An Intern’s Day on the Bus: The Power of a Smoothie

A couple of Fridays ago, I  had the privilege of helping this year’s Topsy Turvy Bus crew through the Staten Island portion of their tour. By this point, I had already been managing the Topsy Turvy blog page (and thus keeping pace with the tour’s zany and inspiring adventures and misadventures) and generally fulfilling the varied and colorful duties of a Teva summer intern for a few weeks. I do not mean to suggest that I believed myself to have a firm grasp on what to expect when I concluded the combined two hour train, bus, and car ride that would take me to Staten Island for the first time and walked up the JCC Camp parking lot to the upside down school bus.  On the contrary, in fact–many years had passed since my last days at Jewish day camp, and college had not afforded me ample time to interact with children. As I approached that beloved, bio-fueled behemoth of a bus at the center of a buzzing throng of excited children, I knew only that I would sleep well that night. I did not know that my views towards its cross country sustainability mission would have changed so dramatically by the time I closed my eyes. 

The beginning of the shift in my outlook began with a question a camper asked Emily after the group of second grade boys settled comfortably on the bus’s three cushioned platforms and reluctantly heeded their counselors’ instructions to remove their feet from the crew’s pillows:

“Where do you go to the bathroom?”

He had seen the decorative strands of hanging lights, the throw pillows, the sink, the kitchen counter atop which I sat—surely a bus this well supplied would provide for such a basic daily need?

Emily answered with another question, which I would come to recognize as a typical practice for Teva educators in full teaching mode.

“Well, where do you go to the bathroom when you’re on road trips with your families?” she asked.

She nodded when a camper answered with “a gas station,” and then she launched into the seitan and potatoes of the presentation: “Do you think this bus has to stop for gas?”

There was a smattering of yes’s and no’s but nothing further, so Emily asked me to pass her the glass jar of vegetable oil next to me and held it up to the group. This, she explained to the fascinated campers, is veggie oil, and it fuels the bus. “Can anyone tell me what we use veggie oil for?”




“Well, yes, technically all those things. How many of you like French fries?” she asked, and to the bus of raised hands she continued, “We go to restaurants that serve yummy fried foods like French fries, donuts, and chicken fingers, and we ask them to give us their used frying oil to fuel our bus.” She then asked me to hand her a jar of brownish oil, and explained that this was what the oil looked like when they picked it up from restaurants. The twirling tubes she pointed out took the oil through a centrifuge, which spins very quickly and separated the clean oil from the floating bits of food. These bits of food, she continued, as I handed her a jar of sticky, blackish goop (so far my job was proving fairly easy), then became food for the bus’s pets.

“What kind of pets do you think we have on the bus that love this food?”




Alas, it was not dolphins, but worms—though perhaps Emily’s explanation made worms seem almost as cool as dolphins. By eating the goop and—Emily opted for frankness over delicacy, prompting some giggles—pooping it out, the worms were able to make soil, which could grow more vegetables, which in turn could produce more vegetable oil. Silence, and then one camper lightly smacked himself upside the head and shouted, “Oh!”  There were many more questions, but the fifteen minute time limit per rotation session soon pushed the campers to the following station, which would explore composting and worms in greater detail and even allow for some digging. While the next two or three groups unfolded in much the same way, I found my mind kept drifting back to the lack of a bathroom. There were five people living on this bus together, sleeping foot-to-face at night without even the temporary personal space of a consistent bathroom. How passionate about environmental education do you have to be to do that and greet children on a ninety five degree day with a smile?

I learned during the dizzying fifteen minute lunch/bathroom/meet-the-crew/orient-the-intern break both that the crew had attempted sleep in the parking lot last night and had largely failed because of the heat and that today, with their typical programming time cut in half to accommodate the hundreds of campers of different age groups, was one of their most hectic days on the tour. Yaakov had said that he could use some help with the bicycle blender station, so I followed him to the lime green stationary bike on the basketball court.

For those less accustomed to their bicycle associations overlapping with those of their blender, the Bike Blender is a stationary, lime green, wheel-less bike sporting a detachable blender. Its design allows the forward motion of its pedals to rotate the blender’s blade, thus allowing for wireless, human-powered smoothies within minutes. Over the course of roughly three hours, I would become fairly adept at smoothie literacy and arm biking. “Smoothie literacy” here refers to putting fruit and juice into a blender and pouring the resulting smoothie into cups. “Arm biking” refers to pushing the pedals with my hands when campers were too short to see both pedals through their full rotations or when a cup-full of frozen strawberries proved particularly difficult to blend with feet alone. These newly acquired ‘skills’ freed up Yaakov to focus on teaching the campers about what he called the “smoothie cycle”: Plants get their energy from the sun, we get our energy from plants (or animals that eat those plants), this energy allows us to pedal bike blenders, which allows us to drink the smoothies, which gives us the energy to learn and maybe grow those plants again. Of course, Yaakov’s teaching was far more engaging than a rote chain of cause and effect. He would ask the campers where they got their energy (“sleeping was the most common answer, followed closely by the correct answer, “food”), what they did with their energy (“Running!” “Kickball!” Riding a bike!”), where bananas come from (the best response, if incorrect, was “monkeys!”), and why a blender that did not rely on electricity might be good for us and for the world.  

The answers to this question caused an unexpected frustration to mix (or blend, if you will) with the happy exhaustion of working with hundreds of children. Campers as old as twelve had not yet learned about the existence, let alone issues attributed to, the fossil fuel industry. And while Yaakov happily introduced the children to the these and to the concept and practice of using renewable (versus nonrenewable) resources when time permitted, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat overwhelmed. My generation will be defined, in part, by its ability to effectively navigate accelerating climate change, plummeting biodiversity levels, and the general depletion of ubiquitous and highly convenient nonrenewable resources. Left uninterrupted, these environmental issues have led, and will continue leading to, devastating and potentially irreversible consequences worldwide. Could helping a small child push a pedal to blend frozen blueberries really make a difference in the face of such tremendous challenges?

Falling asleep that night, I realized that I had known the answer even as I asked it. Of course helping campers pedal bicycle smoothies can make a difference. The gravity of the environmental issues facing us today is powerful enough that people allow it to suck in and swallow creativity and humor. Teva, however, is an educational force fighting that pull. It forgoes the somber self righteousness and almost reverent hopelessness that plagues so many environmental educators and organizations and opts instead to foster a sense of wonder and possibility in those who will one day become powerful agents of of Tikkun Olam (rebuilding the world). Images of oil-crusted pelicans and decimated rainforests are in no way unimportant in affecting change, but they are not necessarily keys into the world of activism. Thinking outside the box and discovering the “extra” component of the once-ordinary–learning that veggie oil can fuel a bus, that ordinary worms can make soil, that our feet can power a blender–these are the skills that invite people, and especially children,  to learn, to act, and to effectuate positive change throughout their lives. It is because of, and not despite, the magnitude of today’s environmental issues that Teva’s Topsy Turvy Bus happily trades in toilets for tabletop composting and personal space for peanut butter. They recognize that creativity and curiosity are two of sustainability’s greatest allies.


The Water Cycle Boogie Goes Up… and to the West

We’ve landed in Detroit!!!! Our arms are still a bit tired from all the flying but we made it! Upon arriving in Detroit we reconnected with Elan and Lauren which was a very special treat. After the airport we headed to meet up with Topsy Turvy 2.0. While it wasn’t the bus we’ve been traveling on, we were excited to make it our new home. After connecting with the new bus we departed to the Hazon Detroit Head quarters to meet the fellows, Sue, and the rest of the Detroit office. It was great to spend time with the fellows and learn about the work they do on the urban farm and around Detroit.
Our hosts in Detroit, Lori and Jeff Lasday (Frances’ aunt and uncle), quickly became our Midwestern Ima and Abba. We can count on them to provide us with gluten free snacks and more fruit than we could imagine. All the supplies that we forgot in the Northeast we could now find in Lasday’s basement. After a tearful goodbye with Lori we made our way to Tamarack.

We had a blast doing two days of programming at Tamarack where we saw their beautiful nature center. A big thank you to Bailey (a fellow JOFEE fellow!) for all her help with organizing the great days we had at Tamarack. There were two especially memorable events at Tamarack: The first night there, Emily and I slept on the roof because we have new railings so it was a safe kosher roof. As we were falling asleep, we saw a shooting star. WOW! Then we held hands about it. The counselors in our program the next day were so helpful, we could really feel the excitement of our participants that they ignited. As we met with out second group in the middle of the day a big rainstorm came in and prevented us from continuing. However, it ended up turning into a great time of dancing and singing in the rain.

Updates on Tavor to come soon! We had a blast, can’t wait to tell all about it! So far Topsy Turvy 2.0 is treating us very well. Missing family and friends, can’t wait to continue with all of our updates.

Place, Space, Pace

It is late Sunday afternoon and I am testing the limits of my motion sickness by writing this post on the train to Grand Central Station. Phase two of our journey has officially begun – what I like to call (affectionately) “The Road to Nowhere – Midwest Edition.” All 5 of us are squished in our seats, straddling our massive backpacks and using ukuleles as pillows. We made sure to pack the essentials: assorted flavors of Adamah jam, a spare centrifuge, the dismantled logistics binder, and our grease-stained Teva tshirts. In the morning, we will (G-d willing) be flying westward towards a magical land callllllllled… drumroll please… DETROIT, MICHIGAN!

The past week has been filled with rice and beans, birthday love, sweltering bus rides, friendship in unexpected places, and brewing thunderstorms. We left Isabella Freedman late Thursday night and headed to Camp Kinder Ring, all of us giddy to be back with our big metal baby. Friday morning we fell smoothly back into the grind of talking worms, bicycle smoothies, and introducing children to the wonders of soil. When the day was over, we made our way down to Fahnstock State Park to prepare for the camping Shabbliss. Itai got back on his beloved bicycle and peddled us some ped-pesto for dinner (did you know that everything tastes better if you make it on a bicycle blender?!) A thunderstorm was rolling in and it really felt like all of the weight of the passing week was preparing to release itself with the rain. I was grateful for the shelter of our beloved bus, and how it can so seamlessly transform from vehicle to classroom to rejuvenating and sweet home. If you ever feel the need to redefine your understanding of what home is, I highly recommend living on an upside bus for a summer! Shabbat came and so did our dear friends from Eden Village Camp – we ate so much salad, sang, and took full advantage of ample nap time.

Our week was filled with back-to-back programs in the New York region. There were early mornings, long drives, music videos recorded, and new meals invented. We mastered the art of rice-cooker-on-the-go; by the end of our long evenings of driving, dinner was ready and the bus was filled with smells of our now famous dish “squash n’ beans.” During our programs, I really began to find the meditation in saying the same 15-minute shpiel over and over and over again. And just when it begins to feel like all of my words are turning into a mushy repetitive mess, children throw out a plot twist with the questions they come up with. From asking how we manage to shower (and the subsequent looks of horror when our answer is given) to asking if we are all dating and how we are going to raise children on the bus, I feel prepared to counter any inquiry. And then there is the observant kid, who at the end of the day comes to me and asks, “why are you doing this? Are you satisfied with your life on the bus?” Big shoutout to these kids for making me stop and remember why I got myself on this wacky journey in the first place. At the end of the day, when I am lying in the less-than-pleasurable heat of the bus, I feel truly whole, energized, supported, and blessed by the place I am in.

BIG and special thanks to the Ward Family of Scarsdale and Beth El day camp for being true members of the bus tour family year after year.


With love,


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The Topsy Turvy… Van Tour?


IMG_2740 IMG_5404 (1) IMG_5441The Topsy Turvy Bus Tour has been going on without the Topsy Turvy Bus for about a week now.  So, dear reader, you may ask–what could the bus crew possibly be up to when forced to leave the safety of mother bus?  The answer is frankly, a whole bunch of little things. The loss of the Bellows Kit could not keep us down, for in the past week we have been transformed into the Topsy Turvy Van Tour–driving around in a white, 15-person passenger van carrying the five of us plus all of our programming material including the worm bin, water filter, buckets, tents, cheese cooler, and bicycle blender.  

We were very excited to be able to offer our program, sans bus, to Camp Gan Israel in both Greenwich and Westport, Connecticut, last week. The program, after all, isn’t exclusively about debating whether the bus is Topsy or Turvy.  As educators, we are trained to be flexible and make the best out of tricky situations and we really enjoyed focusing on our other stations.  We even added in an extra station about worms and compost. This challenge allowed us to strengthen the program and gave us lots of practice in adapting our stations to any situation.   

One major thing that came out of our adventure off the bus was learning how to confront group issues that come up in times of stress and conflict.  As popular group formation theory goes, cohorts inevitably go through a series of stages that allows them to become a successful team. From my assessment, in week two of the tour we are solidly past the “forming” stage in which we established our goals, intentions, and roles and are moving solidly through “storming” and “norming.”  Learning how each crew member deals with disappointment, problem solving, trouble shooting, purchasing food, expressing opinions and emotions, and most constructively receives feedback, in addition to figuring out what to do when our needs conflict with each others, has been an important part of our week.  I have been proud of our group for placing ourselves into these hard conversations even though they are not fun.  I think that we are becoming stronger as a group.   This week we have also had fun getting to know each other; after all, we have only been a team for two weeks, even though it feels like much longer than that.  


Something that has been important for us was our decision to come back to Freedman until the bus is repaired.  While on the van tour we have had incredibly generous hosts who have opened up their homes and kitchen to the crew.  Shoutout to Lauren’s Aunt and Uncle in Springfield, Rabbi Jim and Wendy who took us in very last minute in Fairfield, our lovely Shabbat hosts in Northampton (previous Tevanicks Sonia Wilk and Rebecca Steinfeld!), Emily and Molly’s friends Ben and George, and Itai’s friend Hamsa.  That being said, we felt that we needed to be more grounded and together as a team in our own space, so we headed back to Freedman.  Thanks for the current Adamah cohort and all of the people who live and work here for being excited to see us and making us feel at home.  


While here we have done everything we could to feel productive and to spend our time.  We have swam in various bodies of water, had extensive planning meetings, workshopped our stations and skit to continue to grow our program, watched movies, played games, had “band practice,” and even spent some time weeding with Adamah on the farm.  We have also embraced the alone time that being here has provided us, something that is impossible while on the bus.  Despite all of our best efforts to stay busy we are definitely feeling antsy, and needless to say, we are very excited to get back on the bus today (G!d willing).  


As Emily said, what this experience has really taught us is how to let go when we cannot control a situation.  We have been at the mercy of the mechanics this week (thanks to Dave’s for all your hard work!), of waiting for the parts of the bus to arrive via FedEx from across the country, and of the health of our home, the Topsy Turvy Bus.  We hope that she makes a full recovery and remains well for the rest of the tour!


Shabbat Shalom,

Frances, Itai, Molly, Ya’akov and Emily


We All Live Downstream

image image imageWelcome to the Topsy Turvy Bus 2k16 blog! The past few days have been full of updates, surprises, adventures, and hilarity that we can’t wait to tell you about. As we write this, we are back at Isabella Freedman after three programs, ten minutes of improvised theater about our experience getting stuck in a ditch, about three or four mechanic friends, and five bananaphones. A big shoutout to Adamah for the warm and loving surprise goodbye party on Beebe Hill as we were leaving, to Earth Sky Time for welcoming us for lunch on our way to Burlington, to Rabbi Jim and Wendy for their last-minute hospitality, and to all the staff of Isabella Freedman for lending us their van while we wait for our bus to be repaired.


So where shall we begin our story? It begins about an hour or two after having left Isabella Freedman, when our Topsy Turvy Bus began to rattle, kvetch, and make all manners of fuss and ruckus and would not move faster than 40 miles per hour. Our friends at Earth Sky Time pointed the way to the local mechanic, and Molly learned to explain with full detail and zest the issue with our bus (if you would like the details, or just want to learn about bellows kits, talk to her!) We managed to get the bus to our first program at Gan Israel in Burlington and ran a most exciting debut program of the summer. Songs about water were sung, smoothies were biked, water was filtered through rocks, and much fun was had by the campers of Gan Israel. We then stopped at the Ben & Jerry’s factory. Ben Cohen, who commissioned the bus, was unavailable for comment, but we enjoyed his famous ice cream and a game of Those Cows Are My Cows.


From there we began the slow drive to Southern Connecticut. Driving up a steep hill at about five miles per hour, we accrued an entourage of about twenty cars. But this was not our usual fan club of “Wow, look at that bus!” and our queen’s wave to all passers-by. This was a long row of probably frustrated drivers waiting to get through. We pulled over to let them pass, but Topsy Turvy could not pull itself out of the ditch off the side of the road. Seconds later, we noticed smoke out of the side of the bus. We grabbed our valuables– Guitars! Logistics binder! Cheddar goldfish! We waited for the tow truck and watched the horrified faces of passers-by who took us for an overturned school bus. Eventually, we got on our way, picked up the van that Elan drove to us in Western MA, and went to our next two programs in the van.


As our sages have said, when life gives you smushed bananas, make bicycle smoothies. We improvised an exhilarating play about our misadventures on the bus, starring Emily as the talking worm, Itai’s hair as algae in the water, and the smoothie bananas as the phones with which we call each other to spread the important message of protecting our clean water. Never underestimating the imagination of campers, our programs went just fine powered by water cycles and comic relief.


‘Till next time,


Emily, Molly, Frances, Itai, and Ya’akov

Our Final Visit

We’ve found ourselves, yet again, heading North on the New Jersey Turnpike to one of our final destinations: Camp Kef. Kef – the hebrew word for fun happens to be a pretty common camp name, so when we realized we had navigated to the wrong Camp Kef – outside of Philadelphia – around midnight last night, it became obvious that we would not have the luxurious morning off that we were anticipating. So we ended up parking the bus at a Walmart parking lot on the outskirts of Philly and woke up for our early trip to Paramus, NJ. Well shucks…


As I sit here on the back bed of the bus, bouncing uncontrollably with every bump in the road, and smiling at astounded passengers in passing cars – excitedly snapping pictures with their smart phones of the first purposely upside-down bus they’ve ever seen – I can’t help but realize how much I will miss these moments little that have characterized our summer on the road. Moments like sitting behind falafel restaurants covered in veggie oil attempting to fill our tank without the hand crank, singing along to Jefferson Starship’s hardly-graceful Jane as we roll along country roads, or talking to each other in pterodaktyl squaks and chewbacca groans because the emotions we feel are simply too complex to be explained using any other forms of communication. Moments swimming and laughing in lakes after long, hot days of hard work, playing another frustrating-yet-addictive round of Monopoly Deal on Shabbat, or discussing creative ways to answer the inescapable “Can you drive the bus if it flips over?” question.


As a group, we’ve been through a lot together; and although we’ll all look back on our time together in a positive light, I’d be lying if I said the journey has been easy. We can’t sit here and pretend that the centrifuge has worked perfectly the entire summer, that the kombucha never leaked all over the floor, that our water tank has always stayed full, or that we never argued over the burn-date of our compost. There have been disagreements, wrong turns, days of widespread hangriness and extreme fatigue; and simultaneously, we each face our own personal struggles just like we do back home. But growth is rooted in struggle, and thus we have grown closer as a community and consequently helped each other to grow as individuals.


While many of these instances of community-building and/or utter ridiculousness have served as defining moments of our summer, carrying out the primary mission of the tour – interacting with those who are not so familiar with the bus – has been some of the most rewarding work of all…


Although we like to refer to ourselves as minor celebrities – approached by a variety of strangers nearly every time we step foot onto a city street, grocery store parking lot or camp sportsfield – it’s abundantly clear that the bus is the real celebrity; we are merely representatives of this artful political statement on wheels. Had we shown up to a truck stop in our own cars, people wouldn’t look twice at us, let alone ask us about our shower habits. But just as I explain in my bicycle blender schdick, when we bring something new and extraordinary to our communities, we catch people’s attention, and in doing so, we empower them to think differently about how the world works…sometimes we all need a gentle reminder that the conventional way of doing things or looking at things is not necessarily the only or best way to do them.


When we’re running programs, our real message to camps is that things don’t have to be the way they are – a bicycle used to just be a way to get from Point A to Point B; but one day someone said, “hey, why don’t we put a blender on that?!” Oftentimes our wackiest, most outlandish ideas are exactly what we need to find sustainable solutions to the world’s most daunting problems.



On Holiness: Being on the inside and the outside

Community is something that I am fairly familiar with.  I live in a communal house at school, I’ve been to three different Jewish summer camps as counselor or camper, and have learned the intricacies of how a college Hillel functions.  


Having joined the bus just this week, the role of visitors in a community has been on my mind.  I no longer feel like a visitor on this bus, especially having had the experience of visiting with the team earlier in the summer.  I have taken over a station, and helped at two others. Despite my short-lived time on the bus, I feel a part of the team.  


I think a huge element of that feeling is that fact that in every place we go, we are visitors.  Camps welcome us into their holy communities in different ways; but even with the warmest of welcomes, we have no hope of learning the names of all the campers or counselors, or understanding fully what makes their camp holy.  And the fact that all five of us are in the same outsider situation helps to bond us together.  The bus may be our holy space, but what really creates a holy community is the sense of being a cohesive unit in places where we may be strangers.