By Gidon Kaminer ‘18
“This is a nursery over here,” science teacher Jon Greenberg said, pointing to a soil-filled container on a crowded table in the greenhouse on the roof. “You put the seeds in and you put a cover on and some water – so it stays humid and illuminated in a very protected environment – to get them started, and then when they’re big enough and mature enough you put them in the bigger planters.”
This is Jon Greenberg’s vision of Heschel. These past ten years he has been working hard at this little nursery of ours that we call the Heschel High School, nourishing and cultivating students from some of the earliest years of the school and into the present day. He has watched kids grow “academically and personally,” as he put it, and has guided countless students through every step of the way, watering, illuminating, and providing a safe covered environment.
At Heschel Greenberg found fertile ground for his innovative education ideas to blossom, most evident in the myriad of unique senior science courses that he has developed and taught. In his first years he taught two senior courses, a nutrition class and a food science class, each of them one semester long. However, feeling there was not enough substantial science to teach in the nutrition course Greenberg instead developed the “Science and Torah” course, a class focusing on the “relation of science and Torah,” with the goal of thinking of the two not as “science versus Torah, but science in the aid of Torah.”
Greenberg never stopped teaching the Food Science course until last year. He sees it as a “science education capstone course” that integrates chemistry and biology and forces students to apply them in practical real life situations. Greenberg explained that usually “in experiments there’s just one independent variable and one dependent variable,” and the task is simply to study how the former affects the latter. “But in a practical situation like cooking there are millions of things happening at the same time and you really have to work to figure out what’s happening,” Greenberg added. “It’s a non-ideal situation. And that requires more sophisticated thinking, to be able to weigh all the factors. It’s both more practical and more challenging.”
Greenberg has also been busy outside of the classroom, leading the Gardening & Greenhouse Club on the roof garden since it was started with his supervision by Heschel alumni Lucian Chown and David Dweck. In recent years a group of dedicated students has led a rejuvenation of the club, successfully growing and distributing tomatoes, herbs, and more plants, all grown on the roof garden and in the greenhouse. Greenberg and the club are now working on creating an aquaponics system, a mini fish-based ecosystem where fish waste is utilized by plants as food, which in turn purifies the water and creates a better environment for the fish. “At Heschel, when you come up with ideas like this, you can just run with them,” Greenberg explained, with his signature smile.
Above all else, Greenberg has striven to create the best and most effective student experience in his classes, even when this requires straying into unorthodox territory uncharted by traditional education. One of his long term goals is to ultimately replace tests as the main model for assessing students. For Greenberg, the issue with the current model is that each assessment is too concentrated and high stakes. He explained in scientific terms that in an experiment, “the more data points, the better.” And if education is the most important experiment, the teacher should ideally have as many data points as possible to ensure that the teaching is most effective.
On the rooftop garden, Greenberg is considering planting a few berry bushes with the Gardening Club. He is quick to note that this is “another science and Torah issue,” because the Biblical prohibition of Orlah mandates that one not eat the fruit produced by a tree or bush until the fourth year after it is planted. But he adds that perhaps the law does not apply in this situation, because the bushes would not be planted in the ground but ten stories above it, on the roof.
Though he would like a definite answer to this question, it would be difficult to find someone to answer it since “that type of rabbinical expertise is not easy to find in the Western hemisphere.” Considering this conundrum, Greenberg has been “toying with the idea” of writing a book of Jewish agricultural laws that are not that widely known. “I’m not so sure that people would want to read such a book, to justify the work of researching it,” Greenberg admitted. “But it might be a fun project. And I’d learn something myself.”