Ditch JNF Tree-Planting and Reclaim the Real Roots of Tu B'Shvat

Baruch she-p’tarani m’eytz zeh! Blessed is the One who has freed me from the responsibility of this tree!”

This time last year, I exclaimed this improvised blessing under the starry skies in the Jerusalem forest — as I burned branches of pine.

What was a Jewish environmentalist doing burning branches on Tu B’Shvat, the holiday reserved for honoring and celebrating trees?

A few moments earlier, I had been jumping from stone to stone to gather wood for a bonfire. Nearby was a table overflowing with fruit and wine, all gathered for the ceremony my friends and I were about to hold: a Tu B’Shvat Seder. We were there to partake in an old-new ritual: honoring the Mishnaic date of the fruit tree’s birthday, as well as taking on the Kabbalistic custom of a Seder featuring four cups of wine and four types of fruit, which originated in the 16th century. As I filled my arms with fallen pine branches, I discovered a large branch unlike any I’d ever seen: cones attached to it up and down the entire length. With a small group of friends huddling by the fire as my witnesses, I held this crowded branch high in the air.

“This branch,” I proclaimed, “Is from a tree planted with my tzedakah money back when I was eight years old and celebrating Tu B’Shvat through Jewish National Fund tree-planting donations.” Then I lowered the branch onto the flames.

As part of my Jewish upbringing in a large suburban Reform synagogue in the 1980s, my Israeli Hebrew schoolteachers had a practiced lesson about this holiday: Tu B’Shvat is when we raise money to plant trees in Israel. It was an annual tradition to submit our forms, which included information about “in honor of” or “in memory of.” A few weeks later we each received a colorful certificate with these words on it and a stamp from the JNF.

Jump to the summer of 1995. I’m surrounded by my peers and enjoying the peak summer of my youth. Everyone has been looking forward to the day we get to each physically plant a tree in the NFTY forest. Not a single person questions the species of tree we are planting. A few folks ask if there is a way to visit the actual trees we planted in previous years. It’s July, so no one is mentioning Tu B’Shvat or fruit trees. Dozens more pine trees enter the ground in the hills of Jerusalem.

One chilly afternoon in the Brandeis Hillel lounge, circa 1998, a friend invites me to join her for something called a “Tu B’Shvat Seder.” We sing Hebrew songs and eat dried fruit imported from Israel. I still don’t completely grasp the origins of the holiday, but I’m enjoying myself because I love rituals. Soon after, as part of Hazon and Teva progamming, I learn that Tu B’Shvat is an ancient holiday that honors fruit trees. Finally, at age 23, I discover that Tu B’Shvat is also a contemporary environmental holiday. I go on to plan annual Seders for my friends as well as in a variety of Jewish settings.

“Consider this,” I say in a crowded living room of my peers in 2008. “A few weeks after Chanukah and the winter solstice, when the days are still quite short and the air is bitter cold, our religion tells us: gather in community, tell stories, sing, and eat fruit.” We dip our regional apples into local maple syrup and say the blessings before eating. This Seder affirms a contemporary Judaism that is built on centuries of religious evolution. Today’s Jews want a Judaism that is embodied and yet still authentic to the ancient texts. That’s what we’re reclaiming.

Though the JNF did not innovate the ritual of planting trees in Israel on Tu B’Shvat (the custom dates back to 1890 and the JNF was founded in 1901), they have perpetuated it as an essential annual custom for countless Jews worldwide. Even a visit to their website today encourages you to join in the “mitzvah” of tree planting for Tu B’Shvat, and asks for a donation, without a single reference to fruit on the page. Whether or not one still donates annually to the JNF, many still do not understand the original significance of Tu B’Shvat as the birthday of fruit trees.

Why, exactly, do fruit trees even need a birthday? Since we had always been told it was simply the “Jewish arbor day,” and it was rare that a supplementary Hebrew school would study the Mishna, let alone the agricultural laws from Temple times, no one really considered the answer to his question. And yet, there is a very practical reason that those who owned fruit trees needed a date on the calendar from which to measure the age of each of their trees: to keep track for tax purposes.

As perennials, fruit trees are an essential component of a sustainable food system. Pausing to honor them with Jewish ritual, whether you gather for a Tu B’Shvat Seder or simply enjoy a serving of an exotic tree fruit, aligns Jewish spiritual practice with fruit trees, each other, and the earth. Whether you organize or attend an all-out multi-course Tu B’Shvat Seder that includes elaborate fruit and wine, or you just enjoy dried fruit imported from the holy land, I encourage everyone to reclaim the origins of this holiday.

For those looking to fully observe the holiday of Tu B’Shvat in a way that honors fruit trees, here’s what I suggest:

• Host a Tu B’Shvat Seder. Hazon has a wonderful haggadah and guide you can download for free here.

• With so many olive trees being uprooted, join a trip with the Center for Jewish Nonviolence, which has an upcoming delegation to replant.

• For $36, T’ruah will plant two fruit trees, one in West Jerusalem and one in a Palestinian village.

• Plant a fruit tree in your community. If you live in the Northeast like me, you’ll have to wait a few months until the ground is no longer frozen. Use a local organization dedicated to native species, such as Project Native to be sure that what you are planting will support the local ecosystem.

• Join the Guerilla Grafting Movement! You can graft fruit bearing branches onto ornamental trees and bring back the fruit on a tree that has been hybridized to no longer produce fruit. Many trees in downtown parks have been bred to produce beautiful flowers in the spring, but never actually fruit in the spring or fall. Read more about it here and here.

Kohenet Sarah Shamirah Chandler teaches, writes and consults on a national level on issues related to Judaism, the environment, mindfulness, food values and farming.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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Ditch JNF Tree-Planting and Reclaim the Real Roots of Tu B'Shvat

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