Gesher Jewish Day School first grader Xander Scher, 7, likes to strap on his galoshes and explore the 57 acres of woods and wetlands on the Fairfax campus that includes a vernal pond where he can watch tadpoles turn into frogs and a garden that he and other students nurture and harvest.
“He just loves it. He really thrives in that. And he gets his hands dirty,” said Xander’s mother, Jennifer Scher, Gesher’s director of development. “The kids love putting their hands in the dirt and really having that opportunity to be a part of the land, to be around the whole campus.”
As Jews in Israel and around the world prepare to plant trees in celebration of Tu B’Shevat, a one-day holiday which begins at sunset Feb. 3, ecological awareness is a Jewish value that is instilled every day at Gesher through the school’s environmental program, Gesher Green.
Xander Scher and other students from kindergarten through eighth grade are taught a curriculum that leverages the natural environment to prepare the students to become stewards of the land. The educational mission is aligned with the Torah-based principle of L’ovdah u’L’Shomrah, which means to work and protect the land, said Rabbi Matisyahu Tonti, who leads Gesher Green.
The roots of Gesher Green go back to a relationship that formed with the environmental education organization, Teva Learning Alliance, eight years ago when Gesher moved into its new building.
“It really was a great opportunity to innovate and to say ‘how can we extend the walls of the classroom so that students can have hands-on activities outside that will be directly in line with what the curriculum is and will be enriched by it and will take the kids outside?’” said Tonti.
Gesher encourages staff and parents to be aware of their environmental impact, using motion sensor lights, posting a “No Idling” sign in front of the building and recycling and composting.
Parent Adam Harman said he has noticed how Gesher Green has made a positive impact on his son Jonathan, 8, who is in second grade. On weekends, they troll the forests and streets for trash. On a recent visit to Key West, Fla., the boy picked up trash on the beach.
“It’s a part of how he sees himself in the world,” said Harman. “Thanks to Jonathan’s exposure at Gesher through this program and the way they integrate into his learning, it’s part of who he is in a way that it wasn’t with me because of the way that I was brought up.”