Head Over Heals for the Sun

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Back when I was a wee tot enjoying my first veggies, birkat hachammah, the holiday honoring the creation of the sun—literally “the blessing of the sun”—quietly came and went.

On April 8, 28 years later, birkat hachammah will return. This time, I’m hearing all sorts of fanfare from a Jewish community more aware than ever of what the sun provides, and seizing the opportunity to encourage sustainable practices. As shared on this very blog, organizations are mobilizing.

Perhaps the most quirky and inspiring sign of this foment is the Topsy-Turvy bus from the Teva Learning Center.

This head-over-heals double school bus has been scooting between synagogues and schools on used vegetable oil since late February. Its mission? To teach kids about the blessing of the sun, and using our solar gifts wisely.

“We’re reminding the Jewish community that all energy on the planet comes from the sun, including fossil fuels, including vegetable oil, including all the food that we eat,” Teva’s camp and schools coordinator Jonathan Dubinsky told me. “Going into the Pesach time, it’s time to evaluate what we need, and what’s extra.”

Some kids may not have considered that bus fuel was once plants, or that food and fuel come from the same source. Once the Topsy-Turvy bus comes around, though, they get a pretty good idea of that. One group even got to see, in a delightfully icky lesson, how the bus reuses old cooking oil that would normally get discarded.

The bus had already experienced a couple of incredible journeys before it arrived at Teva. It began as an eye-catching statement about “topsy-turvy” military spending by the U.S. government, and was co-designed for that purpose by Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s and art car maker Tom Kennedy.

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Later, Peace Corps pals Daniel Bowman Simon and Casey Gustowarow got a hold of the bus. They planted an organic garden in the upside-down upper half and drove it across the country to gather support for an organic farm on the White House lawn.

Starting in August of 2008, the two stopped in dozens of towns and cities with a petition to that effect, and collected thousands of signatures. In January, the two decided it was time for the bus to move on.

Why? They’d made a point, Simon said, and a “rock star family” had moved into the White House. Now they wanted to let that family consider if gardening in their lawn would fit into their high profile lives (the Obamas decided it would).

The WhoFarmers wanted to give the bus to an organization that was also passionate about sustainability. Their first thought was to contact Adamah, the Jewish environmental fellowship program with an emphasis on organic veggie growing, and from there they were steered toward Teva.

When the bus came to the environmental education organization, it sported the composite vehicle’s original school bus look with TheWhoFarm website printed on the side. Teva painted on the center’s leafy logo and a new URL, renovated the interior, and populated it with sun-loving “pirates.” And some people who call themselves the Green Grease Monkeys helped them convert the diesel bus to run on straight cooking oil. There’s little doubt that the bus is as quirky as ever.

As a Topsy-Turvy blog attests, the educational odyssey of Captain Jonathan Redbeard (another name for Dubinsky) and Teva educator Naftali Ejdelman stays true to the fun and purposeful origins of the bus. The two staff members and the iconoclastic vehicle have forged unlikely alliances, endured injuries, and turned a Purim celebration on its head (where it should be, they figured).  Simon still keeps tabs on the vehicle, and recently met up with it during a stop in Brooklyn. Gustawarow gets to hear about its adventures from the farm he’s working in Florida.

The Topsy-Turvy bus schedule is packed straight through the celebration of birkat hachammah and beyond. But interested parties can still request a visit by Redbeard and Ejdelman and see if they can fit in. In that sun-loving upside-down world, it just might be possible.

(Images from the Teva Learning Center (top) and TheWhoFarm (bottom))

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