For Risa Alyson Cooper, it all comes down to one caterpillar. “We had no idea what it was,” she said. “But some of the students did research and the following week they told us all they learned about it.
“In Jewish tradition, we have a blessing to say when we see incredible creatures. It was an amazingly beautiful and all around perfect moment in Jewish education.”
This is Cooper’s passionate space, where environmental mindfulness intersects with Judaism and its teachings.
“I believe strongly that we are on this earth to be guardians of what ha-Shem has created,” said Cooper, Executive Director of Shoresh, the grassroots Jewish environmental organization based in Toronto.
“It’s in the Book of Genesis – we are clearly told to understand our relationship to the natural world. But in contemporary reality, we are willfully blinding ourselves to the kind of thought and action that this mitzvah commands of us, to work and protect the land.”
Here is an approach to Jewish education that is becoming increasingly recognized and impactful, advanced as it is by visionary Jewish educators like Cooper who view it as a critical, powerful path into Jewish life, learning, and engagement.
“Land-based Jewish tradition is unique in the community,” she said. “It speaks to people in deep and profoundly meaningful ways, and bridges Jewish tradition with ecological stewardship. It is an expression of Judaism that is simply relevant.”
In 2013, Cooper received The Covenant Foundation’s Pomegranate Prize, which recognized her promise for leadership and impact as a young Jewish educator.
Foremost, the prize was a welcome recognition of the work she is doing as an educator in this corner of Jewish communal life, she said.
“I felt humbled and I felt seen,” she explained. “Over the past 10 years, I’ve worked to start a Jewish environmental project in a community that didn’t have that sort of earth-based Jewish learning before. Receiving the Pomegranate Prize validated that this is important work and that I am being effective and empowering as a Jewish educator.”
For Cooper, the rich networking opportunities inherent to the Pomegranate Prize were and continue to be invaluable assets.
She feels more connected to other strong and alternative Jewish organizations through the broader Covenant Foundation family of grantees, award recipients and educational activists, she said, more so than she ordinarily would be from her perch in Ontario.
“In the wider North American Jewish community, there are exceptional organizations and individuals who are providing thought leadership and practice to merge Jewish and environmental values,” she said. “But Shoresh is the only one in Canada and so here we are seen as a more fringe, niche organization. Receiving the Pomegranate Prize helped to show the community that environmental Judaism is a tool for deep and meaningful engagement, education and action.”
Resources that came with the prize also allowed Cooper to pursue a variety of creative professional development opportunities, all them colored somewhat green.
She did one-on-on learning with a rabbi to study the practice of shemittah, the seven-year sabbatical cycle, aiming to integrate its principles into her personal and professional life. And, she is doing her own place-based learning with an Ontario-based ecologist to explore and learn more deeply about the various ecosystems in the region, an effort that will further enhance and contextualize her work as an educator.
She is also using resources to build her own professional library, with books exploring Jewish ethics, environmental stewardship, ecology, homesteading skills and other subjects reflecting and informing her interests.
Cooper was pursuing her master’s at the University of Toronto, focusing on contemporary Jewish environmental ethics, when she unexpectedly landed at the Teva Learning Center in Connecticut - the Jewish environmental education program that is now part of Hazon. Doing field research for her dissertation, she took a six-week staff position there and the experience, she said, transformed her.
“I went for a month and a half, but I ended up staying for five years,” she said. “It was the first time that I saw Jewish living happening in such a joyful, diverse and meaningful way. There was a merger there of environmental education and Jewish values, and it blew my mind. This was the place I knew I was supposed to be.”
Returning to her native Toronto as Executive Director of Shoresh in 2008, Cooper has combined her passion for Jewish environmental education with an expansive vision of the organization and a desire to give the movement deeper roots, exposure and reach in Canada.
A variety of new initiatives spearheaded by Cooper in recent years are about to bear fruit.
The Shoresh Outdoor School, a year-round supplementary program for students in grades 1 to 8 and their families, will open in Spring 2017. Through garden and nature-based activities, students and their families will explore Jewish holidays, mitzvot and rituals, and ethical teachings through an environmental lens.
And at Bela Farm, Shoresh is creating a 100-acre rural center for sustainable, land-based Judaism northwest of Toronto. A 20-acre reforestation program will result in the replanting of 16,000 native trees there this year.
Through its educational programming for young children to adults, community activism projects, and sustainable product offerings such as honey produced at its apiary for Rosh Hashanah, Shoresh is now reaching nearly 5,000 people per year and fostering Jewish investment in the environment.
But just as when she and her young students came upon the solitary caterpillar on the nature walk, Cooper sees her impact in the small moments as well as the big.
“Sitting with toddlers and harvesting carrots from the ground, from seeds they planted in the spring, and teaching them that the food they nurtured would go toward tzedakah through a social services provider – this is a wow moment that is simply profound.
“Wow is the most powerful word of the 21st century, because moments of radical amazement will inspire active and meaningful environmental stewardship. That’s why I’m doing this,” she said.