A Light Unto Nations

Arise and Walk through the land
With your backpack and stick,
And there on your journey
You’ll rediscover the land of Israel

This line comes from a classic Israeli song that was inspired by the Torah verse in Bereshit where God tells Abraham, “Kum hithalech baaretz” (Arise and walk in the land) (Genesis 13:17). These words set in motion a Jewish connection to the land of Israel that would endure even when Jews lived elsewhere. They were used in the nineteenth century by early Zionist thinkers for inspiration.

David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, was well known for his commitment to developing the desert. After years of public service, he retired to Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev Desert. He said:

It is in the Negev that the people of Israel will be tested – for only a united effort of a volunteering people and a planning and implementing state will accomplish the great mission of populating the wilderness and bringing it to flourish.  This effort will determine the fate of the State of Israel and the standing of our people in the history of mankind.1David Ben-Gurion, “The Significance of the Negev” (January 1955), Haluza,

Ben-Gurion’s words evoke a sense of not just walking – or being – in our land but of the collective responsibility to care for it.  His sentiment reflects values that The Toronto Heschel School lives by daily with respect to prioritizing care for the natural environment.  Eight summers ago, several Toronto Heschel educators visited the Negev – areas near Eilat, Kibbutz Lotan, and the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies – and observed truly exciting progress in ecologically responsible care for the land of Israel.  They returned home inspired to develop a schoolwide curriculum to be called “Eco-Zionism.”

Eco-Zionism would introduce students to a new way to engage with the spiritual and emotional Jewish bond to the land that is Israel.  To develop the curriculum, all Heschel educators had to dive deep into learning on the topic; they studied early Zionist texts by A.D. Gordon and Martin Buber on returning to care for the land, and later writings by Israeli authors Natan Alterman and Amos Oz.

While Zionism means eternal commitment to a Jewish homeland in the land of Israel, despite struggles with political correctness and social justice trials and challenges, the school takes Zionsim one step further and advocates for a homeland that is environmentally sustainable.  Eco-Zionism is now a spiral curriculum for the school’s annual celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel Independence Day.  Eco-Zionist learning links with grade-specific themes that students are already pursuing in class, and, instead of Yom Ha’atzmaut being a day set aside from study, it becomes a link in the chain of meaningful connections to Israel.

In education, a “spiral curriculum can be defined as a course of study in which students will see the same topics throughout their school career, with each encounter increasing in complexity and reinforcing previous learning.”2“Spiral Curriculum: Definition and Example,” retrieved July 10, 2018,  At Heschel, teachers draw on wide-ranging ecological initiatives that are emerging from Israel. In Junior Kindergarten, the children are exploring the Torah story of Creation and, leading up to Yom Ha’atzmaut, as they learn about Day 5 of Creation, they study the region of the nature preserve of Ein Gedi and its animals.  In Grade 2, with their ongoing study of children around the world, the students get acquainted with a school in Eilat where students are working to recover and protect the coral reefs in the Red Sea.

In Grade 6, the year’s Hebrew-language studies include learning about different parts of Israel, including the Kinneret, the Dead Sea, and the Mediterranean. Their Yom Ha’atzmaut program examines Israel’s unique water supply challenges and how Israeli scientists solved what should have been a water crisis.

Grade 8 at Heschel features a year-long study of human rights, which includes collaboration with peers at a Muslim school in Toronto.  The Grade 8 Yom Ha’atzmaut explores how ecology is being used as a peacemaker between Israel and its neighbours. The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies is the premier environmental teaching and research program in the Middle East.  Located in the heart of the Arava Desert, it educates and mentors Israelis, Jordanians, Palestinians, and North Americans to solve the region’s environmental challenges collaboratively.  The Grade 8 students envision environmental efforts that may simultaneously resolve critical challenges on the land, build bridges between neighbours, and manage conflict.

Israel is a world centre, a light unto nations, for environmental advances.  Israeli environmentalist Alon Tal famously said, “There is no other burning social issue in Israel in which World Jewry can be more involved and should be more involved than the environment.”  As parents and educators, we are looking to raise children who are responsible and who care for the world they inherit.  We know that their generation will be attentive to social imperatives and naturally occurring repercussions. In the mix, we want them also to feel deeply the Jewish connection to Israel, our spiritual homeland.  The Eco-Zionist approach offers a path for collaboration between Jews living inside and outside of Israel.

Framing Israel this way sees Toronto Heschel grads leave Jewish day school with an integrated commitment to valuing the land of Israel as well as the land of Canada.  Jews have long been cognizant and proud of our contributions to the intellectual and cultural domains; in this day and age, it can be meaningful to young people to see Israel as a source of environmental leadership.  How love and pride flares will always vary from generation to generation, and ours is the time for Eco-Zionism.  Ben-Gurion also said, “The desert provides us with the best opportunity to begin again. This is a vital element of our renaissance in Israel.  For it is in mastering nature that man learns to control himself.” 3Michael Omer-Man, “This Week in History:  Ben-Gurion Retires to the Negev,” The Jerusalem Post, December 10, 2010,



1David Ben-Gurion, “The Significance of the Negev” (January 1955), Haluza,
2“Spiral Curriculum: Definition and Example,” retrieved July 10, 2018,
3Michael Omer-Man, “This Week in History:  Ben-Gurion Retires to the Negev,” The Jerusalem Post, December 10, 2010,

Dvora Goodman , Coordinator

Dvora Goodman is a Jewish educator with over twenty five years of experience in educational administration and Jewish experiential learning in various settings. She is the coordinator of The Lola Stein Institute. She is also an educational consultant to various Jewish educational organizations. Her current projects include UJA Federation of Greater Toronto where she has been coaching supplementary school leaders in the Greater Toronto area, and the iCenter for Israel Education where she has been helping Jewish camps and Jewish day schools infuse Israel into their settings.



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