Seeing the Forest Through the Trees: A New Approach to Tu B’shvat

By Dina Rabhan

Maybe you have vague Tu B’Shvat memories like mine. Little plastic bags filled with hard brown, buksar (the yiddish word for carob) that could crack your teeth if you bit down too quickly. Perhaps some nuts and raisins (likely grown in California) thrown in too. If you were really lucky, you had a Tu B’shvat seder with opportunities to sample the seven special fruits of Israel.

No matter what you might remember, Tu B’shvat has never ranked high on the favorite Jewish holiday list.

As opposed to other Jewish holidays that adhere to the “they tried to kill us, we were saved, now let’s eat,” formula, Tu B’shvat has no drama, no long prayer services, and consequently, no vibrant lasting memories.

Let’s be honest. Arbor Day doesn’t get most people excited. There are no big sales at Macy’s, no backyard barbecues, and no small town parades. So why would Tu b’shvat, which superficially seems to be a Jewish Arbor Day, be any different?

But Tu B’shvat is actually much more than Arbor Day and its significance must continue to evolve as Israel and the Jewish people grow and change. Educators are always looking to make Judaism and Israel more relevant and meaningful to students. A fresh approach toward Tu B’shvat can strengthen students’ connection to Israel and Israelis, cultivate Jewish environmental values, and foster an awareness of Israelis’ contributions to the world.

And these things are more important than ever now. Political realities and social trends are making unequivocal support for Israel much harder and more complicated.

Although Jewish schools work hard to connect their students to Israel in a variety of thoughtful and educationally sophisticated ways, it requires ongoing engagement and work. Students are surrounded by media and messaging that challenges their relationship with Israel and can make them believe they must compromise their core values to support Israel. The trends indicate that, young people are increasingly ambivalent about their relationship with Israel.

Yet, these same students are not ambivalent about many other things. They are more passionate than ever about global health issues, gender and racial equality, and, of course, environmentalism. Securing the future of our earth is an important value for many young people today.

Enter Tu B’shvat 2.0.

What can a new approach to Tu B’shvat look like?

It can be a powerful day of inspiration and connection that resonates deeply with environmental warriors and all young people. Tu B’shvat is the original Earth Day and has developed into a holiday that reminds Jews of our connection to the earth and to our role as caretakers of the environment.

Young people might not be fully aware that environmentalism is consistent with Jewish values and that there is a Jewish holiday that celebrates this. Schools can spend the day learning about Judaism’s values for preserving and protecting not only Israel, but the entire earth.

Moreover, Tu B’shvat can be a day that highlights how the Israeli people are leading entrepreneurs, developing cutting edge technologies and innovations not only to advance Israel, but to help sustain our earth and solve global environmental crises.

Nothing is more powerful at connecting cultures and fostering the necessary empathy for an authentic relationship than highlighting shared passions, interests, and values. Tu B’shvat can be a day to remind young people that much like them, Israelis deeply care about humanity and want to make a difference in the world.

Tu B’shvat can illuminate Israel as a place that upholds Jewish values and exemplifies students’ deeply held beliefs. It can inspire young people’s entrepreneurial spirit, and intrigue them with Israel’s outsized export of people, resources, and innovations that are solving the greatest problems the world is facing.

While a progressive Tu B’shvat will not erase the apprehension some young people feel about Israel, it can engender a deeper sense of connectedness through shared values and a pride in their homeland and their people. It is upon these critical foundations of connectedness that students can wrestle with their feelings of ambivalence about Israel and hopefully emerge with a more mature and enduring relationship.

Some schools and programs might not want to take time out of the regularly scheduled programming and classes to celebrate Tu B’shvat. Let’s see the forest through the trees and recognize the special opportunity at hand. A new approach toward Tu B’shvat can be a meaningful and memorable learning opportunity for students.

To learn about Jerusalem U’s unique Walder Foundation Fruit for Thought Tu B’shvat Program please click here and be in touch with Dr. Noam Weissman, Sr. VP of Education for Jerusalem U, nweissman@jerusalemu.org

Dina Rabhan is President, Jerusalem U.