(From left to right) Sonya Hay, Jake Hodas, and Carly Milliken are buzzing like a hive of bees in the community room of Natural Grocer’s as they prepare questions, contact information, and phone scripts for a local beekeeper survey.

The Buzz on B’nai Mitzvah Service-Learning


DENVER, CO   On an abnormally warm Sunday afternoon in the middle of March, three b’nai mitzvah students are like a buzzing hive of bees in the community room of Natural Grocer’s. As they sit together around a small table, each student focuses on a task that will contribute to the group as a whole. Jake is collecting numbers and emails of Colorado beekeepers; Carly is writing an example script to use when calling beekeepers; Sonya is finishing a strategic list of questions for the beekeepers. All of these parts will benefit each individual’s efforts in discovering why bees are dying at such a rapid rate.

Why are these b’nai mitzvah students spending their valuable weekend time on such serious work? Carly, Jake, and Sonya chose a different path for elevating their b’nai mitzvah experience and entrance into Jewish adulthood. Beyond a typical community service project, these students chose to focus their love for animals on a service-learning project with Ekar Farm, Denver’s Jewish community farm.

Ekar Farm is dedicated to providing fresh organic produce to local food pantries and educating the community about sustainable agriculture. As part of our educational programming for 11-13 year-olds, Ekar Farm is piloting “The Ark Project,” the first-of-its-kind animal welfare curriculum and service-learning framework developed by the Jewish Initiative for Animals (JIFA). The Ark Project offers an innovative opportunity for b’nai mitzvah students looking for a meaningful, empowering avenue for protecting and honoring animals in their community.

The students have taken the lead on their own project to improve the bee colonies at Ekar Farm thanks to The Ark Project’s activities and structure. During each service-learning session, this group engages in Torah study, avodah (service work), and reflection. The Torah learning allows our group to explore the Jewish approach to animal welfare. This targeted learning strengthens the connections b’nai mitzvah students can make between their service project and the transition to an active, involved Jewish adulthood. At our last session, Jake made such a connection organically during our text study about shiluach haken, the mitzvah of sending away a mother bird from a nest of eggs in order to preserve future generations of birds:

“This reminds me of what I was writing for my d’var torah: The downfall of others is the downfall of ourselves. I think that is what this mitzvah is about.”

Jake began to see the interconnectedness of what we were doing and learning. Moments like this will continue to occur throughout our project while directly supporting a local organization and the Denver community. Our service and learning don’t happen in a vacuum, but instead are working in tandem just as a colony of bees functions as one.

Norm Klapper, a veteran beekeeper based in Colorado, teaches b’nai mitzvah students about taking care of honey bees.

Ekar Farm is proud to have had the opportunity to pilot this ground-breaking curriculum from JIFA, and as evidenced by the engagement of our first cohort, there clearly is power in partnerships. This collaboration between JIFA, a local Jewish community farm, and local assets such as other beekeepers has created a new means of empowering youth to create real change. These community connections are essential to answering questions about global environmental issues with a focus on animal welfare, all in a Jewish context.

Melissa Hoffman, editor of the new curriculum, emphasizes the unique nature of this partnership and project: “The Ark Project not only gives young Jews a chance to fully express and act upon their passion for helping animals; it provides b’nai mitzvah with experiences that make their Jewish values relevant and exciting. We’re thrilled to see the students at Ekar bringing the curriculum to life in ways that make a direct impact on an issue they care deeply about.”

Interested in learning more about this project for your community or starting your own cohort? Please contact Melissa Hoffman, JIFA’s Humane Education and Program Specialist.

Find out more about Ekar Farm’s work in the Denver community and how to get involved this growing season by visiting www.ekarfarm.org or contacting Margot Sands, Ekar Farm’s Lead Educator.

MORE ABOUT EKAR FARM: Ekar Farm is a 2-acre urban, organic, community farm in the hub of the Denver Jewish community located on the property of the Denver Academy of Torah. Going into the 8th season of growing food for the hungry, Ekar Farm invites schools, organized groups, families, and individuals to get their hands dirty by volunteering on the farm. Ekar Farm donates fresh produce throughout the growing season to Jewish Family Services, Metro Caring, SAME Café, and Kavod Senior Life.

About Margot Sands

I am the Lead Educator at Ekar Farm, Denver's urban, organic, Jewish farm. "Foodaism" has become my passion and life's work through meaningful experiences integrating agriculture, sustainability, and Jewish tradition. In my spare time I bake bread, bike around Denver, and pet as many animals as possible.

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