Cross-border cooperation for Tu Bishvat, the environment, is essential

In 1996, CO2 levels in the atmosphere were 361 parts per million, surpassing the 350 ppm red line in 1988. Today those levels are a staggering 414 ppm and rising.

‘REALITY COMMANDS us to be responsible for the shared home we call Earth.’  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
‘REALITY COMMANDS us to be responsible for the shared home we call Earth.’
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
For more than 2,000 years, Tu Bishvat has taken on different roles and meanings. First created to demarcate a tax year, it later developed into a ritual for a new kabbalistic theology, and was later rediscovered by Zionists. More recently, it has become the Jewish environmental holiday par excellence as today, the environmental climate crisis is the existential cloud hanging over humanity.
Tu Bishvat is called in the Mishna “the new year for trees.” (Rosh Hashanah 1:1) Trees are so important, they are prominent in the Torah’s telling of Creation (Gen. 1:11). We know trees are essential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
In the first chapter of Genesis (1:26-27), humans are described being created in the “image” as well as in the “likeness” of God, while a few chapters later (5:1), after the expulsion from Eden, it says we are created only “in the likeness of God,” not also “in the image of God.” In that lesser we lost abilities to be more attuned to how the natural world operates.
However, the two words are combined again in the phrase “in his likeness and his image” (5:3) when speaking of Adam and Eve’s son Seth. We note then the reference point is no longer God, but humans. It is an attempt to reclaim our lofty status before the expulsion in how we understood the environment. Our human decisions and actions have brought us to the point where time is running out for our environment to sustain life as we know it. We must confront and face down the forces “at the east of the Garden of Eden, the Cherubim and the flame of the ever-turning sword” (3:24) so that we can relearn how to properly “till and guard” (2:15) our environment.
The question is - how do we do that?
In Genesis Midrash Rabbah (24:7) we are taught: “Ben Azzai said, ‘This is the book of the descendants of Adam’ (Gen. 5:1) is a great principle of the Torah. Rabbi Akiva says: ‘“Love your fellow as yourself’ (Lev. 19:18) is even a greater principle.”
Ben Azzai’s great equalizer position that we are all descended from a single ancestor strongly teaches that loving our neighbor is a profound manifestation of the recognition we are all from one source, and that reality commands us to be responsible for each other, and by extension, the shared home we call Earth.
With that broader understanding, in 1996, the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies located on Kibbutz Ketura along the Israeli-Jordanian border was established, bringing together Israeli, Jordanian, Palestinian, Moroccan and other international college-age students to study and live together, while training as future environmental leaders. The Institute’s motto is “Nature Knows No Borders.”
In 1996, CO2 levels in the atmosphere were 361 parts per million, surpassing the 350 ppm red line in 1988. Today those levels are a staggering 414 ppm and rising. 
IN THE Middle East, the dire effects of the climate crisis are more acute because of its large desert areas. Recently, David Lehrer, the executive director of the Arava Institute and Dr. Deborah Sandler, the chair of the institute’s Track II Cross-Border Environmental Cooperation Forum, wrote, “While Israel may be able to survive the immediate impact of climate change through technological advances, long-term survival will depend on cooperatively managing shared resources with our neighbors.”
To that end, the Arava Institute has been addressing the climate crisis with cross-border efforts. Last year in Gaza, working with Watergen, an Israeli tech company, the institute introduced two solar-powered atmospheric water generators that pull water from the air’s humidity, producing up to 5,000 liters of drinking water per day. The institute has also turned its attention to solar solutions for Gaza’s small- and large-scale energy challenges. These include solar panels for neighborhood wastewater treatment plants and a five megawatt solar field. Such initiatives using solar energy to provide electricity reduce greenhouse gas emissions while at the same time improving the health of Gaza’s citizens.
In the West Bank, the institute was essential in bringing together Israeli and Palestinian authorities to approve a ground-breaking project that will allow a treated wastewater pipeline starting near Ramallah to bring much needed water for agriculture to Palestinian farmers in the Jericho valley. As the climate crisis increases drought conditions in the region, the reuse of wastewater becomes ever more essential.
The Abraham Accords opened up regional relationships creating conditions for more effective cross-border cooperation when it comes to the climate crisis. Taking advantage of that new reality, the Arava Institute and its Track II Young Professionals Forum (YPF) have made contacts with Gulf states. The YPF is a network of young activists, intellectuals, researchers, development practitioners, artists and policymakers from across the Middle East. They are geared toward promoting local projects and cross-border communal programs that confront the social, economic, environmental and political challenges of the region, and developing equal opportunities, better living conditions and a more open and sustainable region. 
These young individuals bring a new perspective to the Middle East. Instead of looking at the region as countries, borders and conflicts, they see the region as markets, opportunities and networks in which they can advance an agenda of sustainability and collaboration to address the challenges to our planet. Despite polls showing large numbers of young people have given up on peace and a just settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is committed cadre of young Palestinians and Israelis who say differently, connecting in new and creative ways to bring peace and sustainability to the region.
We have eaten from “the tree of knowledge of good and bad.” While we no longer have access to “the tree of life” in the Garden of Eden, we create that tree in other ways. In Judaism we call the Torah Etz Hayim, a tree of life. Another way we plant a tree of life is by working across borders to slow and reverse regional and global effects of the Climate Crisis.
The writer is rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation, Manchester Center, Vermont, and a faculty member of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and Bennington College.