From one jungle to another: Putting into practice Judaic studies lessons in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

By: Zev Steinfeld
from TanenbaumCHAT

Real-World Learning

Subject(s) of entry:

Experiential Education

Grade(s) to which this was taught:
9, 10, 11, 12, High school

Grade(s) for which this will be useful:
9, 10, 11, 12, High school

How do we put Jewish values into practice in a meaningful way? while pondering this I fostered a relationship with the international human rights organization Me to We. We conceived an experience tailored to Jewish students, with Jewish experiences and values looking for a powerful practical experience to make them better Jews and better people.

Entry Narrative

The question was simple, yet daunting. How do we take the values learned in a Jewish community high school classroom and meaningfully apply them to the real world? How do we take the Jewish youth of today and give them a meaningful, practical experience which will serve to forge and strengthen the Jewish values and practices learned in school and Jewish identity in a global context and scale? In short, how can we help shape not just global citizens, but global Jewish citizens?

While pondering this question I continued to develop a relationship with the international Human Rights organization and social enterprise Me to We. Me to We is well known in Canada and works in communities around the world, according to four core pillars, Education, Human Rights, Water, and Health Care. Working together with rural communities in third world countries the organization seeks to give “a hand up, not a hand out.” This idea immediately resonated with me and some of my students, as we related it to Maimonides discussion on the laws pertaining to levels of charity, one of the highest being the individual who empowers the other to become self sufficient. Give a man a fish and he’ll live a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll live for years. I began to see that there were extensive connections between the classroom, and what this organization was doing. The question was could be bring them together?

I felt we had found an organization that was embodying a very Judaic conception of charity as it was being taught in the classroom. In addition, we were also able to draw parallels with our study of Tikkun Olam. This concept is certainly one that is discussed at length in our Grade 12 Jewish ethics curriculum, whether it’s through an analysis of Maimonides, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Rabbi Soloveichik or Kant, or Nietzsche, these were powerful ideas which kids understood but seldom got to practice.

It was in this context that we began to think about taking our Jewish high school students to the Amazon Jungle in Ecuador to put these ideas and others into practice, to forge, through experience this time, a globally astute Jewish citizen. We saw myriad connections between the classroom values and lessons and this real world experience.

We began by examining the viability of the trip logistically. What would Shabbat look like? What would Kashrut look like on a trip like this? We wanted the experience to be authentic but to adhere to traditional Jewish law. We were able to develop connections to our Grade 11 Rabbinics units on Kashrut, by allowing trip participants to research and Kascher a kitchen, as well as inspect and clean local produce, like cacao pods and plantains.

We wanted to give the students a chance to connect with fellow Jews in Ecuador, to visit the synagogue and meet with community members; to learn what their challenges were, how they were similar and how they were different.

Shabbat is another topic studied extensively in our school, and we wanted to have students put into practice their understanding of Shabbat observances (such as eruv, cooking, and work), as well as the conceptual essence of Shabbat, a day of rest on a trip of labour. Shabbat became a time on our trip dedicated to reflection and inner soul searching about the fundamental purpose of our existence in a serene and extraordinary environment.  We were perpetually looking to make connections between what the students were learning and experiencing in school, and what they would see and experience in Ecuador.

Our Grade 9 Rabbinics students learn about the ethical treatment of the environment and animals, and interacting with the Jungle wildlife and foliage, meeting with local farmers and wildlife experts allowed students to see first hand how these practices are transcendent and applicable on a global scale, and overlap with how many cultures see the importance of the planet.

The final and most vital piece was the build. The main purpose of the experience was to go to a rural community and work with the community towards the goal of sustainability. To that end the students would be working side by side with community members on a build, building whatever the community needed at that given time. This was manual labour, and would help this community with a hand up.

With the structure of the trip in place we began the process of implementing it. Our first year, 2016, we travelled with 12 students. By 2017 we had 35, and this year, 2018, we have 35 yet again.

Students found various outlets to reflect and promote these experiences. Attached is an article by student Hayley, who wrote about her second sojourn into Ecuador in our school’s quarterly publication, the CHATTER magazine. Another student was so moved by her experiences she chose to enter into a online charity initiative known as “project for awesome” in which she created a testimonial video about the trip experiences, which includes interviews with chaperones and participants, as well as images.

Here is the link:

I can distinctly recall a boiling hot, humid day. It’s early morning and I’m standing on the bank of the Napo River in the Ecuadorian Amazon. I’m in a community with no roads, barely any electricity and no cell phone reception. The houses surrounding me, if you can call them houses, have 6 foot walls each made of poorly assembled pieces of wood. No insulation. Plenty of gaps for the spiders and scorpions to get in. Sweating. I turn my attention back to the task at hand. I’m wearing a hard hat, protective gloves and goggles. I’m standing next to a student, digging a hole to lay foundation. Next to the student is a local community member, a young man who tells us in Spanish that his name is Juan. Although our Spanish is poor, while we work side by side we get to know Juan and he gets to know us. We learn about his favourite subjects in school, his dreams for the future. When my student asks him if he has a favourite show on television Juan looks at us quizzically. It is the first instance I see my student realize how far outside of her world we really are. Juan casually tells us he works two jobs in his small town and he’s excited because he’s saving money. For a coveted transistor radio. My student doesn’t even know what that is. The building experience continues and my student continues to have her preconceptions burst as she continues to speak to Juan. She will not fully process the experience until later. But the experience will shape who she is as a human, and give her a practical window into the Jewish values instilled in her through her education. Juan’s family of 8 subsists on just under $3.00 a day.

The most potent manifestation of real world learning however, involved the build and it’s impact on the students in the context of the curricular themes of Tikkun Olam, the bettering of the world, tzedakkah, charity and kindness.  In the  google doc are a series of videos taken by participants, which detail the nature of the work in particular, followed by a recorded reflection from student Jared F.  Jared was so moved by his experiences that he sought to express himself.  This is an excerpt of some of his thoughts.

The results of this experience were and continue to be extraordinary. Not only were students able to put into practice many components of their Jewish studies curricula on a micro level, but on a profound and transcendent macro level as well. Our students passion and energy was sparked to take their Judaic learning and values along with these extraordinary experiences and put them into practice in their communities, whether they be through charitable initiatives or awareness, we began to see a new “type” of Jewish high school student – one not only educated in Jewish text and values, but one who could see the relevance of these teachings, the applicability of these values and could move into adulthood confidently and proudly.  This carefully curated experience continues to get fine-tuned as it enters its third year.  We are tremendously proud of how quickly it has become impactful, in particular how it has become a potent and innovative way of giving students extraordinary real-world experiences to solidify their Jewish identity and curriculum learning, and help them evolve as global citizens and global Jews.


Entry Document Attachments

Entrant Bio(s)

I have been teaching at TanenbaumCHAT for 13 years, as a Tanach, Rabbinics and Jewish Ethics teacher. In addition to classroom instruction, I have been driven by the concept of holistic learning, interdisciplinary practice and experiential education. As a result I have coached multiple sports teams, been the musical director of the play, overseen the school's athletic council, as well as driven the Amudei Hatanach program, a comprehensive redevelopment of the Tanach curriculum at the school. Most recently I conceptualized and developed a school trip to the Amazon jungle in Ecuador, meant to synthesize values and ideas learned in the classroom with real world experience.