Playing in the dirt

A Safed couple teaches kindergarteners sustainable living

Aravah Ofanansky harvests olives (photo credit: HARVEST OF LIGHT)
Aravah Ofanansky harvests olives
(photo credit: HARVEST OF LIGHT)
Hundreds of Safed children are growing up familiar with the basic concepts of sustainable living, thanks to Allison and Shmuel Ofanansky’s books and kindergarten pro - grams.
The Ofananskys, both immigrants from the United States, have spent years developing eco-consciousness in rural Safed. In spite of low cooperation from the general community, they have found open minds among the little ones and their kindergarten teachers. Allison writes children’s books about Jewish holidays’ connection to the natural cycle, while Shmuel runs an eco-program in local kindergartens.
“I wrote the first book, about Hanukka, after my family and I harvested olives for the first time,” says Allison. “My daughter, Aravah, was eight then. She loved the whole experience so much, I realized that it would make a great children’s book.”
As an American, Allison had never paid much attention to the olive oil theme in Hanukka. But she had an epiphany when the family picked their olives and brought them to the press.
While they were waiting, a local man waiting his own turn spoke about the miracle of the oil.
“He said that the miracle of the oil began the very first day,” she recounts.
“The mere fact that there’s this tree with fruit full of oil that you can burn and get light from is a miracle. There’s no other tree like the olive, that has little balls of oil hanging from it. And the oil is ready exactly at the darkest time of the year, when people really need light. It made a big impression on me. I understood how important olive oil was for people in ancient times. I realized that Hanukka is a harvest holiday – the harvest of the olive.
Harvest of Light is the title of the book. I’m looking at the Festival of Light from an agricultural point of view.”
Harvest of Light follows the development of olives from blossoming to the harvest and pickling of the fruit. The book, like most in the series, is illustrated with photographs of Safed and local children in action.
With the success of the first book, Allison went on to write four more children’s books, dealing respectively with Succot, Rosh Hashana, Shavuot and Rosh Hodesh. There’s another book in the works. The author presents each holiday in the light of the natural world; the Rosh Hodesh book, for instance, discusses how we perceive the phases of the moon.
Cheesecake For Shavuot may well be the most charming of the series, though: Children from the Safed community made the cheese - cake shown on the cover. Under the Ofananskys’ guidance, the children grew the wheat themselves and ground it into flour, milked goats to make the cheese, and grew the delicious strawberries to top the cake.
“Most discussion on Shavuot revolves around the giving of the Torah. But in the Torah itself, it’s celebrated as the Harvest Holiday, and I focused on that,” says Allison.
She describes her insight into the seasonality of cheese: “When we started buying cheese from our neighbors, who keep a herd of goats, I realized that milk goes through a natural cycle, too. The females don’t give milk in winter and spring, because they’re pregnant, then nursing. In late spring, the kids start to eat other foods, but the mothers are still producing huge amounts of milk. The idea of Shavuot being a dairy holiday fits completely into nature’s cycle.”
Her books are for ages three through eight and are in English, published by Kar-Ben.
BESPECTACLED, MILD-MANNERED Shmuel, meanwhile, runs a program about sustainability in 14 of Safed’s kindergartens, including one in the Arab neighborhood of Akbara. His program has been in operation since 2009.
“I’m always looking for ways to express ecological activism with the kids.
Waste separation, for example – sorting garbage for recycling or reuse. I’ve had parents tell me, ‘The kids are driving me crazy, they won’t let me throw anything out anymore!’” he says. “And there’s composting. A lot of the kindergartens have compost bins because wherever I’ve worked for more than a year, I put in a compost bin.”
The program has three components: nature, which includes nature walks and talks; organic gardening; and ecological responsibility, which is waste reduction.
“I like to do things that are very visual, not too difficult for the kids, like growing peas,” he says. “Peas grow quickly and are easy to harvest. Root vegetables like potatoes, carrots and garlic are also visually pleasing plants and fun to harvest.”
Asked how the gardens fare between his visits, he answers, “It depends heavily on the cooperation of the gannenet [kindergarten teacher]. The ones who choose my program are those who are willing to put effort into it and carry it on. The teachers make sure the gardens are watered during the week when I’m not there. They’re very dedicated to the kids and the program. For example, when the kids have their 10 o’clock snack, there will be two bowls on the table. Leftover food goes into one bowl for the compost, and the other bowl is for the napkins and plastic bags. Some teachers are very firm about the kids bringing their food in a box, not a plastic bag. Some have even bought containers for the kids to take home. In other kindergartens, each kid has his own cup – no plastic disposables.”
Shmuel laughs, “If the gannenot were in charge of this country, things would be very different.”
Some of the kindergarten crops mature during summer vacation. How do the kids cope with that? “Some of the kindergartens put in automatic watering systems, so the plants are watered over the summer vacation and the kids can harvest their tomatoes, cucumbers and beans when they return to school,” he explains.
He also has the children sow cherry tomatoes in starters, later transplanting the seedlings to containers that the children make from recycled bottles.
“I’ve heard pretty consistently from the parents that they were eating tomatoes from those plants,” he says with satisfaction.
“I teach through activities that represent the ideas,” he continues. “I talk about soil, for example, with an activity to go with it. The kids feel the difference between regular soil and compost. Then we talk about how we have to eat and how plants have to eat. I ask them questions: How does the plant eat? What does it eat? I supply them with vocabulary: What is compost? They learn that it’s food for plants.”
He sometimes uses Allison’s books to illustrate his talk, translating into Hebrew.
Puppet shows are another method he uses to teach sustainability. “Everything we have comes from nature somehow, and there’s an ecological cost for everything. Take recycling paper. I have a show in which a little girl learns what happens to forests when the trees are cut down to make paper.”
His voice thins softly as he plays the parts of the little girl, a gazelle and the owner of a paper factory. In the end, the factory owner turns his operation into a paper recycling plant.
“So there’s a happy ending,” Shmuel concludes, smiling.