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Israel’s Holiday of Trees Moves Indoors
This year, with Israel under lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, traditional activities like Tu b’Shvat Passover-style seders are being held over Zoom. (Betzalel Ganot/The Media Line)

Israel’s Holiday of Trees Moves Indoors

Youth organizations, nonprofits help youth find creative ways to substitute for traditional tree planting

With Israel in a strict lockdown scheduled to end February 1, this Tu b’Shvat will be unlike any other as the distinctively outdoorsy Jewish holiday shifts indoors.

Tu b’Shvat, a minor Jewish holiday marking the “new year of the trees,” has long been celebrated by Israeli schoolchildren taking field trips to plant trees.

The arbor day of sorts that has taken on Earth Day-style activism occurs each year on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Shevat. This year, that coincides with January 28 (the holiday begins at sundown on January 27), less than a month before the one-year anniversary of the first coronavirus case in Israel in late February 2020.

Traditional activities like Tu b’Shvat Passover-style seders will be held over Zoom.

The seders often feature seven species mentioned in the Bible as associated with the land of Israel: barley, wheat, grapes, dates, figs, pomegranates, olives.

The seven species of the land of Israel are listed in the biblical verse Deuteronomy 8:8: a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and [date] honey. (Creative Commons)

Carob (sometimes referred to among Ashkenazi Jews by the Yiddish word bokser) is another traditional holiday fruit.

“Carob is not one of the [seven species] because it came here later,” Dr. Elaine Solowey, co-director of the Center for Sustainable Agriculture at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura, told The Media Line. “The people disseminating the carobs were actually from Cyprus around 2,000 years ago.”

“They used to eat them a lot in Europe and they were very easy to move around in winter, which is not so much [the case] for other types of fruit,” she added.

Dried carob is often eaten on Tu B’Shvat, although it is not one of the seven species typical of the land of Israel. (Osvaldo Gago/Creative Commons)

Michelle Cohen, who six months ago co-founded Shoukhabayta, a company that delivers food orders from Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda open-air market, says carob is also affiliated with the outdoors in Israel.

“When I put the carob on the Tu b’Shvat platter, my new Israeli employee said to me, ‘I thought people just eat carob when they are [on outdoor trips].’” she told The Media Line. “You find it on trees, you eat in when you go out. We put fresh carob in the fruit platter because it grows all over Israel, it’s sweet and healthy.”

While there was recently a shortage of fresh carob in Jerusalem, the backlog has since cleared up.

“The fresh one wasn’t available two weeks ago, but I doubt it is connected to COVID. It’s just that around Tu b’Shvat, there’s more of a demand,” Cohen said.

This year’s indoor experience of the holiday will also be novel for Israel’s schoolchildren on an individual and societal level.

An Education Ministry spokesperson told The Media Line that this year’s programming will be decided by each individual school.

“There will be educational activities. … Students will be taught about the way to grow vegetables and connect with nature at home as well, in addition to preserving nature.”

“There are also local plantings in localities with agricultural farms,” she added, referring to rural areas of Israel.

Schoolchildren plant flowers to celebrate Tu B’Shvat. (Courtesy of Israel’s Ministry of Education)

This experience is a far departure from generations of Israelis, who have strongly etched memories of planting trees during school on Tu b’Shvat.

“As a child, we did tree planting every year in Tu b’Shvat,” a Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael – Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF) representative who asked not to be named, told The Media Line. “It’s just a thing that you grow up with as a Jewish kid in Israel.”

Most years, Tu B’Shvat is celebrated by children planting trees in Israel’s forests. (Courtesy KKL-JNF)

With this collective experience of planting trees put on hold for most Israelis this year, youth groups and Jewish organizations like KKL-JNF, the 120-year-old agency responsible for Israel’s forests, have embarked on the challenge of transforming the distinctly outdoor holiday for the indoors.

“This year, it was very difficult to have kids and schools do tree plantings together but we’re still trying all sorts of angles and creative ideas to get kids involved in the meaning of Tu b’Shvat,” the representative told The Media Line.

“In a joint venture with the ShabbatUNPLUGGED project, we sent this week tens of thousands of Tu b’Shvat kits to Israeli kids and Jewish children in around 40 other countries,” he said. “They’re going to take pictures of themselves doing the activities we sent over, like trivia and [holiday] related activities.”

Elsewhere in Israel, youth group leaders are also trying to help young people find meaning in the holiday virtually, having scrapped plans to plant trees outside like in normal years.

This is no easy feat as capturing the hands-on experience of planting a tree is difficult to replicate online.

The kids that I counsel are around [Greta Thunberg’s] age when she started [her activism], so it can show them that they can do something, too

Leora Rochester, a 15-year-old counselor in the Noam Youth Movement for fifth and sixth graders, told The Media Line that in general, the indoor activities do not capture the attention of children like their normal in-person programming.

“They’re a little tired of Zoom; they do come but not as much,” Rochester said.

Normally, six children show up for regular activities. On Zoom, attendance has been halved.

“We usually go outside and plant trees [during the holiday]; we’re actually working on the land. Now it’s just a normal activity and the theme is Tu b’Shvat,” Rochester said.

Each counselor is presenting a lesson over Zoom to the group; her lesson focuses on global climate change (GCC). Among other things, she will show a video made by the young Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg.

“The kids that I counsel are around her age when she started [her activism], so it can show them that they can do something, too,” Rochester said.

Trees, of course, are crucial to the fight against GCC.

This Tu b’Shvat, plant a tree. … If the whole world planted enough trees, we would get out of this crisis much faster

“Trees and forests are the main tool humanity has in order to sequestrate the carbon we emit back to the land, to the soil,” Dr. Doron Markel, KKL-JNF chief scientist told The Media Line. “And the forests in Israel sequestrate about 3.6 million tons of carbon annually.”

Markel advocates for people to partake in a traditional Tu b’Shvat ritual.

“I keep saying to the public: This Tu b’Shvat, plant a tree. … If the whole world planted enough trees, we would get out of this crisis much faster,” he said.

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