The ecological haredi

Leshomra teaches ultra-Orthodox communities to connect with nature

Leshomra CEO Avishai Himelfarb leads an educational farm tour for Beis Yaakov high-school girls (photo credit: LESHOMRA)
Leshomra CEO Avishai Himelfarb leads an educational farm tour for Beis Yaakov high-school girls
(photo credit: LESHOMRA)
Generations of haredi children have grown up in cityscapes of concrete and asphalt, where the only green, growing things are a few hardy weeds in the barren spaces between apartment buildings.
Haredi eco-activist Avishai Himelfarb considers it a historical accident that should be corrected. In 2015 he established Leshomra, an environmental education center that has planted green studies in the haredi school system for the very first time. Leshomra programs have brought over 10,000 Israeli children to experience nature in 85 kindergartens and schools, according to the nonprofit.
Himelfarb grew up on a moshav and comes from a national-religious background. He taught in an agricultural school for six years and gave nature workshops at the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.
When he married into a haredi family, he saw an enormous paradox in haredi life: To most people in those communities, the wealth of Torah laws relating to nature and land stewardship are only theory, laws to be studied but rarely applied to daily life.
“Most haredi kids have never had experiences in the natural world. Nature’s not something they ever even think about. But the haredi way of life and Torah should be very connected to the land and to agriculture,” Himelfarb maintains.
When the shmita (sabbatical) year came in 2015, he launched a series of shmita-observant farm tours for Bnei Brak residents. The tours drew 7,000 participants, according to the nonprofit.
“If there’s one mitzva that attracts Torah-observant Jews to nature, it’s shmita,” he says.
A grant allowed Himelfarb to launch the nonprofit Leshomra. “It gave me the courage to leave my day job and dedicate myself entirely to the project,” he says.
The program is based on 25 classroom hours for children from kindergarten age to third grade. Along with classroom lessons and crafts projects, each class of schoolchildren plants and tends a garden.
The gardening program is called Hagan Shelanu (Our Garden). Teachers trained by Leshomra show the kids how to sow, water, weed and cultivate an impressive list of food crops: radishes, carrots, melons, onions, potatoes, herbs and other foods that they will harvest and eat. And there’s room for flowers, too.
Naomi Elbinger, director of the English department at Leshomra, told Metro: “Any little neglected patch of dirt or sand pit can be a garden.” All that’s needed is a space 1x3 meters, plus good soil and irrigation, which the organization provides. Where there’s no viable land at all, they set raised beds and recycled car tires filled with soil on the patio.
Himelfarb adds, “We encourage the kids to do as much of the gardening work as they can, on principle: digging, watering, weeding. The idea is to get them working. That’s how they learn. And it opens the world up to them.”
Teaching the insular haredi community requires radar sensitivity to that unique way of thinking.
“All the curriculum is tailored to the Torah worldview,” Elbinger notes. In addition, Leshomra’s guides come from haredi backgrounds themselves, which ensures that they think and speak in a language their pupils easily relate to. For example, where a secular teacher would say “ecology,” the haredi teacher would speak of hakarat hatov – gratitude to the Creator for the natural world and its goodness. A talk about conservation begins by relating to concepts such as the blessing for rain. The teacher may ask the kids why rain is so important that Jews pray for it. It naturally follows that they discuss water, the need for clean water, and the need to conserve it. While yanking weeds out, it’s easy to point out that undesired species crowd the desired crop’s roots and deprive it of water, light and space to grow. It’s an illustration of the laws of kilayim, which prohibit the crossbreeding of seeds (and animals, and mixing of linen with wool), right there in the children’s soil-covered hands.
The first thing the kids learn is not to litter.
“That’s the very first thing we teach,” says Elbinger. The concepts of recycling, composting, biodiversity and conservation follow. “We make it fun for the kids, with coloring books, stories, crafts and visual aids. It’s very hands-on.”
“We can’t always take the kids out for nature walks, but they absorb lessons about biodiversity by learning to observe insects, sparrows and pigeons, neighborhood cats. Whatever living creatures they come across while outside are topics for awareness and discussion,” Himelfarb says. “Of course, we teach the kids safety around wild creatures, too.”
The program is already making an impact on the communities, as ideas the children absorb in school filter up to the parents. Elbinger reports conversations with mothers who say they are learning from their kids and have changed their family routines to include recycling and household waste prevention.
But the benefits stretch even farther: the children themselves bloom and develop, sometimes in unexpected and welcome ways.
One girl’s mother told the kindergarten teacher: “My daughter never used to tell me about anything that happens in kindergarten. When I’d ask her, she’d just shrug. Since you started this program, suddenly she started talking. She tells me everything she learned and planted and how things are growing. She is talking more than ever before.”
The teacher adds, “In my whole life I have never had any experience with gardening or growing things, but through this program, I now feel very connected. Even my own children beg me to take them to visit our little farm. Since we live close by the kindergarten, I’ve brought them to visit many times. They get so excited when they see how much it’s growing. I see how much this program does for the children, and I now think it’s essential for every class.”
Boys reap psychological benefits, too. “In every class, there’s a boy or two who isn’t a great student, for one reason or another,” observes Himelfarb. “These boys connect to holiness through the garden.”
Acquiring new skills also boosts a child’s self-esteem. And the physical activity required helps jumpy kids get some of their jitters out.
Leshomra courses offered in community centers attract older kids, offering a program called Shetah Patuah – The Great Outdoors. They learn outdoor survival skills such as how to build a campfire and use a compass, how to identify plants and animals, and more.
Environmental education isn’t only for kids. The teachers need education first. They are required to attend seminars and workshops before implementing the program in their schools. Leshomra has 20 men and women guides who completed a teacher training program and earned certification from the organization.
Himelfarb hopes to have suitable school programs for kids up to age 15 in the near future. More ambitious plans include urban farms and programs for haredi adults.
“The goal is motivating and educating the eco-leaders of the next generation, so that they’ll have these concepts and skills within themselves. We want to see the day that these programs won’t be needed anymore,” says Elbinger.
Sometimes a school doesn’t see the need for ecological education, or can’t allocate a budget for it. In the latter case, Leshomra funds the classes and the garden. The cost to train the teacher and set up the garden in a kindergarten is NIS 7,000. The expense drops to NIS 4-5,000 the following year. Elbinger notes that the organization aims to have local authorities fund all Leshomra programs within the next five years.
As of this writing, according to the nonprofit, the Leshomra ecological education program runs in 35 haredi kindergartens and 12 Talmud Torahs in Modi’in Illit, and 35 kindergartens in Jerusalem, 20 of which are funded by the municipality. In the case of the 15 Jerusalem kindergartens which didn’t fit into the municipality’s budget, the teachers decided to donate their own enrichment funds so as to enable the program. There are also 10 kindergartens in Bnei Brak which run the program.
Apart from school programs, Leshomra runs workshops in community centers in Modi’in, Elad, Telz Stone and Beit Shemesh.
Visit the Leshomra site:
To speak to Naomi Elbinger: 052-761-9206 or naomi@