Eco-conscious S.F. high school offers novel takes on kashrut

As Jewish children around the world prepare to celebrate Tu B’Shevat by eating fruit and planting trees, students at Jewish Community High School of the Bay will take the holiday one step further.

Youth at the San Francisco school will spend Tuesday, Jan. 25, at a science symposium called “The Green World,” working on projects that explore the impact of plant life on the earth’s ecosystems.

This unusual holiday celebration reflects the school’s mission to combine academia with Jewish and ecological values. The mission also is reflected in the school’s eco-kosher lunch service, which offers organic, vegetarian kosher meals every school day.

“We wanted to offer quality, healthy food, particularly in light of studies on teenage obesity,” says the school’s head, Rabbi Edward Harwitz. “As Jews, we have to think about the educational component of everything we do. Eating is a primary activity of our lives … We wanted them to understand this is not merely an opportunity for us to stuff our faces.”

At an assembly when the new lunch program began, students learned about the importance of eating healthy food and of recycling. The lunch program, students were told, would have a no-waste policy: Everything from plates to cups to utensils would be 100 percent biodegradable.

There would be no need for trash cans in the lunch room, which would instead have bins for recycling and compost.

According to Noam Dolgin, associate director of the New York-based Teva Learning Center — one of several national programs spearheading the Jewish ecological movement — the JCHS lunch program is on the cutting edge of environmental activism in Jewish day schools.

“No other school has anything as extensive,” he says.

According to Jesse Alper, director of food services at JCHS, diet is a key element of an environmental ethic.

In the 1950s, he says, “the introduction of synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides changed agriculture as we know it.”

The result is especially destructive to youth. “Over half of American youth are now categorized by the government as being clinically obese,” Alper says. “It’s an epidemic that no culture in world history has ever known.”

Alpai Michaels, 14, used to have the eating habits of a typical American teenager — burgers, fries, candy and soda. When JCHS introduced its eco-kosher lunch program, hebegan to eat differently.

“What I eat here makes me think a little more about what I eat,” Alpai says.

The school’s salad bar offers lots of organic fare: salad mix, tangerines, tofu and organic eggs. There’s even Israeli feta cheese and gourmet garlic croutons.

The school’s environmental activists seem especially excited by the ecological aspects of the lunch program — aspects they helped develop. “A few of my friends and I have been trying to green up the school, make it more environmentally conscious,” says Josh Meltzer, 16. “It’s an ideal I have. I would like us to live in a more sustainable society.”

Alyssa Olenberg, 17, is working with others to get the school to run on solar energy. She is especially happy about the composting bin.

“I personally use the compost bins even when it’s not from the salad bar,” she says.

Most students, however, seem more concerned about the taste and variety of the food than its ecological sustainability.

“It’s more of a mystery, more of a surprise,” says Daniel Porton, 16. “We don’t know what [Alper] is going to bring out. One day we have sushi, sometimes we have burritos, Spanish-style food. Other times we have salads and sandwiches, falafel.

“Every time it’s just different, and we don’t know what to expect,” he adds. “That’s the joy of it.’

Tu B'Shevat
Related Stories:

Enjoy the fruits of Tu B’Shevat, sharing with the hungry

Connecting with our deciduous, coniferous cohorts

We need to turn Tu B’Shevat into a Jewish Earth Day