NEW YORK, Feb. 2 (JTA) — It may be the season for planting trees, but Yosef Abramowitz is pushing for sundae-making this Tu B’Shevat. In what he calls a “revamped” and “recast” seder in honor of the New Year of Trees, Abramowitz and the staff of BabagaNewz, an educational magazine for Jewish kids, are teaching would-be arborists to plant “seeds of hope” in the form of nuts and candy, using cookie crumbs instead of dirt, and wishes instead of water. Spiritually devoid? Downright ridiculous? Try uplifting and accessible, says Abramowitz, CEO of Jewish Family & Life!, an educational multimedia enterprise, who co-wrote the seder, “Seeds of Hope,” with educator Marilyn Fine. Looking like a toned-down supplement to the BabagaNewz magazine, the guide’s tan pages and illustrations of Israel differ from the rest of the magazine’s bright and graphics-heavy content. This Tu B’Shevat Haggadah seems more tasteful than revolutionary, with photos of Israel, fruit and flowers gracing its margins. But Abramowitz says his seder operates in markedly new territory. The New Year of Trees, a relatively minor Jewish holiday, harkens the beginning of spring in Israel, and originally established the start of the tithing season. Today, it is often recognized as a Jewish Earth Day. Like its more-established and popular sister, the Passover seder, the Tu B’Shevat ritual revolves around four cups of wine. For Tu B’Shevat, the first glass is white, the next two are a mixture of red and white and the last is all red. The custom, created in the 17th century by Jewish mystics in Safed in what is now Israel, also features eating four different categories of fruit, distinguished by the edibility of the fruit’s flesh and pit, which are said to symbolize the four seasons. “As beautiful as it is,” says Abramowitz, referring to the mysticism of the tradition, “its not relevant or accessible to the lives of most Jewish children and families.” What is relevant Abramowitz says, is maintaining hope and optimism for the future of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. Abramowitz’s lessons are imparted within the six-page glossy Haggadah distributed to 34,000 middle school students in 900 religious schools who subscribe to BabagaNewz. A monthly magazine for Jewish students, BabagaNewz is published monthly during the school year, in conjunction with the Avi Chai Foundation. During the course of the seder, the traditional four cups of wine are drunk, and lessons on modern Israeli history pepper the liturgy. Students learn about Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, and are prompted to act out stories and ask themselves, “Who inspires hope for you?” The concept of a Tu B’Shevat seder is not new, admits Yossi Prager, executive director for North America at the Avi Chai Foundation, which was involved in both the funding and editorial content of BabagaNewz’s seder. While Tu B’Shevat seders were initiated hundreds of years ago, new seder formats gained popularity during the 1980s and 1990s. The Jewish National Fund issued its own Earth-friendly Tu B’Shevat seder a few years ago. Some traditional Tu B’Shevat seders are very agriculturally based, Prager says. “We thought, let’s make it connected to our lives. What are the issues that drive the middle schoolers? Let’s give them concrete things they can achieve in their own situations and the broader world around them.” Eating fruits with both large and small seeds, he points out, teaches the students that leaders like Moses and Herzl can affect change, but so can their small seeds, or actions. “We can do little things to make the world a better place,” he explains. The reactions of the students to the new seder are not yet known, but third-grade teacher Erica Markowitz, a teacher at the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue Religious School, who is also the assistant workshop coordinator for BabagaNewz, says the new Tu B’Shevat seder has important values and lessons. “Tu B’Shevat often goes unappreciated or under-taught by many classes,” she said. “This lesson gives me a great opportunity to teach kids about this holiday. Perhaps more importantly, it gives students something tangible to take home, to learn with their family, and perhaps to incorporate into their dinner this year.”Copies of the BabagaNewz seder can be found in BabagaNewz magazines or online at www.babaganewz.com.
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E. B. Solomont is a contributing writer to JTA.
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