Akiba Yavneh Academy’s GrowTorah garden blossoms
Photo: Courtesy Akiba Yavneh Academy
A rake, a hoe and tender hands, like those of Akiba Yavneh Academy student Lila Pailet, along with lessons of Jewish  tradition make AYA’s garden flourish.

Jordana Bernstein digs deep to teach

By Deb Silverthorn

“Inch by inch, row by row, gonna make this garden grow,” sang the late John Denver. Inch by inch and row by row, Akiba Yavneh Academy’s (AYA) partnership with GrowTorah, for the last year in the caring hands of Jordana Bernstein, is blossoming.

Bernstein attended AYA, her four children attended and she was an early childhood teacher for 11 years. In 2022, she retired from serving as the school’s early childhood director for 16 years. Bernstein has made growing greens (and whatever color might bloom), and simultaneously teaching Torah, her mission.

“It’s been my honor to be the custodian with a focus for curriculum and the intention of the space, the kavanah for which it was originally intended, has become a reality,” said Bernstein.

She added, “A Jewish education can and should come from many sources. At Akiba Yavneh, in addition to texts and the classroom, arts and language, we’re so happy in the garden that has Hashem all over it.”

The garden space was donated by Barbara and David Radunsky when the Schultz Rosenberg Campus opened 18 years ago. David, now the president of AYA’s board of directors, is proud to see it flourish through the generations of students.

“We are so happy that Jordana and the AYA students have put so much love and effort into this garden,” he said. “It calls to mind the flourishing of the Negev desert following Israeli independence.”

Last fall, AYA associated with GrowTorah, an organization that is partnered with 27 Jewish day schools and camps around the country with a mission of cultivating a more passionate, compassionate and sustainable future driven by Torah values.

GrowTorah weaves Torah lessons with educational garden experiences to inspire children to navigate the complex relationships between humans, their fellow creatures and the earth and to encourage them to connect with these values in powerful and personally meaningful ways.

“We want students to learn of emunah, the truth and gifts of Hashem, of caring for their space — stewarding the land,” said GrowTorah’s co-executive director, Sara Just-Michael Goldstein. “They learn of compassion for creatures and of tzedakah when their produce is given to others.

“Jordana’s relationship to Akiba Yavneh Academy,” said
Just-Michael Goldstein, “is indeed very special. Her connection to the students, the school as a whole and the space is unique and absolutely community building.”

AYA students from preschool age to middle school have spent time digging, planting, harvesting and enjoying the fruits — and vegetables — of their labor. In the spring of 2022, the entire student body from the youngest to the seniors participated in the inaugural planting. Even with the winter’s freeze, students learned about the cycle of life.

The garden is home to mint and parsley, oregano, thyme and lavender. Basil and garlic, eggplants, potatoes, flowers and more appear throughout the year, some with heartier yield than others.

Yaelle Grebenau, 4, loves petting the bugs in the garden and her sister Meira says she enjoyed making a bracha over the strawberries her second grade class tended to.

“It’s beautiful to see and to experience the children learning beyond pen and paper. It’s very special to see them excited about witnessing Hashem’s creation and their hand in that. This program has broadened their hearts and minds and helped them see there can be fun in learning,” said Malka Grebenau, the girls’ mother.

Rabbi Mordechai Harris, the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas’ chief impact officer and rabbi in residence, is proud that a multiyear grant from the Federation has helped to support the space his own children, who are AYA students, love dearly.

“This project is the definition of what our impact grants should support — led by visionary hands, literally. The passion that pushes it forward is something that touches our children — and so our future — every day. My children love singing in the garden; they love the carrots and cucumbers and the flower arrangements that they created,” said Harris.

Bernstein’s lessons to the children include those of patience and delay of gratification between planting seeds and their appearance as buds. The students have enjoyed the snacks of the garden, learned to check vegetation for insects and the satisfaction of their hard work truly coming to life.

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