By Rabbi Michael Cohen,
The holiday of Tu B’Shevat begins Monday at
sundown. This "New Year for Trees" is one of the ways that
we Jews have made a strong connection to the trees and land of
Israel throughout the millennia of exile. It was one of our most
important decisions as a people, made at the moment that we were
expelled from the Land, that we would keep our connection to the
We made that connection strong by making it tangible, real,
and full of meaning. (The Romans changed the name from Israel to
Palestine in an attempt to cut off this relationship.) It is not
surprising that when the Dali Lama asked to be taught the secret
of our maintaining our identity over thousands of years of exile
(as he anticipates the exile of the Tibetans will be long as
well), he was taught by the rabbis and teachers he met that
Tibetans in exile will need to maintain a strong tangible
connection to their homeland.
That is why the ongoing conflict between Israelis and
Palestinians, full of its distortions of truth and justice,
feels especially painful during the environmental holiday of
Tu B’Shevat. One of the great ironies of this
conflict is that both peoples have a strong connection to the
land -- the core of their identities -- and yet that land and
its environment are suffering tremendously because of the
conflict: land degradation, air pollution, the destruction
of river beds and the Dead Sea.
Reduced to one of its core components, this conflict is about
the land; more precisely, the borders that nations draw on that
land. When thinking about what divides nations in this conflict,
the land is often viewed as one of the major stumbling blocks to
any reconciliation efforts between our two peoples. When viewed
from the perspective of the environment, a new framework opens
up. The environment, which does not recognize political borders,
invites us to not be afraid of the other. Perhaps this Tu
B’Shevat we can start to do that.
Suggestions for Tu
Become familiar with and support organizations doing work on
Judaism and the environment:
- Become familiar with and support organizations doing
peace-related environmental work in the region:
Review the Tu B'Shevat study materials developed
by Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel.
- Hazon is dedicated to creating a
healthier and more sustainable Jewish community as a step
towards a healthier and more sustainable world for all.
- The Coalition
on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) is the
leading Jewish environmental organization in the United
States. It seeks to expand the contemporary understanding
of such Jewish values as tikkun olam (repairing the world) and
tzedek (justice) to include the protection of both people and
other species from environmental degradation.
Heschel Center for Environmental learning and leadership was
established to lead Israel in becoming a society where real
progress and growth are defined in terms of ecological health
and social justice.
- The Shalom
Center focuses on planetary ecological dangers, and
director and founder Rabbi Arthur Waskow has developed both a
theology and practice of eco-Judaism, writing several books on
If children will be attending your Tu B'Shevat
celebration, create a Jewish values "tree," asking them to
describe what behaviors stem naturally from values such as
respect for fellow humans or caring for the earth. Discuss how
actions such as sharing and protecting our resources play a role
in achieving peace.
Rabbi Michael M. Cohen is a graduate of the University
of Vermont where he received the History Award, and graduated in
1980 with honors for his work on Lenin’s Theory of
Self-Determination and the Muslims of the Soviet Union. Rabbi
Cohen received ordination from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical
College in 1990. He was the Rabbi of the Israel Congregation in
Manchester Center, Vermont from 1990-2000. He also served as the
President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association. Rabbi
Cohen was a founding faculty member of The Arava Institute for
Environmental Studies in 1996 while on sabbatical from the
Israel Congregation. He has worked there off and on for the past
12 years and is now their Director of Special Projects from his
home in Vermont. In 2002 he co-founded the Green Zionist
Alliance, the first Environmental Zionist party to run in the
World Zionist Congress elections. He is also the VP Global
Resource Development for the Arava Power Company which is
working to make Solar Power the main energy source for southern
Israel and Jordan. He is the author of numerous articles, a VPR
Commentator, and is completing writing a novella, "Einstein's
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