“It is not upon me to complete the task, but neither am I free to turn away from the work” (Pirke Avot 2:16)

The community around the bus tour is buzzing with the discussion about the condition of the world. For a people who are famous for, and who pride themselves in containing disparate opinions, there is a general consensus among Jewish communities that the way humanity is interacting with the surrounding world is not sustainable. Work must be done on a large scale, and soon. However, that is where the agreement ends. There exists a multitude of causes for which an individual can campaign, and no way to say which particular one is most important.

In the fall Shomrei Adamah Teva program, there is an activity titled Eco-Shopping. In this exercise, small groups of students are presented with a variety of options of a certain product, and have to choose which option is “best.” The educators challenge the students to justify their selection, and consider the alternatives. Some students choose organic products, others prioritize local business. For some the highest quality at the lowest price is the clear choice, while others are primarily concerned with the conditions of the workers who make the product. All of these choices are “right”. All of these choices are “good.” Yet still there is endless discussion between students to find a common set of values.

Teva holds a set of values as well. The central mitzvot of the organization – custodianship of the planet and the life on it, loving thy neighbor, do not destroy – are expanded and augmented by the personal values of the educators.

Aboard the bus there is a range of opinions on what values should be prioritized. This is most regularly and clearly seen in sourcing our food. While we’ve agreed it’s best to purchase produce grown by the communities we encounter, organic produce may have a lesser negative impact on the environment, and fair trade ensures that we are not contributing to the economic subjugation of other humans. Typically, it is not possible to find food which fulfills all of these requirements, much less choices which are also kosher and accessible to our limited budget. Inevitably there is a decision to be made – if we can’t match all of our values, which columns do we check off? Which beliefs are sacrificed for the sake of other priorities? What is the deciding factor? It makes shopping a much more deliberative procedure, which, I think, it should be.

As educators, we have found that our work is most fulfilling, and our message is most successful, when our students have strongly-held values of their own. We were fortunate to spend time with two Habonim Dror camps. Within the curriculum of these camps there is anglorification of labor and an emphasis on working for common good. We also visited Six Points Academy Sci-Tech camp, where the students are well-attuned to the importance of designing products and systems with intention. Through these lenses, the students could see our passion for sustainability. As a camp, they already know the power of gathering as a community to strive for a cause.

In general, our cause is improving our society’s relationship with its ecological surroundings. It’s more than a belief, it’s something we’ve chosen to pursue through dedication of our time and energy. Consequently, this means we are not working on other causes. It’s true. We are not engaged in reducing the violence visited upon innocents in this country or others. We are not campaigning to defend the rights of citizens to express their identity however they choose. We are not actively building homes for those who have none. These are injustices, and though they are committed against only certain individuals, the human race suffers as a whole. These are not our campaigns. We have our own work. Yet we are partners in the task of improving our world.

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”  -Lilla Watson, Indigenous Australian activist and artist

How to Play the Game

The premise is simple. When I run my station for a group of kids, they have to move a box from point A to point B without touching it or dropping it.  They have a collection of blankets, PVC piping and ropes to work as a team to construct a carrying device.  This activity is meant to simulate the carrying of the Aron Kodesh, or holy ark, by the Israelites on their forty year sojourn through the desert, teaching the campers about aspects of the Miskhan, our theme for the summer, all while tricking them into a team building and communication activity.  At the end of the activity I focus the closing sicha (conversation) on the importance of different jobs in a community, and how the members of their communities are just as much of a resources as that PVC pipe they were using to construct their design.

frances' game

When I was creating this activity with Jacob before the tour, I had a very specific concept in mind when selecting the materials.  Explicitly described in detail in the Torah, the ark was essentially a big golden box with two winged cruvim (often translated as cherubs) on top of it, carried on two large poles.  So to that effect, I provide the groups with what, in my head, would be the perfect materials to build a stretcher.  Poles for the group members to hold, a blanket to drape across the poles to cradle the spray painted wooden box that represents the ark, and a rope to lift the ark onto the blanket.  Fascinatingly, however,  this is very rarely the design that the kids make.

I have seen groups put boxes into boxes, sacks on poles, knots through key holes, and countless other designs.  One group even created an assembly line passing the box wrapped in a blanket to each other all the way from point a to point b.  Each time I present the rules in the same way.  In addition to not being able to touch the box, the groups have to listen to each other, ensure that each member is participating the in the construction, share the resources between the teams, and to wait to test out their design on the real aron box until I give them permission.  And yet, each time the design is different, and more interestingly the group dynamics vary widely from group to group.

frances game 2 older kids

I have watched in fascination, the differences determined by the demographics of a group.  I am by no means a social psychologist, but because I have done this experiment so many times, I have noticed some patterns that have come up among the groups.  Groups of all girls more often than not stand in a circle and talk out their plan before trying to implement it, while groups of boys immediately go for the materials and discuss their way through their plan based on who is holding which material.  Older kids tend to go with the first idea that is spoken by a member of the group, while younger kids each come up with their own idea and are then upset when their idea was not implemented by the group.  Some groups get fixated on the fairness of the division of resources between the teams, while other groups are upset when both teams come up with the same idea.  I have had reactions ranging from total enthusiasm (often the 7-11 year olds) to complete apathy (often the 12-14 year olds) to utter bafflement (often the 4-6 year olds).  Needless to say, that despite the fact that I am repeating the game 4-16 times a day, the results and group dynamics are never the same.

Are these differences due to camp culture? Biology? Gender socialization? Stages of human development? I am certainly not the one who will be able to answer that question.  However, there is one, overwhelmingly cliché, universal similarity amongst all the groups.  The groups that were able to listen and include all the members of their team did better than the teams that could not.  The teams that were able to work together were able to carry the Aron farther, build a more sound structure, and experiment more.

On the bus we live in very close quarters, with four other people.  After a long day of work, in the middle of a frustrating discussion, on a hot day, it is easy to forget that our greatest tools are the people around us.  This is true of any group or team.  I am excited to see more groups of kids try out this experiment this summer, and I hope that I remain humbled by the ways that they find to work together to solve problems.

Topsy Turvy goes to Habo

I absolutely adore camp; and the main reason that I think every child should be able to go to summer camp is because I’m a firm believer in the power of community. As former campers, counselors, and/or Tevaniks, we [the bus crew] quickly became a tight-knit group, looking to our past experiences as guidance for which community roles we might fit into best. At the same time, we’re also familiar with the group development process – forming, storming, norming, performing –  and know that regardless of the circumstances and individuals involved, every group will almost inevitably experience each of these group development phases.


As our own group develops, we also have the opportunity to observe how camps view, develop and uphold strong communities. This past week, we were especially lucky to visit two Habonim Dror camps: Camp Galil in Ottsville, PA and Camp Na’aleh in Windsor, NY. Habonim Dror camps are essentially kibbutzim for American children – socialist, zionist, and forward-thinking.

Pretty much all summer camps encourage collaboration, participation and relationship-building, however these camps are particularly special in their dedication to camper-based decision-making and unmitigated camp spirit. While all “Habo” camps embody these ideals, each goes about it in a unique way, so it was fascinating to see how the two adapted parallel values amongst differing types of communities.

The campers and staff at Galil welcomed each meal with loud “yala-lalalala” cheers accompanied by continuous stomping and table banging, Similarly, the entire camp at Na’aleh concluded their meals with “Do your thing” cheers, calling on every group in the relatively small Chadar O’chel to “do their thing”. And although the camps differ greatly in size and facilities, each has weekly community meetings that include all members of the camp community, giving a voice to anyone who has a concern, question or suggestion they wish to share.jacob


Another striking similarity was the age of staff members. At both camps, it was often hard to tell who was a camper and who was a staffer – even the camp directors are rarely older than 25! At Habo camps, the all too common adult-camper dichotomy has no place; in fact, when we arrived to Na’aleh, the madrichim (counselors) were just entering the moadon (lounge) to break (e.g conclude) “revo” – a day when the madatzim (Counselors in Training) – run camp.

Madatzim play a huge role at Habo camps, serving as the link between camper and counselor. Each madatz is a peer to the campers (and in their eyes even cooler than their counselors since they don’t necessarily have to enforce rules), while fulfilling actual leadership responsibilities – not just doing menial labor. At camps with such strong CIT programs, staffers tend to identify themselves by their madatz year, indicating that group identity/unity truly comes as a result of empowerment. In this sense, Habo camps go beyond simply providing a fun summer for campers, but furthermore foster responsibility, leadership, and community ties.

It was inspiring for us to view this firsthand and to play our own small part in their experience of forging group identity. It was also exciting for us to be at a place where the connections bridged by campers and counselors align with our mishkan theme for the 2015 bus tour.  Through our programs we hope for campers to see and value the contributions each of them makes, to appreciate the work they do together, and, on a larger scale, to feel empowered to work with others to make change in their own communities. By living out our own values of sharing our space and our lives, living minimally, and working together, we hope to serve as one possible model to inspire the communities and individuals we visit to take initiative to make positive environmental change in ways that are authentic to them.  In this case, being at Na’aleh and Galil similarly inspired us incorporate what we learned from them.  Being with the Habo campers, madatzim, and staff displayed the tangible success of our belief that by valuing and empowering those around us, everyone can take on leadership and responsibility to achieve more than they thought was possible.

Behind the Scenes: keva & kevana

While the Jews were traveling with the mishkan in the desert, the Levites took care of the holy utensils, and carrying all the trappings and decorations while the rest of the Jews wandered around the desert. For such a holy assignment, every once in a while it must still have felt like schlepping. And someone had the honored and undesirable task of scraping the altar after a burnt offering. How confounding it must be to want to complain about the inconvenience of cleaning the most spiritual corner of our physical universe.

Our beloved bus requires frequent maintenance. As long as we, the Bus Crew, can ride comfortably in the back, the Bus can look like however we want, with bins open and stuff on couches. While we wander, our space is our space. But as soon as we begin the sacred activity of programs at camps, the bus needs to be spotless. Showing off the bus is always gratifying. Holding the bus to that standard of cleanliness, not so much.

On Sunday, Ginny and I spent time in DC. We didn’t have programming, the bus was locked up in the shop, and I wanted to walk all the way around the mall (which we did). Among the many perks of our nation’s capitol, including but not limited to free Smithsonians, open city skies, and the literally monolithic Washington Monument, is the majesty of the architecture, the elegant arches and commanding columns. No building better demonstrates the grandiose of DC than the Capitol building itself. Unfortunately, when we reached the mall and checked that, yes the Washington Monument is still there and to our right we have the Capitol Building…..under construction?!?!?!!? As Francis informed me when we returned home, “Oh yeah, they do that every couple of years.”

My first reaction was disappointment. Obviously. But my next thought was “ How incredible it must be to work on the Capitol.” If I came across a listing in the paper or list serve or wherever one might run across construction openings and saw a description for a Capitol Building construction position, I would perform embarrassingly bad cartwheels on national television if it meant I could work on the Capitol Building.

But I’m looking in from the outside. To a full-time construction worker perhaps the task feels like only an occasional joy. That first glimpse of the job site might bring a flutter to the heart, only to fade as the job wears on. Israelites from the rest of tribe might give arms and legs and brothers or sisters for the opportunity to sweep the ash on the Altar, while Levites might resent having the same assignment three days in a row.

At the shop, the bus must have inspired factions of mechanics lobbying for the opportunity to work on such an insane creation. Days of rioting and Olympic competition to settle the decision. There might be gratification in the completion of a work order. The bus must inspire people from even the reception of the task.

SOMEone needs to scrub the Altar every once in a while so the burnt offerings don’t build up a residue. Capitol Hill needs a makeover every once in a while or the dome will lose its shine. And our Mobile Holy Space (bus) has to go into the shop or we can’t blow minds along the tour.

This juxtaposition strikes me as the common Jewish spiritual struggle of keva (ritual) vs. kavana (intention). Most often applied to prayer, this dichotomy equally sets the tone of our work. The Levites get to eat the meat of the altar. While the rest of the Israelites might imagine the glory of eating holy meat, they couldn’t possibly understand the elbow grease put in to keep the Mishkan holy. They don’t get the same gratifying takeaway as those that understand the grind. Although I might jump at the opportunity to work on the Capitol Building, I come woefully unprepared for the task. And if I can’t effectively help, I can’t fully appreciate the finished product.

But I do get a glimpse of the end result of the Bus programs and chance encounters. I see eyes light up at our door, as people of all ages file onto the one and only Topsy Turvy Bus. I feel the stretch for understanding when they pepper us with questions of how we shower (rain, or showers at host homes or summer camps), where we go to the bathroom (bathrooms in rest stops or gas stations or at host homes and summer camps), what do we eat (food, either what we have on the shelf or meals at host homes or summer camps). Or my favorite: will it drive if it flips over (no). I have a hand in what goes into making the Topsy Turvy Bus Tour possible (keva) so I know the satisfaction that comes from offering people a chance to expand their mind (kavana).

Hopefully our mechanics are happy for the work and grateful with the payoff. I know I am with the bus. And I imagine the Levites in the desert were as well. The bus needs this keva maintenance we need to be back on the road fulfilling our kavana mission.

Lost and Found

“Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All of these things have come to them from ignorance of real good and ill. But I, I have seen that the nature of good is the right and of ill the wrong, and I have seen that the nature of the man who does wrong is still similar to my nature. Maybe not of the same blood and seed, but partaking with me in mind, in a portion of Divinity. So I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no man can force me into doing wrong; Nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him; for we have come into the world to work together: like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. To work against one another is therefore to oppose Nature, and to be vexed with another or to turn away from him would be to turn toward working-against.” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 2 #1, adaptation mine

As we stepped off the DC Metro at the Cleveland Park station, underground but well-lit, stately and very station-like, I patted my pockets, as I always do. An expression of horror coupled with embarrassment flooded my face as I turned to the departing subway car and watched my cell phone float away, travelling placidly in the middle of the seat I had occupied a minute before. The case was orange and grey, I could never mistake it. I could do nothing.

I couldn’t run after it–no automated car in the world would stop for me, especially not a DC Metro (noted for their cleanliness and timeliness, virtues I would normally appreciate). I couldn’t catch up to it. I had few options, and I felt as if they fled by the second. The longer we waited to take effective action, the likelier it seemed that my phone would pass into the crooked hands of some young thief, no doubt cheery at his good fortune, the lapses-of-vigilance of other humans.

Why should we have to be vigilant at all times? Was there no trust? Was there no decency, no sense of human family? My head buzzed with philosophies. My phone wouldn’t make it one station, I told myself. It was already lost, and like the Stoics I should regard it as having been so from the first. But I am not a Stoic. My heart throbbed, worrisome. It upset me deeply, thinking of how smugly satisfied the newfound owner of my phone must be, as I imagined him.  Probably, he (probably a he) didn’t even need it, and would sell it for the price of pre-ripped pants, or to finance a dumb house party to impress texting friends. He’d probably misspell words on the eBay page, and use cAmeL caPs (ugh).

We approached a Metro employee, who did all he could to help us. The rest of the Topsy crew described the phone to him and he called all the forward stations, while I fumed on the ground, head in hands, losing all sense. I recalled my childhood, moments when I felt alone in the injustice of the world-at-large, press-ganged into fighting for the right, for my own rights, because I was alone in the good fight, or so I imagined. I imagined I was mild-mannered, and the fight was my duty. I had a very strong sense of right and wrong then, and I let everybody know it, and I threw tantrums. I don’t throw tantrums anymore, and I try not to cling so tightly to right and wrong. Sometimes, when I feel I have no options, though, I do get angry, and my energy turns to fighting off a tantrum. It doesn’t look like much, from the outside. But it hurts my head and I don’t enjoy it.

We tried a few things. I called Apple from France’s phone, but my wayward phone was dead and we couldn’t locate it. The station guard informed us that the trains were headed back our direction, and we should each board a car, investigate, and quickly hop off. We hopped on like little 007’s, scanning every seat, and got stuck as the doors closed, bringing us one station back. Always a step back. We returned on the next train, and I was a mile away. I thank the team for taking care of me and for interfacing with the world while I imagined the inconvenience and expense I would endure in getting a new phone and resetting it to fit my needs and habits. Childish, I know, but we all get angry. I needed time.

I let go of the phone in my mind. Not in the Stoic way. I mourned its passing. I wanted time to grieve it before moving on. I was about to put it in Lost Mode remotely, locking all my precious data. But the most amazing thing happened. All of the people I had recently contacted received a text message from a stranger, who had picked up my phone, gotten off the Metro at or before his destination, charged my phone, and told them that he had found it and would like to return it. The process of contacting and meeting him (I still don’t know his name) is less dramatic than the process of letting my phone go. But we did meet him, and he happily returned it. I gave him a 6-pack of root beer and asked if I could buy him dinner (it seemed the thing to do). He was busy, he said. He said another thing.

He could have left, but he shared a brief thought with us. A motivation for his actions, what we in TEVA would call a kavanna. He said (I paraphrase), “yeah, it was no trouble. People think with all the devices that we are getting further from each other. But I think as more people get hooked in, they realize how essential these objects become to getting along everyday, in planning and managing details and whatnot. I think when they realize how much they depend on it, they’ll look out for each other’s, because they know how important it is to that other person. They look out for each other because they know how much it means. I hope so. That’s why I did it. And I think some karma will come back to me when I need it.”

We talk about building communities. We try to teach kids and their supervisors (who are also kids, of a kind) to open space, blaze a holy trail to a clearing, where residents of a place can contribute and be uniquely valued. Where they can belong and become members of a community, and can work toward something together instead of floundering alone. I tell them to do this. I tell children that to work together is holy. I don’t tell them what to work toward. I am not a Stoic: I couldn’t let go of my attachment to an external object and I couldn’t forgive my imagined aggressor. But I know, to work against each other is to oppose nature, we have no choice but to work together. We can’t go away from each other: ‘there’s no such place as away’.

I still have a strong sense of right and wrong. I was right–a young man in stylish pants did pick up my phone. But I was wrong–first, I am not mild-mannered. And second, I am not alone in the world, in the fight to create what is right. Third, it is not even really a fight. There are no enemies. There are only people.

There are people working toward the things I am working toward, and there are people who are wrong. No, I mean it–it is ok to say that I think I see the right and that other people don’t see what I see. It’s also ok to say that I don’t see everything. I need other people to remind me, sometimes, of how the world is. I need people to take care of me sometimes. I need people to go out of their way to try to correct my mistakes, and I need people to look out for me, because they know how much it means. I need people to disagree with me too, but that’s a different blog post. Like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth: We don’t operate in isolation, one tooth cannot create holiness. I don’t always know what is right, what’s the best to fight for. But I know this: there are good people in the world. They need some help. The rest, we can figure out.


The Mobile Holy Space 2015 Takeoff

Mobile Holy Space. That’s what I have been calling the Topsy Turvy Bus. That has been our tagline thus far. As the driver and mechanic, I feel a special attachment to the bus that I worked on and prepared before the tour. And as soon as we heard about the Mishkan theme it became our Mobile Holy Space.

Mobile Holy Space. It rolls off the tongue. It succinctly sums up the identity we have created for the bus. It’s what I call it when I’m talking to the kids on the bus. But it might take some time before I feel like it fits.

The Mishkan was also a Mobile Holy Space. For 40 years in the desert and until they established the Temple in Jerusalem, the Jews carried around their Mishkan as a worshipping space, a gathering space, a space to deliver justice. Sometimes it feels disingenuine to compare the Topsy Turvy Bus to, according to some, the only space on space in the physical realm that God dwelled within.

What makes a holy space? We have asked many of the kids who came on the bus and overwhelmingly the response comes to making a space personal. Putting up posters. A security blanket or favorite stuffed animal. A secret hideaway in a corner of camp. Something that says: “This space is mine.”

Our second day on the road, we visited the Hazon CSA of South Jersey. Many of the members of the CSA walked by the bus and gave us sideways glances as they rushed in to grab their fresh produce and back off to their busy lives. Some interested members oohed and aahed over the veggie system and one young child refused to leave for over an hour with just the word “bus” crying to communicate his want to be around our ridiculous home. But the highlight of our afternoon came when Rivka walked onto the bus and made it HERS.

She walked by with her friend Jacob and I called to them, “Hey you’re not just going to walk by this crazy bus right?”

Without missing a beat: “We live around the corner. We’ll be back.” And they were. Five minutes later they waltzed back up to me and said “Can we go on the bus?” and then “Can we sit up there?” And they sat up on the loft and interrogated me for the next fifteen minutes. When they finally ran out of questions, Rivka said “You guys need a TV (As I told her, we already have a TV.) And I think you guys should put in a popcorn maker. And some new curtains. And I think you guys need to redo that LOVE sign in the window.”

At first I thought that putting in a TV kind of misses the message of the Topsy Turvy bus. But then I realized that she just wanted to make the Bus look like her home. She stepped into the space, got comfortable and created the space she wanted to live in. Maybe That’s all a place needs to be holy.

When the Jews built the Mishkan, lead builder Bezalel had to ask Moses to tell the people to stop donating supplies because the they gave so readily. Maybe all those people simply wanted to make the space theirs. As we ride on the bus we’ll figure out our favorite nooks, add some decoration, put in a personal touch until we can say this space is MINE. Then our mobile home will be Mobile Holy Space.

from our space to yours all the best,


What’s an Intentional Community?

Hi, I’m Sam, and I’m the Teva intern this summer. Since I started the internship, I’ve been continuously learning new phrases and concepts. After three weeks of scrolling through Teva archives, sitting in on staff meetings, and spending three days at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, it’s no surprise that my Jewish vocabulary and knowledge of gardening had expanded. However, there were other new words I couldn’t quite understand.

Within the first hour of arriving at Isabella Freedman, the two supervisors accompanying us sat us (the other interns and me) down in a circle on the couches and asked, “Have you ever lived in an intentional community? If so, what was it like?”

I soon grew nervous. Not because I didn’t want to answer the question or because I didn’t want to share an experience. I didn’t know what an intentional community was. It was a foreign concept to me. I sat as my fellow intern friends spoke of living in the Moishe House and their sorority house with 50 other girls and summers in Yellowstone national park with other teenagers. As I listened, I pieced together a simple definition for “intentional community.” To my understanding, it consists of individuals living together, brought together and unified by a shared set of principles, purpose, and values.

I racked my brain. I thought of my lacrosse and volleyball team practices throughout high-school, my nights at sleep-away camp, and various trips to many different states and countries with family, friends, and organizations. However, when it was my turn to answer the question, I said I have yet to be part of an intentional community.

An intentional community has a deeper role. There is something truly unique and special about committing yourself to live with others with the same interests and goals. It is a powerful experience to live by your values and fulfill your goals alongside others. This is what the people at Isabella Freedman have done. Furthermore, this is what the Teva educators of the Topsy Turvy bus tour are experiencing.

Just as we were about to depart Isabella Freedman to head back to the NYC Hazon office, we ran into Jacob, one of the Teva bus educators. He was in the midst of training for the bus tour and asked us if we’d like to check out the bus.

He gave us a brief tour, pointing out the beds, the oil filters, the boxes full of books, costumes, composting worms, etc. He then told us their plan for the summer. They have just started life aboard the packed double-decker school-bus where they will be living for the next 7 weeks. They will spend the remainder of the summer engaging kids all over the Northeast in workshops like the bike-blender and composting worms. They will trigger discussion about sustainability, conservation, and how Judaism fits in. On the road, they will be stopping by local restaurants to pick-up their leftover vegetable oil for the bus engine. People all over will stop them to ask them questions, and they will open up their home to share their story with these strangers-turned-friends.

After stepping off the bus, I felt like I finally fully comprehended the power of an intentional community. Here the Teva educators were living on mattresses stacked above, below and next to each other and sharing the responsibilities that come along. But they chose to be here and they are beyond excited to transition from training to visiting, educating, and discussing.

Many people I know would shy away from this job because of the lack of the “home’s” personal bedrooms and privacy altogether. But most people I know have also never experienced the privilege of being part of an intentional community and working together to do something so great and so passionately at the same time.