Tu B’Shevat Promotes Sustainability

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Children stand around the tree at the Kaiserman JCC. | Photo provided

A Tu B’Shevat Midrash recounts the story of an old man planting a carob tree.

When confronted with the question of why he’s planting the tree, as it probably won’t bear fruit until after he has died, the old man responds that he’s planting it for future generations, as his ancestors planted trees for him.

Tu B’Shevat, which marks the new year of the trees, began the evening of Jan. 30. At a time when most Jewish people no longer work the land, educational programming around Tu B’Shevat focuses on the values the holidays symbolizes, such as environmentalism, sustainability and connection to the land of Israel.

“It’s not probably one of the best-known Jewish holidays,” Kaiserman JCC CEO Amy Krulik said, “but it’s certainly one that is interesting and inspiring to people.”

For the holiday, the Kaiserman JCC put up a tree made of crumpled paper, surrounded by quotes about the environment from religious texts such as the Mishnah and Pirkei Avot, and gave out different fruits and nuts, like raisins, dates and almonds, as snacks. People also had the opportunity to write letters to the tree and donate money for a tree to be planted in Israel.

Krulik said she wanted to put on an activity that anyone, regardless of age, could connect to.

“There’s a way to take any holiday and make it relevant,” Krulik said. “[Tu B’Shevat] was really about how do you connect the emotion and commitment to the environment to the holiday. Yes, it’s the birthday of the trees, but it’s really about sustainability, environmental protection and safety [and] safeguarding our natural resources.”

Abrams Hebrew Academy also observed the holiday in a unique way. The school set up a shuk, with eighth-grade students acting as vendors.

Rabbi Joshua Ottensoser, Judaic studies associate principal at Abrams, said he was inspired to put this shuk together after seeing a video showcasing the seven species of Israel — wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates — at the popular Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem.

Abrams Hebrew Academy students put on a shuk. | Photos provided

“More than anything else, my goal was, with this, to connect the kids to Israel, to take away the beauty of the produce of Israel, a certain pride and connection to Israel, what it has to offer,” Ottensoser said.

One Tu B’Shevat tradition is a seder. Rooted in kabbalistic teachings from the 16th century, this custom has seen a recent surge in popularity. During the seder, participants drink four cups of wine — starting with white and then adding an increasing amount of red wine to each glass — and eat four kinds of nuts and fruit.

Kol Tzedek partnered with the Jewish Farm School to put on a Tu B’Shevat seder, where they dedicated the cups of wine to “The Fourfold Song” by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook — the first cup to the self, the second to peoplehood, the third to humanity and the fourth to creation. They also dipped apples in maple syrup to honor the season of sap, which is the current season in Philadelphia.

“We have such a strong agricultural tradition and such a deep reverence for creation,” Kol Tzedek Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari said.

Fornani said this Tu B’Shevat seder has a different angle every year. While last year’s focused on racial justice and food access, this year’s focused on environmental justice.

“Trees provide natural safety,” Fornani said. “They are barriers against wind in the case of hurricanes. They create roots in the soil that prevent mudslides. A lot of these … natural disasters are a product of corporate greed and the misuse of our relationship to the earth.”

Participants at Repair the World’s Seeds, Snacks & Six Packs | Photo provided

Repair the World: Philadelphia held a seder during an event called Seeds, Snacks & Six Packs.

The organization partnered with Owen Taylor, the founder of TrueLove Seeds, to teach about seeds. A group of about 35 people, Jewish and not, sorted seeds while learning about where the seeds came from and why they’re important. The event had seed-themed snacks, as well as beers and ciders chosen specifically for their sustainable brewing techniques.

The event ended with the seder, led by Repair the World Philadelphia Team Leader Jessica Herrmann, who spoke about the holiday and the tradition of the seder. She adapted some of the customs from the seder to the themes of the event, such as by using the first glass of wine to discuss the tension between eating locally and keeping kosher.

“We wanted to get people thinking about ways in which they can bring spirituality and Jewish values into the way that they view and connect to the community and food around them in the city,” Herrmann said. “Whether that’s forming a community with your local urban gardener, or it’s taking those values and not eating the food that was imported. … We hope that everyone … left with a burning desire to serve their community and really connect to one another.”

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