By Jay Shofet
The holiday of Tu B’Shvat, celebrated this year on February 11, is a timely reminder of the Jewish call for wise environmental stewardship of the land of Israel. According to the Mishnah, the ancient Israelites observed that most of the winter rains had already fallen midway through the Hebrew month of Shvat and that the first new fruits of the season had begun to ripen. In the generations that followed, the celebration of this close observation of nature has evolved – from kabbalistic Tu B’Shvat feasts in 16th Century Tzfat to a sort of Jewish “Earth Day” in recent years.
But Tu B’Shvat has been most famously imagined as the “birthday” or “New Year” celebration for trees, with the obligatory planting of trees in Israel to mark the day embedded deep in the Zionist ethos. Children learn early on that to plant a tree on Tu B’Shvat is to fulfill a “Zionist commandment.” And where’s the harm in that? What could possibly be bad about planting a tree in our hot and semi-arid homeland?
Thankfully, we are all wiser now than we once were, and we know that not all trees are suitable for all ecosystems. According to scientific consensus, it turns out that, though well-intentioned, many past initiatives – for Tu B’Shvat and other occasions – planted the wrong trees in the wrong places year after year.
With Israel projected to become the most densely populated country in OECD by 2020, the need to protect our open spaces and advance ecologically sound policies for Israel’s forestation is entwined with the necessity to promote sustainable urban planning. As such, it is incumbent upon every one of us to shift the Zionist ethos of planting trees in any open space available towards more environmentally conscious and socially responsible alternatives.
For example, SPNI plants fruit trees, vegetables and flowers in dozens of community gardens in urban areas all over Israel, green oases which further both social and environmental goals as communities come together to grow food and create green spaces.
In the Tel Aviv suburb of Bat Yam, we run a cutting-edge, hydroponic roof garden in the community center of Enosh (the Israeli Mental Health Association) whose members develop and maintain the impressive installation under SPNI guidance.
Our Tel Aviv Community branch has recently embarked on a new project to establish a food forest and edible trails in Givatayim and Ramat-Efal, showing that food growing is relevant in the urban landscape and providing free food for people and pollinators.
In nearby Jaffa, we are working with neighborhood groups to fill blighted open spaces by rejuvenating the orange groves that once thrived there.
In Jerusalem, we work in the ultra-Orthodox school system to teach kids and their families about gardening.
And in Haifa, community gardens are green venues for warm neighborly relations. Community gardeners eagerly voice their enthusiasm, express satisfaction in being responsible for maintaining the gardens, and report that taking care of the plants brings happiness into their lives.
Planting, by its very nature promotes growth. But only when we plant smart can we ensure a boon for both nature and mankind.
So, this Tu B’Shvat, feel free to plant that sapling with your child in your back yard or on his or her school grounds, especially native fruit trees, which honor the original meaning of the holiday. But if you’re planting in Israel – whether by your own hands, or by proxy – take care to plant the right trees in the right place, and support SPNI in promoting this sustainable approach.
On Tu B’Shvat and every other day, please take care to plant smart.
Jay Shofet is the Director of Partnerships and Development at The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), the oldest, leading and largest environmental nonprofit organization in Israel. He previously served as the Executive Director of the Jerusalem-based Green Environment Fund.