By Rabbi Michael Cohen, Rabbinic Cabinet

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 Land strong.

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 B’Shevat:

  1. Become familiar with and support organizations doing peace-related environmental work in the region:
  2. Become familiar with and support organizations doing work on Judaism and the environment:
    • 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.

    • The 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 the issues.
  3. Review the Tu B'Shevat study materials developed by Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel.

  4. 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 Rabbi."

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