What We Can Learn from Ants: Pooling Our Resources in Resilient Communities

Imagine you are walking along a wooded trail. When you slow down and look around, you notice that everything is so alive. Trees are growing high into the sky with sunlight soaking into their leaves, and vines are running up the tree trunks, sharing the benefit of the trees’ height for their own growth. On the ground, the earth is moist. Dirt and fallen leaves are melding into compost, feeding the plants and animals around them. Beneath your feet—under the ground—roots and mycelium extend for miles, like unseen digestive systems and neurological networks sustaining and renewing life. When you look closely at the trees, you see a daddy long-legs searching for aphids and tiny ants walking in a trail, carrying what look like crumbs. The air is humid and smells like rain. Everything is teeming with life. 

This wooded trail sits at the edge of town, yet even as the urban environment presses closer and closer, it thrives, discovering abundance within its bounds. Each and every organism, no matter how small, plays a vital role in maintaining the health of the ecosystem. Even in this challenging world, the system is resilient. 

Considering nature’s genius and its innate capacity to thrive, we as Jewish day school leaders and community members would be wise to mimic its ways to build upon our school communities’ ability to flourish. While day schools have a wealth of values and resources to leverage in their own communities, they continue to experience stress-breeding fear of depletion and a general sense of scarcity with regard to resources. How can we challenge our own perspectives to enable us to more fully realize our prosperity?


“Biomimicry,” a term popularized by Janine Benyus, biologist, author and co-founder of the Biomimicry Institute, is an emerging discipline that emulates nature’s designs and processes to create a healthier, more sustainable planet. In her book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, Benyus reminds us of the essential truth that “life creates conditions conducive to life” and that in nature we find the ultimate teacher to guide us toward designing healthy and regenerative ecosystems that are capable of renewing themselves. Through biomimicry, we can develop new processes and systems, improve existing ones, and shift our perspectives to uncover solutions to problems we have long perceived to be difficult. 

Like nature, the Jewish people have been creative and resilient through the most challenging circumstances, and Jewish education has been a central technology supporting this adaptation and survival. In The Dignity of Difference, Jonathan Sacks explains that throughout history, when most of Europe was illiterate, “Jews maintained an educational infrastructure as their highest priority. It is no exaggeration to say that this lay at the heart of the Jewish ability to survive catastrophe, negotiate change and flourish in difficult circumstances.” Already, we see that the Jewish people, part of nature, self-sustain in a manner parallel to that of the wooded trail. We have a working set of principles and tools for surviving and thriving, with education at its center, which we can unlock even further through the application of biomimicry.  

In Pirkei Avot 4:1, Ben Zoma says, “Who is wise? He who learns from everyone.” What can we learn from the bees and the ants, from the trees and mushrooms growing from the ground? How does life create conditions conducive to life? The Biomimicry Institute identifies six overarching principles, found in just about every organism and ecosystem on earth, that reveal the deep patterns in nature that lead to a successful and sustainable existence on this planet: (1) evolving to survive; (2) adapting to changing conditions; (3) being locally attuned and responsive; (4) using life-friendly chemistry; (5) being resource efficient; and (6) integrating development with growth. We also learn from nature that it uses only the energy it needs, fits form to function, and counts on diversity and cooperation as mechanisms to flourish. How can we start to take the lessons of nature and apply them to Jewish day schools while also embracing a systems approach, so as not unintentionally harm one part of the system while trying to improve another?


A biomimicry approach would essentially ask, How does nature perform X function? For example, as we think about unlocking latent resources in Jewish day schools we would ask, How does nature leverage existing resources to create value? The next step would be to search for organisms or systems in nature that perform that same function and to emulate their strategies.  

In this case, we will focus on industrious and resourceful ants, which have outlived so many creatures on this Earth. In Proverbs 6:6-8, King Solomon suggests that the ant should be a guide for the right way to live: “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. Without having any chief, officer or ruler, she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest.” 

In Tasmin Woolley Barker’s book Teeming, she calls ancient, networked, adaptable beings like ants “superorganisms” and explains that they “succeed by gathering and curating tiny scraps of value that aren’t worth the effort for other creatures.” Superorganisms like ants aggregate bits of things like wood, leaves and water, transforming what might have seemed useless into compilations of great worth. In this way, they are able to accumulate wealth, which spirals into expanding circles of abundance for each generation that follows. Ants perform this work in an egoless manner, chemically connected, in a decentralized system where they focus on specific roles that engage their innate abilities, with a common goal to serve the greater good. 

Mapping Talents and Passions

Applying the lesson of the ant to our schools, we discover the potential in aggregating our tiniest resources and talents into something far more substantial than each of its parts. Our schools tend to have top-down structures where administrators, boards and committees design detailed plans, reaching out to employees, vendors and volunteers to fill preconceived roles. What would happen if we flipped this approach on its head and instead sought to learn about community members’ self-identified passions, interests, and organic and available resources? What latent potential might we unlock if we mapped everyone’s “easy gives” and “light lifts”? 

Envision a school community that harnesses the strengths, skills, passions and resources of its members to create exponential opportunities for growth, improvement and regeneration. For example, imagine sending an opt-in survey to all of the parents, grandparents and allies in your community. What might you learn if each person shares their zones of genius, in-kind offerings, extended networks and obtainable resources? School CRM (Customer Relationship Management) software systems may track individuals’ professions, donor history and notes but do not generally track and map what each person truly believes to be their gifts and things they want to give.

Countless times, we have heard the call of parents begging to help and not being tapped for their true skills and places of mastery. There’s the marketing professional who would love to help improve school marketing materials, the child psychologist who can serve on the mental health committee, the nonprofit leader who would make the most extraordinary student speaker, and the parent of unknown profession or personality whose gifts and resources you might never know about without asking. We know some of these parents and family members, and we tap into some of their talents. However, there are others calling, feeling unseen, unheard and unable to share. 

They are often blocked by the obstacles of a top-down system or barred from helping for the fear of too many cooks in the kitchen. This statement is not an admonition as much as it is an excited prompt to uncover every tiny scrap of beautiful possibility and astounding diversity our community holds and to move to a more decentralized system of leadership so there is always a pathway toward contributing. By embracing diversity and decentralization, as exemplified by the ants, there would be cascading benefits that grow in unforeseen ways over time.

Using feedback loops is a way to be locally attuned and responsive to the community. Just as ants run on information, so do we. By creating easy ways for community members to receive information and give feedback, action can then be taken in response. This way, it becomes easier to know what is working well and to build on it, and to know what is not working well and to adapt and respond.

Aggregating the easy, available and organic gifts of community members not only has the potential to unlock latent potential and regenerate resources. It also would help people—regardless of their place as staff, student, parent or ally—feel valued for their “whole selves” and feel connected across the school community. This sense of growing trust, connection and being valued by the school is likely to result in more traditional resource sustainability and abundance through higher levels of student retention and philanthropic giving. By expanding our understanding of resources to extend beyond money, we can discover new types of currency flowing through our school ecosystem.

Thinking Differently about Affordability

As we discover new forms of currency, we will also uncover new ways of paying for or “affording” day school education. In the great circle of wisdom, these “new” ways are actually ancient in nature, calling upon practices like barter, trade or exchanges of value, and cooperative wealth-building. If we look at affordability only in financial or dollar terms, we are missing a huge part of the picture. Entrepreneur Ethan Roland, founder of Appleseed Permaculture, explains that there are eight forms of capital, which we can work with to create more resilience: intellectual, spiritual, social, material, financial, living, cultural and experiential. For instance, one person’s introduction via social capital could be the next major donor to the school. How do we value that? One new family’s intellectual capital could save money or enrich the school’s education in enormous ways.

Could these barters of other forms of capital change our picture of affordability? Imagine, also, having a school’s families and community members plant a farm on an extra acre of school property with produce that can either be sold or used to decrease student meal costs. These ventures would not only be the responsibility of the administration. They would be community-distributed responsibilities. The potential seen by the community in ways that are self-organizing could be the key to unlocking a new way of driving toward increased affordability. Like the blessing over the wine, where we bless the fruits of the vine, we see the potential of the fruit to take on new forms.

In today’s world of exponential technological development and competition for resources, we have the opportunity to build resilient communities that are capable of adapting to changing conditions. As Woolley-Barker notes about ants, “Together, they sense and respond to their environment faster and more efficiently than any managed hierarchy or independent individual could on their own.”

Discovering the benefits of biomimicry and emulating nature’s genius requires no high dollar fees. It teaches us to do more with less by leveraging existing resources. Rather than placing the power to change in abandoning the old for the new and investing in expensive “advancements” (as we tend to do), we can find the resources and wisdom that are sitting right in front of us and within us.

Tapping into Our Superorganism

The key to nature’s designs and to Jewish day schools flourishing is a culture of regeneration, capable of renewing itself with whatever is available. Let’s remember to start with potential, not problems, and to work with what we have rather than what we are missing. 

The Jewish people are among the most ancient, sustained peoples on the planet. Without a doubt, we are a superorganism. We have profound experience developing resilience and self-sufficiency through every angle of challenge. A core to our spiritual resilience is not only the Torah but our sacred charge for it to be the tool in our perpetual quest for truth, le-dor va-dor. Like the ants’ chemical communication of needs, our discussion of Torah values fuels our intergenerational growth.

In Bereishit 1:29, God says, “Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree that has seed-yielding fruit—to you it shall be for food.” God has made it clear, we have everything we need. The possibilities for our future are abundant and exciting when we choose to look and perceive through the lens of nature, remembering our place in the intricate web of life and fulfilling our role to the best of our ability.

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HaYidion Fall 2022 Affordability
Fall 2022
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