Nili Simhai - 2009 Award Recipient
Nili Simhai has served for the last decade as director of the Teva Learning Center in New York, a prestigious Jewish environmental educational institute that works with Jewish day schools, congregational schools, synagogues, camps, youth groups and other Jewish organizations and institutions to marry environmental and Jewish values.
“Twelve years ago, when I started as a Teva educator, we used to sit down and say, ‘Here’s a list of Jewish concepts and quotes that will support our cause.’ Now, we ask questions like, ‘What does it mean to be co-creators with God? How did God design the world (or the mishkan, or Shabbat) and what can we learn about creating (or building, or resting) in a similar way? How can we honor the principles of shmitta in a modern economy? Can we deepen our relationship with God by being closer to the rest of God’s Creation?’
“In ecology, there is a concept called the ‘edge effect.’ It refers to the fact that the area where habitats meet (where a forest meets a meadow, for instance) is the area of greatest diversity and fecundity. At Teva, we have our own edge effect. It is the place where the kids, the educators, and the land all meet. This interface, between student and teacher and Creation, is where we are discovering new Torah and rediscovering ancient Torah.”
Nili Simhai joined the Teva Learning Center as an educator in 1997, a few years after receiving her B.S. in Wildlife Management from The Ohio State University. Just two years later, she was promoted to Director. In the ten years since, the Teva Learning Center has gone from serving 1,500 to 6,000 students annually. Nili has pioneered Jewish experiential environmental education. She is proud of her role in creating Teva’s Achdoot, Yitziah, and “Bringing It Back to Our Schools” programs, as well as of her contribution to the development of several Teva curricula. Each year, she looks forward to teaching at the Teva Seminar on Jewish Environmental Education, a professional development conference for Jewish educators, rabbis, counselors, and lay leaders.
Nili believes that being tapped by a mentor at an early age gave her a thirst for more teaching and led to a string of congregational education positions throughout her early career. Today, mentorship of other educators is one of Nili’s greatest passions. She has personally trained over 100 Teva educators, many of whom have gone on to careers in Jewish education and some of whom have founded other Jewish environmental organizations.
“I didn’t plan a career in Jewish education. But over time, I heard a calling. I think about this when I see how many young people are attracted to Teva for reasons that have nothing to do with Jewish education. I see so much potential in them.”
From her Letters of Nomination and Support:
“A diminutive bundle of energy, Nili infuses the field with deep learning, a warm and optimistic spirit, an ability to attract, motivate, and support incredible talent, and a phenomenal sense of personal commitment. In all of Nili’s programs and teachings, there is a remarkable sense of hope in the face of sobering challenges, as well as a call for people not just to learn, but to take action, both individually and institutionally. When educators anywhere in the country need advice and direction regarding Judaism and the environment, they inevitably end up on the phone with Nili.”
Jordan Dale, Executive Director
Surprise Lake Camp
“Over the past decade, Nili has grown a small program, serving several hundred Jewish Day School students, into a nationally-recognized center for Jewish learning and the environment that reaches thousands of students each year. Through Teva, Nili has developed the premier Jewish environmental educator training program. Her commitment to thoughtful pedagogy is evident in everything she does.”
Adam Berman, Executive Director
Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center
“In my nearly twenty-five years as a Head of School, I have encountered few individuals in the sphere of Jewish education who can match Nili’s enthusiasm, dedication, pedagogy, and total commitment to the mission of the institution for which he or she is employed. Nili’s passion for environmental stewardship combined with traditional Jewish values is infectious and empowering. I have watched her single-handedly transform the Teva Learning Center into the most prominent institution of its kind along the entire East Coast.”
Jay Leberman, Head of School
Perelman Jewish Day School
“Nili has infused a high level of spirituality into the Teva curriculum through song, prayer, and discussion. Year after year, my students have reported that their Teva experiences have transformed their lives. They wear their hard-earned ‘Teva Beads’ around their necks for months or years afterward. They return with an appreciation for their roles as members of their own communities, Klal Yisrael, humankind, and as creatures of G-d’s earth.”
Reena Slovin, Client Coordinator and Consultant
Gateways: Access to Jewish Education