Taking Jewish Education Outside with the Shoresh Outdoor School

Co-written by Sabrina Malach and Beth Denaburg

Now in its third season, the Shoresh Outdoor School offers a unique, meaningful and refreshing approach to Jewish education for 21st century families. As our kids spend more time being sedentary and on screens than climbing trees and looking for frogs in puddles, our after-school program provides them with much-needed outdoor activity while cultivating Jewish wisdom, knowledge and values.

Created and facilitated by Shoresh, Toronto’s Jewish environmental organization, the Shoresh Outdoor School (SOS) operates in the spring and fall out of the Kavanah Garden in Vaughan and Cedarvale Ravine in mid-town Toronto.
At SOS, we bring the Torah to life and into the outdoors. Examples include planting our garden based on biblical agricultural laws; honouring the Jewish ethic of Bal Taschit, the prohibition to waste or destroy by composting and only using recycled materials for our craft activities; and living the Jewish value of tzedakah by growing food for vulnerable community members. 

These activities give our students an embodied experience of Jewish teachings and values thereby deepening their connection to both Judaism and the environment in real and meaningful ways.

Our daily schedule is based in Jon Young’s Eight-Shields Model for creating a culture that connects one to self, nature, and others. Each activity is hands-on, experiential, and creatively weaves in Jewish texts and teachings. We also use Jewish Nature badges to motivate and increase students’ excitement for learning.

We start with an opening circle and song, then get everyone up and moving with Get in Your Guf – a movement focused activity. For example, for Rosh Hashanah, we might act out the honey bees' waggle dance to learn about how honey bees communicate. We would then learn about Rosh Hashanah, why we eat apples and honey, how the bees are so important both to humans and to nature, and that the Talmud teaches us that no creature was created without a purpose.

Afterwards, we head off to the garden or forest to observe the bees and other insects flying from flower to flower, and learn about pollination. If we saw an exceptionally strange or beautiful creature, we'd learn and say the appropriate bracha.

We learn that according to Bereshit, our job is to take care of creation. In order to take care of our pollinator friends, we'd get our hands dirty with clay and soil making wildflower seed balls, and then go on a hike in the forest to throw the seed balls into areas where wildflowers could grow.

After that we take a break and have some individual quiet reflection time with our nature journals, perhaps drawing or writing about what we'd seen or learned. We'd finish with a closing circle and song, enjoy some apples and honey from Shoresh’s apiary at Bela Farm, and everyone would have earned their Rosh Hashanah and Pollinator badges to put in their nature journals.

As our lives become more sedentary, urban and digital, nature-based Jewish educational programs offer critical opportunities for children to connect to nature and Judaism in embodied, enlivening and inspiring ways.

If you want to sign your kids up for the Shoresh Outdoor School, visit shoresh.ca/sos.
If you are an educator and want to learn the skills and knowledge to bring our unique pedagogy into your classroom, join our upcoming Jewish Environmental Educator Training workshop by emailing sabrina@shoresh.ca.