Jewish sustainable celebration of Trees
Wouldn’t we all wish to be like a tree? Familiar with the soil we are planted in; possessing fresh foliage and firm roots that withstand strong winds?
As the world becomes faster and more interconnected, Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish "Birthday for Trees" - celebrated this year on January 25th - invites us to stop and observe. Where have we put down our roots? What is the culture that they are growing in? How does our landscape and environment form our identity? Where do we want to raise our children?
The Mishnah describes our roots as an expression of our values in action. According to the Mishnah if we want to strengthen our roots we must reinforce our knowledge with actions. As part of this concept we can celebrate Tu B’Shvat as a day to deepen our environmental activities. Whether we choose to spend our time planting new trees or caring for old ones, taking action to reduce our consumption, spend time volunteering in the community or launching a new social action project – we will not only deepen our roots but enjoy a healthy and sustainable environment.
Tu B’Shvat – the social aspect:
Tu B’Shvat first appears in Chapter 1 of the Mishnah, in Rosh Hashanah tractate. According to Beit Hillel Tu B’Shvat was the date used to distinguish which fruits were grown in the past year and those grown in the coming one, for the purpose of tithe – donation of one tenth of the produce to the poor.
This date was created as a result of the ancient Israelites observations of nature, as they noticed the changing seasons.
They noted that most of the winter rains had already fallen halfway through the Jewish month of Shvat, and the fresh fruits had begun to grow. Hence, they chose it to mark the boundaries between the current fruits and those of next year’s crop.
Tu B'Shvat – the spiritual aspect:
Over the last two millennia the social aspect of the festival was forgotten and preserved only within the Ashkenazi tradition as a date forbidden to fast and to eat plenty of fruit.
In the 16th century Tsfat spiritualists and Kabbalists revived the concept of a Tu B’Shvat ‘Seder’ – a festive Tu B’Shvat meal where 30 different fruits would be eaten and blessings recited within a specific order. For the Kabbalists the Seder emphasizes the spiritual aspect of nature, seeing man as a partner in the act of creation and its daily renewal, who is able to repair the world through his or her actions.
Tu B'Shvat – a national aspect:
With the beginning of the Zionist enterprise Tu B'Shvat once again evolved, gaining a new practical significance – becoming the day when children from across the country plant trees, putting down their roots figuratively and taking an active part in its building and blossoming.
Tu B'Shvat– the international aspect:
In recent years, with our growing awareness of a worsening global ecological crisis Tu B’shvat has taken on a new significance as Jewish "Earth Day".
Many Jewish communities around the world have chosen Tu B’Shvat as a time for ecological introspection and acknowledging that the destruction of nature does nothing but cut through the branch on which we sit. Tu B’Shvat allows us to take action to create a balanced world where nature and man co-exists in harmony.
Tu B'Shvat – the personal aspect:
Today Tu Bishvat is a special day uniquely combining tradition, history, spirituality, mysticism social action, Zionism and environmentalism. We all have the right - and the obligation- to pour our own personal values into this celebration, as we fuse our heritage with the current modern Israeli version of Arbor Day.
So what can you do to celebrate?
Plant a fruit tree: celebrate the traditional way. Just remember a tree is for life not just for Tu B’Shvat! Give it a few years and with the right care you enjoy its fruit at your own Tu B’Shvat Seder.
Make your own Tu B’Shvat Seder: download a Seder ceremony composed by “Teva Ivri “and invite your friends over to celebrate. You are more than welcome to join one of the Tu B’shvat Seders organized by SPNI in several locations such as Alon Tavor, the Beit- Ussishkin museum at Kibbutz Dan, and more.
Get out and enjoy nature, wherever you are: And if you’re lucky enough to live in Israel, SPNI has many activities planned, including our traditional tree planting and guided hikes around Modi’in, attended by thousands. If you live abroad look out for details of activities in your area.
Respect the elderly (trees): every tree has its own story and some trees in your neighborhood may be hundreds of years old. Tu B’Shvat is a great opportunity to do some of your own research and discover your neighborhood’s natural history. What you might find may surprise you.
Protect the environment: the environment is much more than just trees; you can volunteer in a conservation project by your local organizations, join one of the many action-oriented campaigns spearheaded by SPNI, or support SPNI’s all year round nature protection work.
Category: Our Global Community
The Culture of Consumption is Killing Us
You might not have heard yet that the first Tuesday after Thanksgiving has a name, and a very important purpose. Giving Tuesday, this December 1, is the result of a global movement pushing back against a holiday season of consumer extravagance. So after the mass sales of Black Friday and the online shopping boom of Cyber Monday, Giving Tuesday is an opportunity to focus on giving rather than consuming.
Reducing consumption is one of the most important, fundamental challenges that face us. The average American consumes more than his or her weight in products each day and consumption per capita is continuing to spiral upward. Such trends are not a natural consequence of economic growth but the result of deliberate efforts by businesses to win over consumers, so brilliantly detailed in the ground-breaking video The Story of Stuff, which convincingly shows how our "materials economy" is not sustainable. Planned obsolescence and perceived obsolescence are just two of the main tricks of the trade to get us to buy, buy, buy. This global culture of excess that could wipe out any gains from government action on climate change, or even a shift to a clean energy economy.
I once heard Annie Leonard, the producer of The Story of Stuff, talk about a letter she received from one of the 20 million people world-wide who viewed her video. It was from a woman in Texas who wrote saying that she didn't realize how detrimental is the problem of overconsumption, and now that she has seen the video, she doesn't feel it is right to take her 3 school-aged daughters to the mall to shop every Sunday. She ended the letter with a plaintive query, which speaks volumes about the ubiquitous nature of this crisis: "What", the woman wanted to know, "can we do on Sundays instead?"
How about we take a cue from the state of Vermont, where the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation is teaming up with some doctors with a plan to get more people outside and exercising by having the physicians write "prescriptions" that are really free passes to any Vermont State Park. The "Park Prescription" program is designed to promote healthy lifestyles and prevent chronic health issues by encouraging exercise at state parks, combining the physical benefits of exercise with the mental and emotional benefits of spending time in nature.
Here in Israel, SPNI meets the challenges of consumer excess in two important ways: we advocate and advance sustainable practices for government, industry, and the public, and we provide quality nature-based experiences and nature education for millions of Israelis every year. By supporting ASPNI on Giving Tuesday, you will be making a statement for the importance of nature in our material world.
We have a day for giving thanks. We have two for getting deals. Now, we have Giving Tuesday, a global day dedicated to giving, and perhaps, for a bit, getting out of our malls and into nature! Both of these acts will do us a world of good.
If you wish to support SPNI make a donation now
Category: Our Global Community
A memorable visit to one of SPNI’s community gardens
You don’t have to have ‘green thumbs’ to notice that community gardens are on the rise in just about every urban area in the world, and this is true for Israel too.
A lovely manifestation of sustainable urban-living, community gardens enable residents to grow their own fresh and healthy produce, spend quality time with others while working outside, and practice sustainable agriculture methods such as biological pest control, water conservation, composting and waste management.
Successful community gardens have numerous benefits, helping create thriving neighborhoods and fostering a positive social ripple-effect.
Sounds great doesn’t it? But I urge you to keep in mind that a prosperous community garden is the result of careful planning and constant work - establishing a community garden is a complex task, especially given the hectic, socially isolated and screen-addictive culture we live in.
Recognizing the value of community gardens as a driving force that strengthen communities and improve quality of life, especially in underprivileged areas, SPNI professionally supports more than 250 gardens nationwide (see map for details) in partnership with local municipalities, governmental offices, and both public and private organizations. Some of the gardens are located in absorption centers for new immigrants.
I had the recent opportunity to visit one charming garden found on the roof top of ENOSH’s employment center in the bustling heart of Bat-Yam, a large city just south of Tel Aviv.
ENOSH, the Israeli Mental Health Association runs this center which is housed in a 3 story building. It includes a natural soap factory and gift shop, operated by the community members. The products are all hand-made out of natural oils and herbal essences. Gila Nevo, the center’s manager shared her future vision with me - to grow fragrant herbs in the community garden to supply the factory.
The rooftop garden was established by SPNI in collaboration with the community members and MIVNE, a commercial real estate company that not only funds the project but encourages their employees to work in the garden once a week.
On the day I visited hydroponics system was being set up on the roof and a small greenhouse was built on the ground, putting a less attractive spot next to building to good use.
The vertical hydroponics system will be used to grow all kids of leafy greens, in addition to the already existing vegetation such as chard, peppers, tomatoes, many herbs and flowers that are planted in beautiful wooden cases and hanging baskets around the walls of the roof.
Since the community center is overlooked by much taller apartment buildings curious residents started to participate in the community garden creating a heartwarming ‘side effect’ that I evidenced on my visit.
One such sweet lady was present that day and together with a community member and a MIVNE employee we started a spontaneous discussion around chard leaves’ picking. Soon enough we discovered a shared fond for Jewish-Turkish cuisine, and even exchanged recipes.
At the end of my visit I was given sweet basil seeds from the garden’s flourishing shrub, and they have already sprouted in an upcycled planter I made from an old closet drawer.
This type of relaxed and friendly interaction between people of different backgrounds, ages and mental health status carries many benefits far beyond the immediate experience.
The community members that participate in the program eagerly voiced their enthusiasm and said they felt wonderful being responsible for maintaining the garden and that taking care of the plants brings happiness and satisfaction into their lives. In addition Gila informed me that the center is now inviting the neighbors to come and create their own planters, filled with herbs and vegetables to take home!
The reward of such delicate yet determined operation by all the partners involved is what SPNI is looking to cultivate in Israeli society.
I plan to visit more community gardens and get a first-hand experience of the magic that they spread.
If you wish to support community gardens make a donation now and write community gardens in the comment box so we can allocate your contribution to these lovely projects.
Lawrence Kasmir joined a special bat survey conducted by SPNI experts
A few days ago I celebrated my five year aliyahversary – (the anniversary of my immigration to Israel). For the past 3 and a half years I’ve been working for SPNI, learning a great deal about nature and sustainability – but apart from my frequent visits to the pet shop to see the latest baby hamsters, I’ve not had that many encounters with Israel’s wild mammals. I decided that it was time to change this. I was going on an adventure to meet some.
According to IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) there are 103 mammal species native to Israel. That’s a lot for such a small country, bearing in mind that my native England has only 41. It was clear to me, being the paragon of efficiency that I am, that I needed to see a lot of species in one go. Fortunately, I had a plan. One third of Israel’s species are bats – the only order of flying mammalians, so I was going to see them – there were only 3 problems – 1) bats fly 2) they are active at night so are hard to spot 3) I enjoy using my nights for sleeping. However, I had set myself a challenge and made the decision to sacrifice a night of sleep, I took up an invitation to join SPNI’s annual bat survey.
The Bat Survey
SPNI has been carrying out bat surveys for over a decade. The purpose is to gather basic data on Israel’s bats, such as species, gender, age, and also collect samples of fur and DNA for further analysis. This research plays a key role in developing policy and conservation activities, in Israel including the Ministry for Environmental Protection and Nature and Parks Authority.
The bat survey takes place over the course of the same week every year in a different site every night. As they emerge from their roosts, in this case as they fly over the water to drink, they are caught in nets (like badminton) strung up to catch them. I joined the researchers halfway through the week.
Arriving at the Banias National Park in the Golan Heights, for the bat survey I was somewhat surprised to realize over ver 100 parents and children who also came to the site to learn some more about the bats. Though really I shouldn’t have been – it was a public event and who would pass up an opportunity to see bats close up, and learn about these fascinating creatures from the experts.
I also spotted my first new species – a rock hyrax, enjoying the last of the sun, on the lookout on top of the gatehouse. As darkness began to fall, the nets were opened, and the excitement among the spectators increased.
As the stars came out so did the bats. Within minutes of the sun going down bats started flying overhead. The crowds were scaring the bats away from the river but fortunately arts and crafts activities were provided to distract the younger ones while the teenagers managed to keep a respectful distance. Soon our patience was rewarded with the first bat caught in the net.
The bat was (very) carefully disentangled, and much to the crowd’s disappointment was taken first to the team of bat scientists led by expert Eran Amichai (of SPNI and Tel Aviv University). His team had recorded each bat’s vital statistics including the species, their age, sex, forearm length and weight. Samples of fur were trimmed and logged to undergo analysis for traces of heavy metals and DNA samples were also taken. From here the bats were taken to what can only be described as a mobile photo studio, where they got their close ups done as part of a soon to be published guide on Israel’s mammals.
After posing for the cameras the bats were finally ready to be presented to the adoring crowd. Most impressive (for me anyway) was that even the older teenagers were just as enthusiastic as the youngest children – pushing their forward to get a proper look and feel of the bats (they feel fluffy). A guide explained how the bats use echo-location to hunt, how their hands and arms are similar to ours, and that their wings are made of skin, not feathers. From seeing the reactions of the children (and their parents) it’s clear that they won’t forget this experience or look at bats the same way. Considering that a team from a Ramle school won a science competition with a device to scare bats away this is vital.
And as for my mission - I got to see 6 bat species up close (common pipistrelle, Kuhll's pipistrelle, Savi's pipistrelle, serotine bat, Geoffroy's bat and an Egyptian fruit bat) while learning about them from Israel’s top bat experts. In addition, I definitely heard a wild boar snuffling through the undergrowth. On the drive back I even got a glimpse of an Egyptian mongoose, meaning I got to see 8 species of animals I had never seen before in one evening – not bad at all. More importantly I had an unforgettable experience learning about bats with some very enthusiastic young people.
I’m already thinking of how to meet some wild rodents …
Lawrence Kasmir enjoys the opening of the Gazelle Valley
Thousands of families, young couples, grandparents and grandchildren were drawn by the advertisements displayed all over the city to celebrate the official opening of the Gazelle Valley, Jerusalem’s newest park, and SPNI’s latest success story.
Walking through the valley during the official opening celebration, on the afternoon of Monday 30th March, I watched and heard a cross-section of Jerusalem’s residents marvel at the wonderful nature on display in their newest park. If I hadn't been in the company of thousands of other people, I imagined this is what the Garden of Eden would have been like.
Israel’s first lady Nehama Rivlin and Jerusalem’s Mayor Nir Barkat both spoke and gave their blessings to the newly opened Gazelle Valley, recognizing it as a major victory for the public and SPNI over vested interests who wanted to exploit it for real estate profits.
Elsewhere throughout the valley 24 different activity stations, for all ages, were being held including SPNI run birdwatching and nature workshops, arts and crafts, storytelling, board games, and a dance party with giant recycled puppets. Along the paths musicians were performing including the Jordan Valley Mondolin Orchestra, 2 choirs, percussionists, string quartet, and a harpist creating a calm and sophisticated atmosphere.
The Gazelle Valley has been designed so one section is exclusively for the resident gazelle (currently 5 but more will be introduced soon), with the other park full of newly blazed trails for human visitors. The Rakefet stream that flows down from Jerusalem’s neighborhoods is collected and purified in 4 pools along the length of the valley before filling a new half-acre pond. We expect that within a few years the pond will become a beacon for migrating water birds.
Now the Gazelle Valley is officially opened we invite you visit and see what the fuss is about for yourself. The Gazelle Valley is located next to Tzomet Pat in Jerusalem and is open from 7am until sunset 7 days a week. Entry is free.