Tu B’Shvat is an Opportunity for Vital Civic Education on the Climate Crisis, Let’s not Lose it!

By Rachel Makleff, PhD

Here is how I reached that conclusion and how Hazon working with Romemu rose to the challenge.

Last year’s Tu B’ Shvat, (Arbor Day of the Trees), fell on Sunday, January 24, 2016. Romemu observed the holiday one week later. Preceding years had been hard on New York State trees to put it mildly. The Sane Energy website cites a surge in supply of fracked gas at the end of 2012 causing an increase in fracked gas pipelines. Building a pipeline to move fracked gas to various markets destroys trees. One can argue the whole pipeline enterprise is unnecessary because clean energy is better and leaves the trees pretty much alone.

Romemu’s Social Action Committee had been shocked into action in 2014 by a member request to help stop construction of the Constitution fracked gas pipeline. For starters, the project required “clear-cutting” a thirty-six-mile path through a New York State forest, scraping away half a million trees, including roots and top-soil in two weeks. An additional 250,000 trees were slated for subsequent removal. When the trees disappear along with wild life and soil, the air retains more carbon, and the hope of protecting the planet from more climate change plummets. And it’s harder to grow food. Planting saplings in the aftermath will not reverse the harm. As proof technology exists to destroy trees so quickly google “clear cutting” to find pictures of monster bulldozers.

In consort with many diverse groups including my synagogue social action committee, I spent 2014 – 2015 calling the Governor, petitioning, meeting, reading and rallying. Time was just about all we had and our efforts were very discouraging. It was hard to remain committed after thousands of petitions and phone calls failed to turn the tide. How long could we go on? And how many of our fellow citizens understood why we were so excited? Virtually no deep analysis of our cause appeared in the mainstream press. Most of us tried not to be strident and to respect those not interested. In contrast, hundreds of New York State activists were turning to civil disobedience to garner the needed mainstream publicity. Watching their trials, I felt back in the civil rights era. True confession, they are my heroes.

Arbor Day 2016 appeared on the horizon. The words of our Haggadah can be crafted. Could they provide a vehicle to share our knowledge with Jewish communities? After begging for climate justice for the past two years I upped the begging and wrote to rabbis and leaders in my social sphere basically asking one question: How could we sit at the Tu B’ Shvat Seder appreciating trees without mentioning their tragic slaughter just beyond our doors? To my mind, there was a gap in the liturgy, texts, and programming, leading up to the Seder for the trees – a crying need to be filled. Our previous Tu B’Shvat celebrations depicted the role of trees in God’s world in a very inspiring way but seemed stuck in the Middle Ages. I think I added (or should have) that recommendations around Arbor Day to “plant one tree” were insufficient and led one into complacency when we were dealing with an emergency. Time passed.

It was now early January, 2016. Not one of the Jewish leaders I contacted wrote me back. I felt crushed and devalued. I considered staying away from Romemu’s Seder. I decided to go out of respect for what it did bring us but resolved to fight again some other day for a more modern approach.

A ray of hope appeared in my gloom and lessened the stress I would feel at the Seder. As I rode the bus home from a clean energy rally in Albany on January 13, 2016, a sister activist glanced at her smart phone and announced that NYS Attorney General Eric Schneiderman had contacted FERC, the federal agency with jurisdiction over interstate pipelines. He had asked FERC to withhold permission for cutting down any trees along the Constitution pipeline route until New York State decided whether to issue a water quality certificate. Five hundred thousand trees had received a stay of execution.

And the Romemu/Hazon Seder brought much more than expected.

In my gloom I had failed to notice the description on the Romemu calendar:

Together we will encounter the majesty and elegance of the fruits of creation, and simultaneously acknowledge the fragility of life on the planet in this time of environmental change. Breathing new meaning into this eco-cultural ritual of the Kabbalists, we will celebrate the life-giving fruits of the earth, and re-affirm our ongoing care for the delicate and beautiful life-forms of our planet.”

When I walked into Romemu’s rented space I tried to distance myself from feelings of self-pity and discouragement. I soon noticed that some of the Haggadah language had been changed to place our understanding within the context of climate change. An insert was based on the Four Worlds. And near the very end – a direct quote from my e-mail to the rabbis pleading that something be done about the pipeline trees. So, I had been heard after all. I sipped my many-colored holiday wines in wonder.

Post Script: The “carbon insert” in the Romemu/Hazon Haggadah that quoted my e-mail was the project of Miriam Rubin, Director of Programming at Romemu and Yoshi Silverstein, Director of the JOFEE Fellowship at Hazon. In the 1950’s in Detroit, my grandfather purchased a single Jewish National Forest tree for me. I am still holding on to the certificate. I will pass it on to my grandchildren along with this wonderful modern Haggadah.

On April 16, 2016, New York State denied the water permit for our state’s stretch of the Constitution pipeline thus effectively killing the project. In the intervening month, the Constitution pipeline builders destroyed about ninety per cent of the maple trees on a family farm arguing their company was appealing New York State’s decision and the family maple syrup operation was on the proposed pipeline path. The fight to preserve our planet is far from over. Please help by spreading the word as you observe Tu B’Shvat.

At Hazon’s Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center you can pray, look out the wall length set of synagogue windows at the trees and read the following quote placed to the right of the bimah:

“Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods. The liturgical movement must become A REVOLUTIONARY MOVEMENT seeking to overthrow the forces that destroy the promise, the hope, the vision.” (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel)

Rachel Makleff, PhD, retired from a career in public health in 2012. She is Chair of the Romemu Social Action Committee, active in Hazon, Jewish Climate Action Network NYC, People’s Climate March 2016,  and NYS Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. In addition, she joins with anti-fracking infrastructure activists protesting the AIM Spectra pipeline and the pipeline at Standing Rock www.saneenergyproject.org.