Nov 29, 2012  By Jewish National Fund  Category: Education,

Ecologically minded study abroad in Israel

For the 27 students in the junior class of North Carolina's American Hebrew Academy (AHA), spending time in even their Hod Hasharon dormitory bathrooms provided them with inspiration for environmental action at home.

Unaccustomed to turning off the water tap on and off during showers or tooth-brushing sessions, cartoons taped to their bathroom walls served as a helpful reminder.
"The issue of really saving water is really more felt here," said Miriam Roochvarg, of Charlotte, North Carolina, one of six 16-year-old students who sat down with The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday. "It's by being here and learning about these things that we can try to spread back home the importance of saving water."

The students are finishing up their 10-week junior year study abroad period in Israel, a program that their home school in Greensboro, North Carolina, mandates. A pluralistic campus with an environmental focus, AHA is the only Jewish day school in the United States to have received governmental Green Ribbon certification for its environmental conscientiousness. The school's founder, Maurice "Chico" Sabbah, was an agronomist and environmentalist who formerly lived on a kibbutz in Israel and practiced environmental activism there, according to the school. Students come from all over the world to attend AHA, and Mesfin Hodes said that his parents sent him all the way from Ethiopia to receive a Jewish education there.

At home on the 11-year-old southern US campus, the students have organized their own Green Team, which is dedicated to community service and environmentalism, while the school's kitchen buys as much locally sourced food as possible to save on carbon emissions.
Meanwhile, the students have access to composting facilities and waste separation at source in the dining hall, as well as recycling facilities campus-wide, school information materials the school said. Students have the option to take an Advanced Placement Environmental Science course, and they plant trees on the school's grounds every Tu Bishvat.

"We have recycling bins all over the place, including right where we put our trays up in the cafeteria," Roochvarg said.

In addition to the environmental opportunities that the school provides to its students, AHA is also home to one of the largest geothermal energy systems in the world - a water-sourced system that is used to heat and cool 440,000 square feet (about 40,900 square meters) in 29 buildings, but has the capacity for 700,000 square feet (some 65,000 square meters), the school said. The system, which was installed at the school's opening in 2001, is expected to pay for itself by Spring 2013.

"We built an environmentally sensitive campus because that is what Jews should do," said AHA principal Dr. Gary Grandon. "We use geothermal heat exchange because it is the lowest impact form of energy exchange available. We use electric vehicles and support a pedestrian campus for the same reasons. As it turns out these approaches also save large amounts of money over the long run.
During their time in Israel, the students live and study at the Alexander Muss High School in Hod Hasharon, which is on a larger educational campus shared with a Hebrew boarding school called the Mossensohn Youth Village. In the past, students have visited ORMAT, an Israeli company focusing on geothermal energy, and this year, the students were able to spend a weekend seeing environmental innovation in the Arava desert. Most years - including this one - the AHA group participates in the Yam L'Yam hike from Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) to the Mediterranean Sea.

"We are really lucky to experience the ideas that are started here - that's what AHA is trying to do," said Julia Sagerdahl of Greensboro.

"It's really helpful for us if we bring back some of the things we learn here back to our school."

On the grounds of the youth village, experimental biological filtration ponds are being used to purify gray water, water from sinks and showers that can be cleaned for reuse. After seeing and learning about gray water, Roochvarg said she is determined to implement a similar system at AHA and will be speaking to their administrators about it.

"If you can collect water and use it for free, then why not use that instead of city water," added Matthew Menghert of Greensboro.

Another initiative on the Mossensohn campus that the students found impressive was the vegetation being grown on the sides of many buildings, which slashes the need for air conditioning and heat by providing natural insulation, according to Ross Abramson, originally from Princeton, New Jersey.

"I want to try to bring back some of these things to AHA," Abramson said. "The cool thing about AHA is that it's not just a select group of students who want to change things - everybody want to join."

Not only did their time in Israel expand their environmental horizons, but it also has caused several of the students to reconsider their future plans. Sagerdahl said that she could definitely see herself living in the country, and is looking into gapyear study options before attending university. Meanwhile, Yuval Ely, who was actually born in Israel but whose family now lives in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, is no longer reluctant about army service: "I decided I'm going to the army."

On Thursday, the students will finish their 10-week session in Israel, but not without first planting trees near Jerusalem, according to Sagerdahl. This end to their trip is particularly special to the students, as each year they plant trees at their own school, they said.

"Now we have the opportunity to use our hands and put the trees down," Roochvarg added.

As far as water-saving in Israel goes, the students noticed that "it's a lot of small things" that everyone must do to contribute to the overall conservation effort, according to Menghert.

"We literally changed our faucets so that you could easily get the water heated," said David Mitchell, dean of education at Alexander Muss, who called the students "a lovely group."

"Even the toilets [in Israel] have different options," Menghert said.

"After millions of uses of a toilet, that really amounts to something. If you were to do that in America I can only imagine how much we'd save."

This article is taken from the 11/21/12 edition of the Jerusalem Post