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Snow and ice cover the ground outside my house; the windchill makes it feel well below 20 degrees. My mind, however, is in my spiritual homeland, where the first buds of the almond tree are beginning to bloom. It is where, in most years, I would be this week interviewing our Israeli Mishlachat members who come to camp to inspire our campers and staff with their love of Israel and passion for educating young Jews.

Tu BiShvat, a one-time minor kabbalistic holiday to mark the birthday of the trees, has rightfully become a significant date in our Jewish calendar. Jews the world over celebrate this day by hosting Tu BiShvat sedarim, planting trees, and taking time to assess our own impact on the environment. 

As we prepare to reopen our camp in six months, we too are taking stock of our own environmental habits. This summer, we will focus on three main aspects of our own environmental impact.

Energy Use

Solar Panels on the top of our new Health Center

In 2020, we installed our first solar panels and geothermal wells. At present, these systems power our new wellness center (or Mirpa’ah as it is called in the summer). Because of these systems, this building is carbon neutral to operate. To date, we have saved the 13,017 lb of CO2 emissions compared to using fossil based energy, which in turn is equivalent to planting 98 trees! During most of the winter, the panels return power to the electrical grid since our electrical needs are minimal. The building is well insulated with R39 foam insulation in the walls; it is heated in the winter by a geothermal system. Our hope is to publish the data from the building on a weekly basis both during the summer and year round, so that campers can analyze the data and learn more about energy use.  In the coming years, we hope to install three more solar arrays on our site so that we can cut our carbon-based electrical use by over 75%.

STEM Program

In 2021 we are launching a new STEM program with a dual focus on ecology and sustainable design. In addition to opening a renovated farm education center, we will be hiring two staff members to lead this program.  One staff member will focus on ecological observation projects – monitoring stream flow, observing reforestation, and cataloging the species that are native to our ranch.  The second staff member will help campers evaluate our own environmental impact, and problem-solve to design new systems focused on our water usage & waste streams.  We will draw upon curriculum designed for youth, and hopefully begin a partnership with a local environmental science department at a Colorado university in the next year. 

Waste & Composting

Over the past few years, we have devoted considerable resources to reducing the waste we produce at camp and set a goal in 2016 of being at zero waste by 2020. While we have made some progress, we have fallen far from our goal of being waste-free. Unfortunately, the large scale bokashi system we implemented in 2016/17 has not been able to deal adequately with our organic waste in the way we had originally envisioned. Similarly, while we have significantly increased the amount of cardboard and metal we recycle, we would still like to capture more. Finally, while we have reduced the amount of paper towels we use for hand washing through increased use of hand dryers, in all likelihood COVID protocols this summer will require us to use even more paper towels and single-use cleaning cloths. Nonetheless, we know that we can be more conscious of the waste we produce and find better avenues for composting and recycling. In 2021 we hope to contract with a commercial composter to process most of our organic waste and paper towels. We also hope to be more transparent with our campers about where our waste goes and set aspirational goals of how we can do better to reduce the waste we put into landfills and incinerators.

Tu B’shvat happens once a year. As Jews, however, our focus on the environment needs to be a year-round endeavour.  Our goal as a camp is for our alumni to return to their home communities as advocates for change in both personal habits and collective policies that mitigate the adverse effects of climate change. 

-Rabbi Eliav

Chalutzim [campers] at Ramah in the Rockies now understand how the expression “busy as a bee” came into being. Chalutzim learned all about bees through Rinat Levinson, a tzevet [staff member] from Israel, who studied biodynamic beekeeping. Rinat became interested in this field only a year ago and has become so passionate that she found a Denver beekeeper, Oliver Stanton, who donated a hive full of bees so she could teach our chalutzim.

Bee KeepingBiodynamic bee keeping is an approach that respects the integrity of the colony and was founded over 150 years ago. Its aim is to minimize stress factors and allow bees to develop in accordance with their true nature. There are many protocols one must follow so as not to exploit the bees for their honey and ROA followed them while mainting the hive. Examples include: bees are allowed to build natural comb, swarming is acknowledged as the only way to rejuvenate and reproduce a colony, the queen is allowed to move freely throughout the hive and sufficient honey is retained in the hive to provide for the winter.

Rinat’s goal was to make us more aware of the bee’s life cycle and its impact on the environment. Bees are useful in helping thousands of plants to exist and multiply, since they carry pollen from one flower to another, enabling them to form seeds and reproduce themselves. Campers learned about community from studying the bees as each bee and bee activity is integral to the whole. No single part, not even the queen, can be seen as isolated from the whole. Isn’t this what community is all about?

She taught how to respect and take care of the hive and the importance of its survival. Unfortunately, the honeybee is becoming an endangered species, with more than a 50% US decline in managed honeybee colonies due to parasites and disease, climate change and air pollution. The most serious of all is the impact of pesticides– an environmental hazard for any being. Campers discussed what they could do about this phenomenon.

Honeybees are the only insects that provide an important food for man. Interesting note is that the bee is a non-kosher insect, so why is its honey kosher?

So much Jewish learning can be taught through studying the bees. “Devorah” is Hebrew for “bee.” It’s also the name of two great women mentioned in the Torah. What is so special about a bee that these great women should be named after it? There are several citings in the Midrash where the Jewish people and the Torah are compared to bees. For example, just as bees swarm behind a leader, so too are the Jews led by the sages and prophets who teach and guide them. Just as the nature of a bee is to collect pollen and nectar for others, so do the Jews toil accumulating Torah and mitzvahs, not for our own benefit, but for a higher purpose.

BeeHiveHoney is first mentioned in the Bible as one of the gifts sent by Jacob with his sons when they went down to Egypt to seek food during the famine. Moses, at his first encounter with God at the burning bush, hears God’s pledge for the first time: “I shall rescue them from the hand of Egypt and bring them up to a land flowing with milk and honey”(Exodus 3:8). Throughout the Bible, Israel is repeatedly referred to as the land of “milk and honey.” Manna, the most perfect food ever created, which sustained the Israelites for 40 years of wandering in the desert, is described as tasting “like a cake fried in honey” (Exodus 16:31)

“The Torah is sweeter than honey to my mouth,” sang King David. So just like a honeybee spreads the news of the sweet nectar it found to the rest of the colony, so too should we spread the word of Torah. A bee knows that spreading her knowledge is important for her entire colony to prosper. By spreading the sweetness of Torah and mitzvahs to others, you can enhance the capability of the Jewish people to fulfill its purpose, and to be a “light unto the nations.”

We all know that on Rosh Hashanah, honey is used in a symbolic way. We ask for a Shanah Tovah – “May we have a good and sweet year” as we dip apples into honey. It is not only for a good and sweet year in material blessings that we have in mind, but also a good and sweet year in our spiritual life of Torah and mitzvahs, which are “sweeter than hon
ey and the honeycomb” (Psalms). As we eat honey during these High Holidays, we hope campers will remember the labor of love that went into making that honey. There were a lot of honeybees, working very hard, as each honeybee will only produce about one twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime. We are hopeful that our Ramah bees will provide a taste of honey for the upcoming New Year.