesh Municipality launched the first citywide Eco-Connection program in 21 secular and religious schools in Beit Shemesh. The ambitious environmental education curriculum aims to teach over 2,000 students how to calculate and reduce their own and their school's ecological footprint. Students will learn about the impact they have on the environment and what they can do to make their day-to-day habits more eco-friendly. While many schools already have environmental programs, says Carmi Wisemon, executive director of Sviva Israel, there is still much to be done. "There is a certain tendency to talk green, but educationally, a good deal is arts and crafts," he explains. "You take pine cones, you take a toilet paper roll and you make a project." Wisemon, who started Sviva Israel in June 2007, came onto the eco-scene several years ago, when he began working as the Ramat Shlomo community social worker. His first community project was to clean up the neighborhood. At first, Wisemon says, he undertook the task almost exclusively with the area's children and women, but at a certain point, he also got the rabbis of the community involved and created a contest on the topic of Judaism and the environment. "Judaism and the environment to haredim five years ago was like talking about Mars," he recalls, attributing the environmental ignorance of haredim not only to a lack of awareness, but also to the leftist and secular connotations of environmental issues. Since then, Wisemon adds, this attitude has changed tremendously. While organizing his most recent event, all he had to say when he approached secular schools was that he was doing a project related to the environment and they jumped on it. "It is like telling an ultra-religious school we're doing a Tehillim group," he says. In contrast, Wisemon continues, many haredi schools were wary of participating in the Eco-Connection program at first. But once he explained its importance, he says, one Beit Ya'acov elementary school sent more teachers than any of the secular schools. "The haredi public in many ways is more environmentally responsible as a result of their circumstances," he explains. "Due to their relatively small income, many ultra-Orthodox people hold to the edict 'Be happy with the minimum.'" Since a great deal of environmental issues arise as a result of consumerism, the haredi community is ahead of the game, and Wisemon sees it as his task to keep it that way. Elisheva Akaveh, the head of sciences at Orot Banim Elementary in Beit Shemesh, relates that after she presented to her class the concept of reusing items instead of throwing them out, one of the children whose family has little means instantly became popular because he was wearing pre-worn clothing. In different circumstances, she adds, he would have been embarrassed. In the past, Sviva Israel volunteers would administer the environmental lessons at schools, but now they train teachers to do so themselves and consequently reach many more students. Another aspect of the Eco-Connection program is to encourage interest in the environment by creating competition between the participating schools. Sviva Israel has set up a Web site where students can answer a questionnaire about their lifestyle. The questionnaire covers a range of questions from how the student gets to school to whether they turn off the water while brushing their teeth. The site then tells the student about his or her unique ecological footprint. The data from all of the schools is then collected and compared, so that each school can see how it ranks in comparison to the others. The first time Wisemon took part in the ecological survey, he says, he was shocked by its conclusion: "If everyone lived like you, we would need three planets just to accommodate everyone," the report read. The program has been "very positive," says Klemo Buznach, director of the Education Department of the Beit Shemesh Municipality. It is a great experience for the children, he says, because they get quick feedback and there is a competitive element involved which the children get excited about. Akaveh agrees. When she told her students about the program, "they were so excited!" she recalls. "'We want to do it now!' they begged me." The question that remains is whether or not this program will stay in the classroom or continue into the daily lives of the students and their families and eventually, as Wisemon hopes, the entire community.. The program "will take off when we can see cooperation between the different communities here," says Akaveh, adding that for now only science teachers were teaching about environmental issues. "It is a trend to talk about the environment today. The question is what do we do with it."