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Blending environmentalism, Judaism

The Jewish National Fund´s book of Tu B'Shevat sermons. (JNF)

The Jewish National Fund´s book of Tu B’Shevat sermons. (JNF)

NEW YORK, Jan. 7 (JTA) — Think green. That’s the message that the Jewish National Fund and COEJL: The Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life are sending as they devise new ways to celebrate Tu B’Shevat, the holiday of the trees. The JNF is launching the Tu B’Shevat Across America program, which provides holiday resources to interested congregations. Modeled after the popular Shabbat Across America program — a youth education initiative run by the National Jewish Outreach Program — the Tu B’Shevat package is geared more toward the family as a whole. The holiday resources provided by the organization include: free speakers, a book of original Tu B’Shevat sermons, “A Guide to Helping Israel on a Regular Basis” and the famous blue tzedakah box where supporters of Israel can deposit their contributions. The book of 14 sermons, the first such collection of its kind produced by the JNF, includes reflections from Rabbis representing “all streams of Judaism,” says Arlette Cohen, who supervised the pamphlets’ publication. “Some rabbis focused on the environment” in their sermons, “some focused on security, or other timely issues,” Cohen says. “There’s a little bit in there for everyone.” Cohen, who xeroxed hundreds of copies by hand and distributed the sermons to thousands of e-mail subscribers, hopes congregations will use them during Tu B’Shevat festivities. She plans to add to the book every year by soliciting new contributions from more rabbis around the country. The variety of sermons reflects the variety of traditions celebrated on Tu B’Shevat. There is “very little law around the holiday,” which “creates an opportunity for a lot of creativity,” Jacobs says. This year, the holiday is on Friday, Jan. 17, the 15th day of the month of Shevat. COEJL suggests taking advantage of the fact that Tu B’Shevat falls on Shabbat by celebrating with a special evening meal. On its Web site — — the organization says the seder can be used as a time “to reflect more deeply than usual on food, where it comes from, and what impact its production has on our world” by eating a vegetarian, vegan, or even “fruitarian” meal. The latter demands that nothing eaten is killed, not even vegetables. Fruit is allowed, however, because it falls from the trees on its own volition; “the ultimate in sustainable eating,” says Mark Jacobs, the executive director of COEJL. In biblical times, the day originally marked the annual tax levied on fruit trees. However, in recent years, Tu B’Shevat has been transformed into the “environmental holiday par excellence of Judaism,” says Rabbi Michael Cohen, the co-founder of the Green Zionists Alliance. A Tu B’Shevat seder, originally celebrated by Jews 2000 years ago, became more widespread in the 1980s, as the environmental movement gained popularity in the Jewish community. The idea for a modern eco-friendly seder originated in part from the work of Ellen Bernstein, the founder of Shomrei Adamah, a pioneer Jewish environmental organization, and the author of “Four Questions for the Tu B’Shvat Seder.” Found on COEJL’s Web site, celebrants can ask why “Is this seder different from the Passover seder?”, instead of “Why is this night different from all other nights?” The answer? While “the order of the Passover seder helps us to experience the journey from slavery to freedom . . . the Tu B’Shevat seder helps us to experience the journey from the outer world of matter to the inner world of spirit.” Eating all kinds of fruits will remind us “of the miracles of nature.” This spiritualism is carried over from the original mystical Tu B’Shevat traditions from the Kabbalah. There is an “ancient connection with the earth in our festivals,” Jacobs says. Modern Jewish environmental groups promote using the Jewish holidays, which revolve around agricultural cycles, to inspire as ecological activism. JNF has taken advantage of the environmental message people find in the holiday by promoting its plant-a-tree-in-Israel campaign. The organization has planted more 220 million trees — almost 42,000 a week — during the past century in what is now the Jewish state. COEJL promotes integrating environmental action into the celebration of Tu B’Shevat, whether that’s cleaning up a park or writing letters” to politicians about environmental issues of concern, Jacobs says. “At this time, when there are so many grave issues before us,” Jacobs believes it is critical to “continue to keep the environment on our agenda because” environmental problems “are sufficient enough to destabilize societies around the world in coming decades, and are as great a security threat – though not as immediate as” other issues. But Michael Cohen, who also runs the North American office of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, warns that when it comes to caring about the environment, one day a year is not enough. “I think we sometimes do the seder and we think that we have done our environmental thing and we are covered, it needs a lot more effort than just one day. Tu B’Shevat should be used as a catalyst for action all year round.”