Power Under our Feet – Jewish Summer Camps and The Future of Energy

Being an environmentally-conscious Jew often requires accepting a certain amount of ambiguity.  If I eat less meat, then a farmer somewhere in Iowa, perhaps, will use a bit less energy growing corn to send to Texas to be fed to beef cows.  If I don’t use electricity on Shabbat, the demand for coal will fall ever so slightly, and a mountain in Pennsylvania may be spared for a few years.  While the direct impact of my actions is ambiguous, it’s ok, because every little bit matters, and others will be inspired, and no matter what, at least I’m following my principles.

Recently, though, this has changed.  While the age-old joke about Moses finding the only place in the Middle East without oil continues to be told at Passover Seders around the globe, the fact is that the Jewish people did find oil –  just not where expected.  As it turns out, many Jewish summer camps in the northeastern United States are sitting on an abundance of natural gas.

The gas is trapped within the pores of a 350 million-year-old rock formation called the Marcellus Shale, and can only be tapped through a process called Hydraulic Fracturing, or “hydrofracking”.  Incredible amounts of water, sand, and a slew of chemicals, are pumped into the ground, where they fracture the shale and release the trapped gas.  This process is dangerous for our environment, water quality, and health.  It also presents us with a rare opportunity.  The issue of hydraulic fracturing is not abstract or ambiguous.  It is one of few environmental issues that really impact us, here, in our homes and backyards and favorite hiking spots.  It affects our bodies and the bodies of our children.  And we have the power to affect it.  Seize this opportunity.  Act!  Find out what’s happening in your local communities, your towns, and your states.  Go to your community leaders, make sure they don’t drill at your camp, or at least drill as safely as possible.  Talk to your local leaders, and make it clear that you will support them if they stand up against natural gas companies.  Attend the Shale Gas Outrage Rally on September 7th in Philadelphia.  Learn more about the issues from Keep Tap Water Safe or Food and Water Watch, and keep your friends and neighbors informed.

Concerns over the hydraulic fracturing procedure are numerous, and include the effects that building drill platforms, creating a high volume of large truck traffic, and simply increasing the amount of fossil fuels being taken out of the ground and put into the atmosphere, will have on our environment, health, and economy. 
But by far the greatest issue surrounding hydraulic fracturing is the impact it has on drinking water.  Released gas can seep into groundwater and contaminate it with high levels of Methane.  The hydrofracking fluid is pumped back to the surface after fracturing is completed, and this wastewater contains not only the chemicals originally added, but also compounds and radioactivity picked up from the rocks it penetrated.  This toxic mix is stored in waste containers that have been known to leak or spill over, or is dumped  in sewage treatment facilities that are not designed to handle the kind of radioactivity and chemicals present.  In both cases, the toxic fluid ends up affecting our watersheds.

The hydraulic fracturing boom of the Marcellus Shale presents our community with an issue around which we can take a concrete stand, and a situation in which we actually wield some power.  If you live in a state that contains Marcellus Shale, find out what your government is doing about this issue.  Show them they have your support to battle against the will to drill.  This summer, participants in Eden Village Camp’s Anafim Teen Environmental Leadership Program visited Albany to meet with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Energy Secretary.  There they encouraged waiting to issue drilling permits until proper studies on the effects of “fracking” are completed. At the end of the meeting, they unrolled a large scroll with over 1000 names of Jewish kids and teens who have pledged to take action to protect our environment.  Created over the course of Teva’s most recent Topsy Turvy Teva Bus Tour, this megillah gave a physical form to an important message – people care, and are not going to sit idly by.

Again, though, what is unique about this situation is that you don’t have to go to a politician to make change – you can go to your local community.  Talk to your land-based Jewish organization.  Does your summer camp own Marcellus-Shale Land?  Or your JCC?   Have they been approached by a gas company?  What will they do when they are approached?  Four Jewish camps have already signed deals with gas companies, and more are in talks. Surprise Lake Camp in New York, of which Teva is a program, has pledged not to sell their land rights, as has Camp Eden Village.  Those that have signed contracts have included language requiring the companies to avoid and mitigate, to some extent, environmental damage caused by drilling.  Economic pressure may put a Jewish organization in a situation where they feel they have no choice but to make a deal with a drilling company, but this does not mean that they, and you, can’t have a say in how this drilling is done.

From Purim to Freedom

We are living in a momentous time.  Miracles are happening left and right.  Tyrants are being toppled.  Slaves are being freed.  Torahs are being given on the mountaintop!  The month of Nissan is upon us, a new month, a new year, a new life for the Israelite people!  In a few days we’ll be sitting around the Seder plate telling tales of redemption, of rebellion against oppression, of hope and empowerment and lots and lots of plagues.  But before all of that happens another, perhaps equally significant, event must be recognized.  Yesterday, the 2011 “From Purim to Freedom” Topsy Turvy Teva Bus Tour, officially drew to a close.

Over the course of this tour we have taught a lot of things.  We’ve talked about Bal Taschit – not wasting, and about our sacred purpose Le’Ovdah ULe’Shomrah – to work and to protect the Earth.  We’ve covered cycles and resources and energy from the sun, and we’ve pushed our students to understand the power of one person to change the world, and the responsibility we each have to use that power.  But the most important thing (in my opinion) that we’ve tried to show the world through this tour comes from a verse in the book of Job:

“Ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you.”  -  Job 12:7-8

Jewish tradition tells us that every aspect of nature has something to say, every part of creation can teach us how to live on this planet.  And only through observation and awareness, through understanding the Earth’s systems and incorporating that understanding into our own lives, can we successfully work and protect the world.

A woman named Nina Simone knew this wisdom, and put it into song:

Fish in the sea you know how I feel
River running free you know how I feel
Blossom on the tree you know how I feel

Oh freedom is mine
And I know how I feel

It’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
It’s a new life
For me
And I’m feeling good

This is what the month of Nissan is all about.  Seas are splitting!  Trees are blossoming!  Freedom is in the air!  The bus tour is over, but the change we’ve seen and encouraged is just beginning.  Now is the time for each of us to find our Egypt, find the systems that enslave us, and leave them behind.  It is a new dawn.  It is a new day.  It is a new life!

And I’m feeling good.


Happy Trails,

~ The Topsy Turvy Team

Oh Captain My Captain

A Sunday morning treat – Jonathan Dubinsky sends his love:
Hello friends, fans, and family, 

This is your friendly shade tree mechanic, Capt’n Redbeard, from the Topsy Turvy bus in rainy Philadelphia.  Life is good on the road and thank G-d the bus is running great!  Some of you may know that we had a major breakdown north of Raleigh over a month ago.  Since I did the repairs in the parking lot of the school we have been cruising just fine.  This was a big test of the crew and the bus early on and we all performed smashingly.

For now I want to highlight some of the systems onboard and how they are functioning.  The used vegetable oil system has been operating at peak performance these days.  We are averaging 75% used vegetable to 25% diesel fuel on the road.  That 25% is used either because we could not find vegetable oil, or because we needed to purge the system before shutting it down in colder temperatures (which we have been doing the last week or so).  We are very happy with the centrifuge system onboard and want to give a special thanks to Dieselcraft for supplying the parts.  You can see a video highlighting the system here.
Our worm bin has gone through many changes over the course of the tour.  We started strong with a colony of a gajillion worms as we left NY.  Then when we hit Baltimore back in February we had a hard freeze and lost most of them.  As the tour continued we nursed them back to health with our food waste and centrifuge debris and now we have a bustling community of world changers—Worms!  These creatures are constantly turning old material into new soil on our bus and teaching thousands of kids along the way.  Thank you to the source of life for creating the world with wisdom!
I am so impressed with the resiliency of our ship and its systems and for the most important system of all, the crew.  We have been working well together and stepping up in ways that only the crew and their journals will ever know.  It is an honor to be traveling with you all and we should all be very proud.  As of April 2011 The Teva Learning Center and the Topsy Turvy bus has yet to miss a program.  Onward!

Topsy Turvy Bus and American Hebrew Academy Trade Tours; Congo Line Ensues.

My favorite part of being a Teva Topsy Turvy Bus Educator is getting to interact with incredible Jewish communities throughout the country. From the Jewish Farm School Retreat to Chabad of Key West, from Miami community preschools to GW University Hillel, we have had the opportunity to teach and learn from thousands of eager, intelligent young people hoping to redesign human impact on the creation. We have found community after community psyched to ‘go green’ and we get to be a big fat YES! punctuating the changes they are already making.

We are usually the ones dropping jaws and blowing minds, but we were totally unprepared for the cutting edge infrastructure and vibrant pluralistic Jewish community of AHA, the American Hebrew Academy. Aside from being the primary support that made this but tour possible, they have offered a huge amount of moral encouragement, forward thinking, and gen-u-wine GUSTO. Upon rolling up to Greensboro, NC, what we found was a community of severely intelligent and dedicated 24/7 students and teachers LIVING engaged, critical, ambitious, and socially and spiritually diverse lives together.

We each got to welcome Shabbat at our choice of student led minyans: from mechitzah to electric guitar. It was incredible to hear a room full of a hundred teenagers all singing yedid nefesh together in unison. AHA’s athletic facility sports an indoor rock wall and incredibly, a regular rock climbing minyan!

We attended a Biblio-drama group that explored this weeks parsha, Shmini, through acting games and a formidable discussion of the differences and overlaps between kashrut laws,  and laws regarding the humane treatment of animals. It was also quite cool and pleasantly dreary to play Tribond the next day with the patter of rain on the windows, especially after our last Shabbat in the sweltering heat of Florida’s gulf coast!

We also got to trade tours: while some of us shared our unique waste veggie oil centrifuging system and on board worm composting bin, others were given a tour of AHA’s incredible GEOTHERMAL energy plant! In our solar oven design program, we had been implying that the source of energy for all life comes from the sun, but we stand corrected! Located underneath the soccer bleachers, this state of the art and candy-colored-coded facility looked like it was designed by Willy Wonka, but provides clean renewable heating and cooling to every building on campus. It capitalizes on the fact that 500 feet down, no matter where we dig, the earth is a brisk 52 degrees. Through a system of chutes and ladders style pipes and heat transfer stations, cool water is pumped from the ground, circulated through the system, and returned to the ground. It provides heat in the winter and cool in the summer. The entire system will have paid for itself in energy savings by 2013, requires little maintenance, and is used as a working lab station for science and economics classes! We were floored.

We had the honor of sharing our program to a group of prospective students: we presented our dramatic recreation of God’s assigning Adam and Eve a sacred purpose (l’ovdah u’l’shomrah, to work and protect the earth) after their creation of the first-ever piece of garbage. We then  had the students write their holy opinions, Talmudic dialogue style, on a range of eco-dilemma posters, dealing from issues of eco/kashrut, to genetic modification of food and Kilayim laws, to the practical applications of the law of Bal Taschit. Focusing on the power of one through the Purim story, we asked the students to make a 6 week Brit Ma’aseh, a commitment to action, and unrolled in a circle our very own Community Brit Megillah, on which each and every student we have reached has signed their Brit for all to see. It was a powerful moment to share with such a focused and empowered community. These students are already rekindling Judaism’s sacred and ancient connection to the Earth, and I can’t wait to see what they are able to put into action as they enter a world hungry for new ideas.

The Green Team and Honors Society asked us for some special advice on how to jumpstart their composting program. In full form, we hijacked their talent show and gave a little impromptu lesson in ‘Decomposition’, resulting in a raucous congo line. The entire event was unfortunately caught on film.



A Brief Overview of the Bus Tour

A Brief History of the Bus Tour

Shalom Ya’ll,
Diane, aka Betty Cash, here to give you a glimpse into my life on the Topsy Turvy Teva Bus Tour. As my nickname suggests, I am responsible for the bus finances, and you can often find me tapping away on my computer, transcribing receipts into that magical place known as the Internet. I also have the privilege of keeping track of our mileage and fuel costs to ensure that driving a used-vegetable-oil-powered-bus IS actually more cost-effective than driving on diesel. Don’t worry everybody, it is.

During our program I play the little furry creature in our retelling of the Breisheet story, and run the “smart design” station.  As I explain in my recent Hollywood debut, “Teva Topsy Turvy Bus: Making Pizza Box Solar Ovens,” I teach students how to harness an abundant energy source, the sun, using recycled materials.  Building solar ovens shows how we can learn from nature (plants also get their energy from the sun) and design in ways that promote a more harmonious relationship with the world around us.

Signing off,

Diane “Betty Cash” Litwin

Sin, Guilt, and Thanksgiving

Another week, another parshah.  This week we read Tzav which tells us some more about – you guessed it – sacrifices!  Three key sacrifices described are the sin offering, guilt offering, and thanksgiving offering, given after surviving a difficult challenge.

This weekend is also significant because it’s PURIM!!!  A time of reveling and celebration, of openness to change and reversals of fates, a time of joy and relief after a near-tragedy.

Now, by this point, I’m pretty sure the whole concept of the future being unwritten, and the power of one to change the world, and the relationships between these concepts and Purim and the Topsy Turvy Bus Tour, has been discussed many times by our avid followers.  But an interesting factor that this week’s parsha brings up is the idea of sin and guilt.

This past week, your beloved bus crew took a much needed spring break on Key West.  Key West is beautiful and interesting, full of culture and art, museums and gardens, fun people and fun places.  It is also very far away.  So when we made our decision to drive the bus all the way to end of route 1, we new that there was a risk involved – that we would run out of vegetable oil.

It was a risk we decided we could live with.  And, in fact, it was a risk that became fact, and despite our efforts, and although we did manage to get a small amount of waste oil from a hotel on the way, eventually we were reading empty, and for the first time since February 17th Jonathan had to switch to petroleum diesel fuel.

Now, every moral dilemma can be dissected and parsed and argued until we run out of breath, but the simple fact here is that based on our beliefs about fossil fuels and the effects that burning them has on the environment, we, as a group, sinned.

We sinned, but we also accepted guilt, and rather than deny our role in this unfortunate turn of events, or wallow in the weight of our guilt, we acted.  We searched for oil.  A lot.  And eventually, behind a small strip mall in Sarasota, Florida, we hit the largest veggie oil take the bus has ever seen.  We’re now running on 75 gallons of waste vegetable oil – enough to get us 600 miles!

So, sometimes people make mistakes.  Sometimes they even act against their own principles knowingly.  But our tradition teaches us that we can bounce back.  Our ancestors offered sin and guilt sacrifices.  Esther, and the rest of Shushan’s Jews, fasted for three days.  Venahafoch Hu.  Thanksgiving is in order.

Shabbat Shalom and Purim Sameach

~The Topsy Turvy Team