The green party

How is Jerusalem celebrating Tu Bishvat in shmita year?

shmita 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
shmita 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
As the trees ready to celebrate their "new year" with the first blossoms of spring, groups around Jerusalem are preparing fresh ideas for celebrating and educating the public about trees and the Land of Israel. This year, the shmita, when Tu Bishvat's traditional tree-planting is prohibited, has become a catalyst for new, alternative activities designed to promote the country's natural resources. Once hardly noticed among the pantheon of Jewish holidays, Tu Bishvat, named after the Hebrew abbreviation for the 15th day of the month of Shvat, was mentioned in the Mishna merely as a reference point for demarcating the tithing season. As time progressed, the holiday became a reference point for Diaspora Jewry's longing for the bounty of the Land of Israel, featuring the eating of dried fruit from the Holy Land. The Kabbalist Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria) of Safed contributed to a more mystical attitude toward Tu Bishvat, introducing a Tu Bishvat seder, modeled on the Pessah one, which included drinking four cups of wine and eating 30 different types of fruit. But Tu Bishvat's real renaissance came with the resurgence of the Zionist dream, when author and historian Ze'ev Yaavetz introduced the idea of planting trees on Tu Bishvat as a way to inculcate in children an appreciation of the beauty of the land's flora. The idea quickly took hold among teachers of the fledgling Jewish settlement of the time and later became associated with the Jewish National Fund's (JNF) afforestation and land reclamation efforts. With the shmita this year, a number of groups are seizing the opportunity to highlight the day's latest incarnation as Jewish Earth Day. "Shmita and Tu Bishvat carry a similar message," says ecological activist Adiel Shneur, who heads Garin Dvash (Honey Unit), a National Service project supervised by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI). "They make us notice the Earth, make us feel connected to it." Garin Dvash's Tu Bishvat-inspired activities include inaugurating a campaign to block a planned construction project that will obstruct the view from Rehov Olswanger in Kiryat Hayovel to nearby green areas. Dvash members and locals will be getting together to build a lookout point over the Karmit Valley, with benches and sculptures to be constructed from materials rescued from the trash. "Shmita is exactly about our ecological message," says Shneur. "It's about understanding that the land is ready to give to you without your having to abuse it. "When we take groups to the valley and show them how to prepare teas from wild-growing herbs, that's exactly what the Jews would do when they couldn't harvest their fields for an entire year." At Nahlaot's Barbur Community Garden, local residents are invited to celebrate Tu Bishvat by planting and tending the garden in potted plants, in observation of shmita. Elsewhere, the Frenkel School in French Hill has decided to declare Tu Bishvat a school-wide "Green Day." Miriam Tsaluk and her team from SPNI's education division have been invited to lead the school in activities designed to raise awareness about what can be done to protect the environment. "There's a growing awareness among principals and school staff of the need for more environmental education," says Tsaluk. "This Tu Bishvat we will be running a course in Yad Hamoreh School in Ramot Eshkol using recycled material to make bird houses, and we will show students in Pisgat Ze'ev North School how to reuse paper for papier-maché and origami projects. "People want to hear about shmita. Even in secular schools there is an increasing demand to learn about the ecological and social values connected with the shmita year - how to honor the Earth, and let nature 'do its thing,'" she adds. Edi Vahabe, a guide at Neot Kedumim, the biblical landscape reserve in the Ben Shemen Forest, says all sorts of Israelis connect to the shmita message. "Shmita is about faith in God to provide for you throughout the year, but it is also about values like ecology and respecting the land, which even secular Israelis can relate to," she says. For Neot Kedumim, which in non-shmita years includes a focus on agriculture as it was practiced during the time of the Mishna, shmita posed a certain challenge because activities such as planting and many types of harvesting are prohibited. But instead of ignoring shmita, the land reserve chose to highlight it with demonstrations of how shmita laws apply. "We don't involve ourselves much with the specifics of the laws, but try to explain what the experience was like for the real people who kept the shmita, the difficulties as well as the meaningfulness for them," says Vahabe. This Tu Bishvat, Neot Kedumim activities will include a tree tour to connect with the day's symbols, as well as a Tu Bishvat seder in the forest. Nearby in Ben-Shemen Forest, the JNF is planning a celebration of Israel's forests without any planting, including hiking, art with pinecones and other forest materials and a tree swing installation for children.