When babies are born, we plant trees in their honor. When people die, we plant trees in their honor. Seems that trees are about as ubiquitous in Judaism as the deli platter.
We even have holidays for trees. Tu B’Shevat, known to Jewish preschool children everywhere as "the birthday of the trees" (the 15th of Shevat on the Hebrew calendar), will be celebrated this year on Feb. 8. On Tu B’Shevat, it is customary to partake in a seder featuring fruit (the most common fruits are grapes, dates, pomegranates, figs and olives). Many people also plant trees.
Tu B’Shevat is also called the Jewish Arbor Day, but in recent years it has become more of a "Jewish Earth Day," as the focus has shifted from simply celebrating trees to increasing awareness of nature in general.
Jewish participation in the green movement is nothing new. From the Torah to midrash, our tradition has always included being mindful of the environment. Agriculture is a key component in Judaism. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our ancestral homeland, Israel, where Jews have "made the desert bloom."
Los Angeles-area Jewish organizations are taking the lead in demonstrating the value — both spiritual and financial — that being eco-friendly can provide. The Shalom Institute in Malibu (home of Camp JCA Shalom) will host its 15th annual Tu B’Shevat Nature Fest on Jan. 29. As part of The Big Jewish Tent series, the nature fest will feature hands-on opportunities to connect with nature. Exhibits include a climbing wall, an organic gardening demonstration and an eco fair.
In recent years, the Shalom Institute has worked to reduce its carbon footprint by adding solar panels to several buildings and its pool. An organic garden, bunk beds made from recycled plastics, and waterless urinals have helped to reduce the institute’s impact on the environment. All of this has helped garner accolades from the community at large. In 2009, the Shalom Institute was a runner-up for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s Green Beanie Award, which recognizes Jewish organizations that focus on environmentalism.
"We have a True to Nature Committee, and a board member is on that committee," says Bill Kaplan, executive director of the Shalom Institute. "As we are making improvements to the property, that committee is directly involved in the decisions," he says.
The True to Nature Committee ensures that the Shalom Institute is mindful of the environment during all projects and looks for ways to reduce the use of materials and incorporate recycled, green products whenever possible, Kaplan says.
Giving back to the community is an even larger part of the Jewish green movement. Tzedakah, in many ways, has its roots in the environment. The laws of kashrut require us to be mindful of what we are eating, says Rabbi Noah Zvi Farkas of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino and founder of Netiya: The LA Jewish Coalition on Food, Environment, and Social Justice, an organization focused on using organic gardening and food production to address the hunger crisis.
"The concept of pe’ah — or leaving the corners of one’s fields unreaped so that the poor are able to collect food — from the midrash, teaches us that providing food to the poor is essential," Farkas says.
This concept is brought into the modern psyche through groups like Netiya, which helps Jewish organizations create organic, urban gardens. "The purpose of these gardens is to cultivate the people as well as to cultivate the gardens," Farkas says. That is, the gardens help change the ideas many people have about food — demonstrating that compassionate, environmentally sound, sustainable food production can help solve many of the basic problems associated with our modern food-delivery model.
"On the one hand, we have the world’s largest obesity problem, based mostly on poor diets," Farkas says, "yet on the other hand, we have millions of people who are food insecure. For me, the real problem is, how did we get to this spot?"
Netiya’s sustainable gardening program is a way to respond to the needs faced by society, Farkas notes.
Farkas says that many L.A.-area synagogues and other groups have "Green Teams" that are working toward helping their congregations make more environmentally conscious choices. In addition to helping preserve nature, green methods can be effective cost cutters. Shalom Institute’s Kaplan estimates that his organization’s solar panels have helped save about $15,000 in electricity costs per year since 2007, and $10,000 in solar water heating per year since 2008. And last year, Camp JCA Shalom abolished paper registration. The institute’s Shemesh Organic Farm boasts some 500 fruit trees.
Which, of course, brings us back to trees. Recycling paper products certainly helps save our leafy friends. Being mindful of reusing materials and choosing more eco-friendly materials to begin with are easy ways, the experts say, for all of us to honor Tu B’Shevat every day. By being good stewards of nature and setting an example for others, we in the modern Jewish community can follow in the footsteps of our ancestors, taking to heart the agricultural model that has helped frame Jewish life for generations.