Our natural and local ecosystems deserve our energy and time. We are given the strength to act from the nutrients we receive from the natural world, a blessing that is not guaranteed for future generations. At Shoresh, the Shomrei Adamah (protectors of the earth) and the Shomrei Devorim (protectors of the bees) show us how to use our energy to maintain and revitalize the richness of the natural resources sustaining us.
Ecosystems are “bubbles of life” that are vulnerable to human actions. As a Jewish charity, Shoresh strives to reverse the impact of polluted activities by using nature-based Jewish learning to strengthen and reveal our connections with the natural world and encourage sustainability in Toronto’s Jewish community.
Through my interview with Shoresh’s executive director, Risa Alyson Cooper, I started to understand how Shoresh effectively stimulates change and deepens the community’s relationship to our natural ecosystem and Jewish roots.
Naming itself after the Hebrew word for root, the promise of Shoresh lies in its name. Just as a root “conveys water and nutrients from the ground to the body of the plant or tree,” awareness nurtures Shoresh’s activities, actions, and advocacy.
The Shoresh team hopes the work they do in Toronto’s Jewish community will “inspire people and ultimately empower people to become Shomrei Adamah. To make those hard, or sometimes hard, choices to change the ways that we do things in order to make sure that we are protecting the world around us.” The organization’s growth cannot be measured by examining what participants do after they leave their after-school programs, or the immersive programs at Bela Farm, or any of their other programs, but in the impactful resources they provide.
Understanding how religious values inform or do not inform our lives is not always clear. But the decision to follow Shoresh’s guidance is a choice you make if you want to consciously root your work for the natural world in Jewish principles.
By following Shoresh’s core values you choose to help the planet through Kehilah (“radical inclusivity that builds a cohesive, pluralistic, and interconnected Jewish community, united by a shared relationship with nature”), and Zehut (“deepen personal Jewish identity through earth-based Jewish experiences”).
The Shoresh team lives by the principles of: Mah Rabu (“[to] hold a sense of radical amazement of the majesty and diversity of the natural world”) (Psalm 104:24), L’ovdah u’l’Shomrah (“[to] be responsible stewards of the earth”) (Genesis 2:15), Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof (“in the face of climate change and species extinction, pursue justice for the earth and its creatures”) (Deutoronomy 16:18-20) , and Bal Tashchit (do not destroy or waste) (Deutoronomy 20:19).
However, these actions are not exclusively tied to religion, but are integral to what it means to be a responsible, respectful, and empathetic human being. I understood how teaching nature-based education and living through a Jewish lens can make their advocacy more relatable to members of the Jewish community, but I didn’t understand why the connection was necessary.
Cooper believes “that in the natural world a strong ecosystem is one that has multiple degrees of interconnectedness. The more degrees of strands connecting one thing to another, the stronger a system is. And I think that it works that way with beliefs, and worldviews as well…weaving together or seeing how deeply and intimately environmental values can be woven with Jewish values, just helps to strengthen both of those value systems.”
I never sought a conclusive answer, but Cooper reminded me that though our identities are multifaceted, each aspect is interconnected. And this fusion—consciously or unconsciously—shapes our subjective perspectives of the natural world, what it means to live Jewishly, and where we place our energies.
Working in and around the Greater Toronto area, the success behind Shoresh rests in the team’s approach to nature-based Jewish education that doesn’t “start with responsibility.” Shoresh cannot bring attention to environmental issues or sustainability by starting “with the ‘you shoulds’ because if people don’t feel a deep connection, they’re not going to feel a need to respond to a call to action. So, all our programming starts with awareness.”
To cultivate awareness Cooper says the first step is to get people outside, experiencing the world around them. “It sounds so basic, on the other hand, how often do people walk by the same tree every single day on their front lawn. It could be on their street, and they never stopped to notice it. And so if you don’t notice it, and you don’t have a connection to it, why would you make any changes to protect it.”
Shoresh’s decision to teach through awareness fosters empathy, which help develop understanding. Once the connection existing between the natural world and our senses is reintroduced by a process of awareness, Cooper finds “99.98%” of the time this “leads to experiences of awe and wonder in the natural world.”
In 2009, Shoresh started by opening Kavanah Garden—a quarter-acre educational garden at UJA’s Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Jewish Community Campus in Vaughan. During the first few years, their programming centred around food production and sources.
From the beginning, tzedakah was central to Shoresh’s mandate. Everything grown at Kavanah Garden was donated to different social service partners in the community to help with hunger relief. By combining teachable moments with Jewish traditions, Judaism and food became an avenue for participants to understand the “imbalances and injustices in the world,” and how “growing food” can provide restoration.
As more schools, shuls, camps, and other community organizations wanted to participate in their programming, Cooper realized a shift from food production to nature-based programming— involving “doing activities that would translate well to a park, or a ravine, or a local forest ecosystem”—was necessary for Shoresh to continue to expand and have their lessons reflect the wide impact they wanted their advocacy to have.
“In recent years, as more and more people are becoming aware of environmental issues and food insecurity, our programming has become a bit more normalized,” Cooper added. “And now it feels like every school and shul is trying to figure out the best ways to incorporate nature-based and food-based programming into their curriculum, which is amazing to see.” For the Shoresh team, it is equally amazing to be part of.
In schools, the organization is currently “doing more systemic or ongoing programming” than ever before. The desire for students to be more environmentally conscious gives the students the chance to acquire “a real relationship with the natural world.”
At one school, the students help plant and start the seeds that become the vegetables and the pollinator plants Shoresh places in their different garden spaces.
Expanding their practices heightened the possibilities of what Shoresh and the community could accomplish together and Maxie’s Garden is an example of that essential union.
In 2014, Shoresh joined forces with Jewish Family and Child (JFC) to create and maintain Maxie’s Garden. Located in the backyard of a community members home in Kensington Market, it is a space where members, including JFC clients, can connect to nature through gardening, nutrition workshops, cooking classes, and participate in acts of tzedakah.
A year after Maxie’s Garden’s inaugural season, Shoresh held their first Taking Root: Planting for the Future event, a celebration of trees and kindly harvested produce and product. There they announced the launch of Bela Farm.
Located in Hillsborough, Ontario, Bela Farm has become the centre of an ambitious seven-year plan to include twenty acres of native reforestation and a twenty-acre perennial bee pasture, at their four-acre Bela Farm Bee Sanctuary. As of 2017, Shoresh has planted 11,000 native trees and their apiary has grown to thirty hives, housing honey bees and native bees. In 2019, a two- acre pollinator food forest was additionally planted at the bee sanctuary.
Shoresh doesn’t only care about honey, its primary goal is to make sure the bees are healthy and the pollinator population continues to be supported. As Cooper plainly states, “beekeeping is about the bees, first and foremost, and we consider honey not to be the goal, but the really awesome by-product of the work that we’re doing around bee health. Way more of our energy goes into planting and maintaining our bee sanctuary… [and] creating a vibrant habitat for all of our pollinators.”
But, Varroa mites are a major concern for all beekeepers. Though the parasites attack the colonies, colonies can often be left untreated because depending on the method of extraction, harvesting may not be possible right afterward. If Shoresh has a colony that is infected, it treats them because they prioritize health over honey.
However, just because Shoresh prioritizes the heath of bees, doesn’t mean surrounding farms do.
According to National Geographic, for the past fifteen years, bee colonies from around the world have been disappearing, a dilemma referred to as ‘colony collapse disorder.’ This is a critical plight as bees and pollinators are essential to agriculture. Back in 2019, Scott McArt—assistant professor of pollinator health at Cornell University—reported to ABC News that bees and pollinators help to produce $170 billion worth of crops.
This past winter, Shoresh unfortunately lost two bee colonies. The season is not the biggest threat for the bees. Shoresh ensures the bees have the best chance for survival by wrapping each hive in a “giant sleeping bag and insulating them,” while the bees huddle and vibrate around the queen to keep warm.
As per the suspicions of Sabrina Malach, head beekeeper, and director of community engagement at Shoresh, Cooper points the blame for the loss of their two colonies to a neighbouring farm using pesticides in the fall. These colonies were “not strong enough going into the winter to survive the winter. It wasn’t the cold, in and of itself; it is the fact that the colony was weakened by pesticide use on the other farms.”
Luckily, the perennial ecosystem in their bee sanctuary and reforestation area did not suffer great losses. Cooper says this is a testament to their decision to house “native plants that have evolved to be cold hardy” and therefore “resilient in the face of natural climate.”
Bela Farm shows the purity in their intentions to reinforce the interconnections between us and the natural world. It is never about using our energy and time to adjust the natural landscape to work for us, it is about how we can work to improve the quality and splendour of Ontario’s natural ecosystems.
If you don’t have a garden, there are other ways to support bees and sustainable endeavours. Advocacy happens online too. You can support your local Jewish beekeepers by purchasing the honey they harvest. This summer Shoresh opened their online shop. The honey sold by Shoresh is 100% raw, and therefore 100% Kosher, COR verified. There’s no heat and no additives in Shoresh’s honey, and therefore does not need a hechsher. It is harvested and it is jarred. As the label states it is “Made by Bees: Harvested with gratitude by local Jewish beekeepers.” As Cooper humorously told me “we just steal [the honey]” so the least they could do is start “with gratitude and kavod, and honouring the bees.”
By following Maimonides’s concept of tzedakah, the real justice behind Shoresh’s actions lies in giving individuals the tools to be sustainable without having to rely on their organization by making their advice accessible on their Dayenu Garden Resources, The Beet blog, and their Instagram page. When the pandemic occurred, Shoresh received a lot of inquiries about how to start a garden. On the blog you will find their favourite local resources—where to buy seeds and seedlings, where to go if you want someone to build a raised bed for you, what can be grown in containers, where to buy rain barrels, and what plants attract pollinators.
Like the rings of trees, Shoresh grows concentrically. For the past twelve years they have and continue to grow from, around, and through a centre rooted in awareness.
What has taken root as Cooper’s proudest achievement is how “we always seek to hold multiple ‘bottom lines’ when designing our programs and activities. Our honey is one great example of that—we planted a four-acre bee sanctuary at Bela Farm to ensure the health and sustainability of our native bees and honey bees; open our honey harvests to the community and run hands-on educational programming to teach people about the importance of our pollinators; and donate a percentage of our honey harvest to community members struggling with food insecurity to ensure we are spreading sweetness throughout our community.”
There are no borders, boundaries, state lines, or fences between our actions and the natural world. Everything is interconnected. Cooper reiterated the importance of acknowledging the consequences of our actions by sharing a story with me about a group of people on a boat. Suddenly “one person begins drilling beneath their seat and everybody says, ‘Stop! Stop! What are you doing?’ and the person says, ‘Well I’m only drilling beneath my seat, what does it matter to you?’ But the people say, ‘Yeah but the waters will come in and will flood us all.’” By equating this tale to using pesticides, it underlines how the actions we take in our life inadvertently weave themselves into our local ecosystems.
To some, using pesticides, or fertilizers, or littering, or fossil fuels, may not seem as terrifying as the prospect of drowning, but make no mistake, we are slowly drowning, along with every other living organism. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not in one-hundred years from now, but if we do not use the energy nature gives us to help sustain our local ecosystems we may deplete it.
The language of Shoresh’s actions can weave connections between yourself and the natural world into experiences that will not flourish from certainty, but from trying to create possibilities for growth. We can be the change for future generations just by trying to plant a seed, by composting, by listening, by asking questions. We can all be Shomrei Adamah, no act is too small; no voice is too loud; every action carries a ripple effect.
In the spirit of Rosh Hashanah, I couldn’t help but ask what Cooper’s favourite pairing of honey is outside of the classic holiday combination. She graciously offered to provide the recipe for her favourite plant-based honey cake! I squealed. Though, I still haven’t quite figured out if it is the cake that gets dipped in the honey or the honey that gets dipped into the cake, perhaps it is both?
Header photograph courtesy of Shoresh.
Orly Zebak writes, designs sets and costumes, and makes art in various mediums. Her work seeks to challenge conceptions of female performativity in relation to womanhood, girlhood, and coming of age stories. In her spare time, you can catch Orly gardening—usually in her very comfortable off-brand crocs.
Orly earned her M.A. at the University of Toronto in Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies.