Looking to Commemorate Tu B’Shevat in Philly? Here’s How

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Irv Leventhal and Joan Asprakis helping young students plant seedlings. (Photo by Alex Correia)

Tu B’Shevat, the New Year of the Trees, is upon us.

For those of a certain age and level of observation, this may call to mind the passing around of tin tzedakah boxes, the dropping in of the surplus quarters leftover from the trip to your synagogue’s vending machine before Hebrew school started, and the vague, distant promises of all those tin cans somehow making it to Israel where they’d be planted as trees.

Well, those dog days of Tu B’Shevat are over. It’s said that the younger generations value experiences over things; that, combined with increasing concern for the environment, has spawned Tu B’Shevat activities all over town that promise to appeal to almost every sector of the demographic.

All the activities mentioned below will entail a pretty deep dive; here are some relevant questions to consider: Do you prefer something that uses the holiday of Tu B’Shevat more as a springboard to discuss and actively address broader issues affecting the environment? Or would you prefer a less hands-on but more existentially minded meditation on the Kabbalistic history of Tu B’Shevat paired with several glasses of wine and heavy hors d’oeuvres?

If it’s the latter, check out Adath Jeshurun’s Tu B’Shevat Seder for Young Jewish Adults on Feb. 8 at Time in Center City. AJ’s Rabbi Shai Cherry will be on hand speaking to the historical origins, evolutions and permutations of a holiday that most people really don’t understand.

For instance, did you know that Tu B’Shevat has been reinvented several times over, and its origins can actually be traced to a fiscal tithing deadline? Or that it wasn’t until the 17th century that we began to see the Kabbalistic appropriation of the tree symbolism. And, even then, it was only prevalent in the Sephardic world, Cherry said.

“The Ashkenazi world didn’t really pick it up until the Ashkenazim and Sephardim started interacting in Israel in the ’50s,” he added.

If you like to have your mind blown and leave a place smarter and potentially more pedantic than before, this one’s for you. The event’s open to anyone over 21, as alcohol will be consumed. You do not need to be an AJ member to attend.

Joan Kober with kids outside on a tour of Morris Arboretum. (Photo by Alex Correia)

If children’s education is the highest priority, the newly overhauled annual Tu B’Shevat program at the Morris Arboretum is it. There’s been a Tu B’Shevat program at the arboretum for at least the past 25 years, but there’s renewed excitement in 2020.

This year, the program is focusing specifically on leaves, said Liza Hawley, the arboretum’s assistant director of visitor and youth education. Students will learn how leaves make their own food, and every kid will get to take home a miniature sweet birch tree. That’s the tree from which the ingredients necessary for birch beer are derived.

“We’ve come up with a program that’s scalable for the littlest kids who come in from the nursery schools all the way up to third- and fourth-graders from the local synagogues,” Hawley said. “It’s going to be fun and different, and I know the teachers, at least, are going to be excited because they were probably really tired of the program we did for the past 25 years.”

If your feeling is that Tu B’Shevat should be a jumping-off point for larger discussions about climate change, sustainability and renewable resources, then Main Line Reform Temple’s Tu B’Shevat curriculum is the one you’ve been searching for.

“We’re doing something totally new this year that brings my passion for Jewish environmental education to the fore,” said Rabbi Kevin Kleinman, director of education at Main Line Reform.

The new program will take the shape of the inaugural MLRT Youth Climate Summit.

“The goal is to connect the traditional observance of Tu B’Shevat — celebrating the birthday of the trees — with the values of being shomrei adamah, guardians and caretakers of the Earth,” Kleinman said. “We’ll be thinking about where, specifically, the Earth needs our care and how we, as a religious school and a synagogue, can connect our Jewish values to individual and community actions that will make a difference in combating climate change.”

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