Living with the Land

Photos Alisha Rovner
Photos by Alisha Rovner

At Bet Yeladim’s new Jewish teaching garden — Gan Ellen in Columbia — preschool students learn Jewish values in a hands-on environment.

“The best way to teach children is to get their hands dirty,” said Bet Yeladim’s executive director, Jodi Fishman. “By having an educational garden in our school, we are able to provide Jewish education in a fun, innovative way.”

The garden features bird feeders, butterfly gardens, digging areas, relaxation zones and four planting boxes — Shabbat, Havdalah, Chagim and Tikun Olam — that allow students to physically connect Jewish ideas with foliage. Hebrew signs on plot sections and seasonal crops corresponding with Jewish holidays teach the students language and culture.

“We focus on the Jewish value, shomrei adamah, which means keepers and guardians of the earth,” said Fishman.

There are flowers grown in the Shabbat planting box and spices in the Havdalah box. Three mitzvot have been created, related to the garden, to encourage Jewish values in a positive space.

“I’m also proud that we grow fruits and vegetables for charities like Grassroots Crisis Intervention,” added Fishman. “We want to teach students the value of giving back and helping out the community.”

Unlike the Garden of Eden, Gan Ellen took more than seven days to create. During three years of planning and two years of fundraising, Bet Yeladim formed a gardening committee, interviewed landscapers and held fundraisers and annual fund campaigns, and then the garden committee met with Kayam Farm in Baltimore to brainstorm its vision a year and a half ago.

Finally dedicated in May, the new garden is named after Bet Yeladim’s former executive director, Ellen Rappoport. Created as a gift to honor Rappoport’s seven years of service, the inspiration for a garden draws from her strong, lasting impact on the school.

The garden, Gan Ellen, has become part of the preschool’s curriculum.
The garden, Gan Ellen, has become part of the preschool’s curriculum.

“At that time, it was difficult to imagine a verdant garden in place of the hill of dirt lining the playground,” said Alisha Rovner, Bet Yeladim board president and gardening committee member at the dedication ceremony.  The task seemed daunting at first but ended in a “magical transformation,” she added. “Nevertheless, we were fortunate to find wonderful people to work with who were able to make our vision into a reality and create this amazing garden for our children to learn from and enjoy.”

Students and staff of the year-round preschool have quickly embraced the new garden. Teachers incorporate Gan Ellen into their curriculum by assigning different classes to water the plants, feed the birds and perform science experiments.

“Since the garden is in such close proximity to the playground, it is so interesting to watch students share the space,” said Rovner. “The garden allows students to touch things, feel things and even taste what they grew. I’ve watched students dig in the soil and read books in the makom shel shalom – place of peace – during breaks.”

Bet Yeladim looks forward to watching its garden continue to blossom.

“I have to say, Gan Ellen has already been the highlight of everyone’s year at Bet Yeladim,” said Fishman. “We had a clear vision of what we wanted, and we ended up getting even more.”

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