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.   



An Outdoor Classroom on the Streets of Brooklyn

Hi again! I’m Sam, the Teva intern for the summer and I wanted to again share my experiences one last time before the summer ends. I had “met” the Topsy Turvy bus and crew earlier in the summer, but had yet to observe their program. I had a general idea of what to expect (giving children tours of the bus and teaching the power of community and sustainable living), but I definitely was not expecting to see what I saw…

When I think “classroom,” I think of whiteboards and blackboards, chairs surrounding table perimeters, clocks, colorful decorations and vocabulary words adorning the walls. These are the main components that comprise the ideal elementary school classroom. Teachers close doors and may even lower the blinds on windows to shut out any outside distractions. This is the best way to capture and hold the children’s attentions and teach lessons….right?

The Topsy Turvy Bus Crew is working to shift from this classroom model and proving that with the right programming and materials, teaching CAN be done in a different environment: the environment. So what happens when we open those doors and teach outside?

I saw the outdoor classroom model in action during my visit to the Sephardic Community Center in Brooklyn. As I arrived, the Topsy Turvy bus was parked in the street in front as a group of ten or so five-year-olds were disembarking the bus and walking towards the blender bike stationed in front of the building. As they made their way towards the next station, two Teva educators were already introducing the next group to the enormous yellow topsy-turvy spectacle.

sephardic ccfrances and caleb getting kids excited for bus toursephardic cc frances and caleb looking at bus upside down

At the bike blender station, the educators asked individuals of the group to share what they had eaten for breakfast that morning. As the students alternated, each taking turns to pedal and power the blender, the educators explain the human potential to generate their own power. The breakfast food provides the human body with energy which we can then use to power the blender and make more food!

sephardic cc bike
All of this took place outside on the concrete sidewalks of Brooklyn. Sure, most of Teva’s programs don’t take place in NYC. But even when they do, the educators were able to adapt and create an outdoor classroom space to teach valuable lessons to elementary school children for two hours.

sephardic cc group posing in front of bus


“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.