In Genesis, Jews are taught to be stewards of the Earth, explains Emily Cook, the principal of the Stern Center at the Perelman Jewish Day School. We must learn to plant roots, tend the soil and grow our food. And we must do so for the next generation.
A new hoop house, or a covered greenhouse with heat inside, at the Kaiserman JCC in Wynnewood, will help Perelman students learn that valuable lesson.
The 24-foot-by-20-foot space made possible by a $30,000 grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia opened on Oct. 30. Kids, parents and adult JCC members came together to celebrate what Kaiserman CEO Alan Scher describes as “a vibrant tool for our students to bring science and other associated endeavors to life, but also to bring Jewish values to life.” The Jewish day school and community center share a property.
Students from Perelman and from the JCC’s Robert J. Wilf Preschool and Kindergarten as well as its summer camp, Camp Kef, will use the space for hands-on sessions about planting and the growing cycle, according to Cook. Since the hoop house is covered, classes can grow plants there year-round. This is an extension of lessons that students are already learning in the classroom. It’s just a practical application of them.
“It makes the learning that much more impactful,” Cook said. “It embeds it in their minds.”
She believes that students must understand how things grow. They need to see the fruits of their labor and what works and what doesn’t work. And then they get to taste it, she said. Even if it’s just a bite of lettuce, it becomes real. That is why it’s vital for kids to be outside and to play in the dirt. They take that bite of lettuce and they want another one, so they learn to grow the lettuce. They grow to understand how to do things independently.
Mitch Daar, Perelman’s head of school, did not start in his position until July. But he said one thing he learned from his predecessor, Judy Groner, was the value of balancing screen time with time in-person and outdoors. During COVID, Perelman kept students in school and added more outdoor sessions to its curriculum. Now, it intends to maintain both priorities, and the hoop house is an extension of that effort.
“We learned a lot about teaching and learning in those years,” Daar said. “And the importance of being in person.”
As Cook explained, Perelman wants to be more than just a place where students come to study. It is trying to be a place of action.
“We’re planting strong roots in the ground,” she said.
Kaiserman is too, according to Scher. The JCC’s CEO shares Cook’s belief that young people learn by getting outside and putting their hands in the dirt. Preschoolers and campers build critical life and scientific skills by getting their hands dirty. Adults can also learn that way, which is why Scher envisions them working alongside younger people to cultivate the garden.
Eventually, the Perelman-Kaiserman Hoop House may become like the one at KleinLife in Northeast Philadelphia. KleinLife’s garden helps stock local food banks. Scher said the hoop house will not grow enough food this winter to do the same, but it will in the long run if Kaiserman and Perelman “get the best out of our space.”
Both institutions are committed to doing so. Cook said they were trying to find ways to collaborate even before this opportunity. But then Scher heard about the grant and approached her. She immediately said “yes.” Then she put the word out to her teachers and several stepped forward to volunteer.
“Part of JCC’s strategic plan is to continue to invest in this campus,” Scher said. “Through Emily’s wonderful leadership, she has recruited a team of teachers at Perelman invested in thinking about the curriculum and how we can build out that Hoop House classroom.”
Perelman and Kaiserman share responsibility for the hoop house. They are still building the inside and meeting regularly to finish the process. Perelman’s fifth-grade classes are assisting with the design. In the next two weeks, leaders at the school and community center hope to start planting vegetables.
Student responsibilities may include taking the temperature of the soil and covering plants if it gets too cold outside. They will learn how to garden, but they will also absorb that lesson from Genesis: That we must take care of the Earth. And that this, according to Cook, is one way of doing it responsibly.
“We’ve really begun already,” she said. JE