Local synagogues celebrate Tu Bi-Sh’vat with song, seders, and sentiment
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Local synagogues celebrate Tu Bi-Sh’vat with song, seders, and sentiment

With Tu Bi-Sh’vat beginning at sundown on Friday, synagogues throughout the area are preparing for the holiday in a variety of ways. Some already have held educational events. Teaneck’s Netivot Shalom, for example, sponsored a special holiday program for children several weeks ago, led by members of the Bnei Akiva youth movement. Most congregations, however, are gearing up for seders, family programs, and celebratory concerts to be held over the holiday weekend.

A special tree

Temple Sinai of Bergen County in Tenafly has a special weekend planned, its Cantor Nitza Shamah said, noting that the congregation will hold a seder including not only the traditional dried fruit and wine but poetry, songs, and a dairy meal.

The congregation will use its own haggadah, she said, describing it as “a compilation of old and contemporary poems that highlight our relationship to the world of trees. These are interwoven with kabbalistc texts that correspond to the nature of the different kind of fruits from the Land of Israel that we traditionally eat on Tu Bi-Sh’vat.”

The congregation also will host Yale University’s Jewish a capella group, Magevet, for a musical Kabbalat Shabbat service in honor of Shabbat Shirah, which also falls this weekend.

Jordan Millstein, Temple Sinai’s rabbi, said that the synagogue will dedicate a tree in memory of Paul Winter, “a member of our temple who was a force for social justice and helped so many in our community.”

Winter’s grandson, Andrew Kahn, is a member of Magavet. The Kahn family – who donated the cherry tree at the entrance to the synagogue – is sponsoring the reception after the concert.

Winter’s daughter, Audrey Winter Kahn, a longtime member of the congregation, described her father as a “gentle, kind, and giving soul” who fled from Germany on the eve of Kristallnacht, returning later to fight as a member of the U.S. Army. Settling later in Bergen County, he became a lumber salesman.

In the speech she will deliver at the dedication, Kahn will note “how fitting this is Tu Bi-Sh’vat, the birthday of the trees. My dad loved trees. He had taught himself so much about them and, in turn, taught my brother and me. I was the only kid in third grade who knew how to differentiate a poplar from an oak.”

Kahn said that after he retired, her father “threw himself wholeheartedly into the service of others – primarily through the social action work at Temple Sinai. I would come home from college to find our front hall filled with bags of donated clothes and household goods…. He was there for people who had lost everything. He never forgot his own roots.”

Noting that “with every ending there is a beginning,” Kahn pointed out that her father died 19 years ago, the same year that Magevet was founded at Yale.

A time to learn

For some congregations, the focus of the holiday will be on study.

“It will be four cups of Torah rather than four cups of wine,” said Rabbi Lawrence Zierler, religious leader of the Jewish Center of Teaneck.

Zierler will provide four different learning opportunities over the course of the holiday, beginning Friday night with remarks between Kabbalat Shabbat and Ma’ariv on “unusual minhagim.” During Shabbat services, he will relate Tu Bi-Sh’vat to the haftarah, which speaks of the judge Deborah. He also will explore the holiday in his Saturday Talmud class, held before Minchah, and during seudat shlishit, when he will “look at the issue of trees in Pirkei Avot.”

Zierler said that Tu Bi-Sh’vat has gained much more significance in recent years; not only with the establishment of seders but also the creation of more texts to be used during the holiday.

He is impressed, he said, “by the degree to which people can find original material. There is an interesting struggle between what is set and accepted and the opportunity to break out and do something different” – including readings on the environment, for example.

He noted, however, that the holiday, at least outside of Israel, seems to “come too quickly. There’s a greater awareness in Israel, which is already spring-bound,” he said.

In addition, he said, the holiday also competes with Shabbat Shirah.

“What do you pay homage to?” he asked. “There’s overstimulation when Shabbat is [also] Tu Bi-Sh’vat.”

Zierler pointed out that Tu Bi-Sh’vat “is one of those places where we can show incredible creative ability.”

He said that unlike past years, when the shul offered a seder, his goal this year is to “give people a grounding in the text so that they can better appreciate the scope of the customs. It’s better than bringing them to a seder without the framework behind it.”

Education also is key at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Congregation B’nai Israel.

Judy Gutin, principal of the Howard and Joshua Herman Educational Center, the religious school at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center, said she is planning a Family Education Day for Sunday. The event will involve 62 first- through fifth-graders and their parents. The theme, Gutin said, is “Planting for our future; taking care of our world.”

“It will be in two parts,” she said, noting that she wants to define Tu Bi-Sh’vat as it is presented in the Mishna, “as rosh ha’ilanot – not as a birthday, but as the head of a year. In Hebrew, we never have the concept of a birthday for trees.”

Gutin said that teaching the children why the Mishna called this a “rosh” will bring home the importance of trees in Israel, which she called “paramount to the land and to people’s survival on the land.”

Parents will attend one class session with their children, learning together and then preparing material reflecting what they have learned. Each class will be responsible for fashioning one branch of a “teaching poster” featuring a large tree of five branches.

For example, fourth-graders will focus on the Torah verse that speaks of the “tree of life.”

“The teacher will take the verse and analyze it with the children and parents,” Gutin said, noting that the guided discussion of symbolism inevitably will lead to a discussion of the word “Torah, our etz hayim … what holds us up in a community.”

The 20 fourth-graders and their parents then will be given a blank Hebrew letter to decorate. With their parents’ help, they will put the letters together to form the verse, which will be brought to the community tree and uploaded on the appropriate branch.

“They may also do artwork signifying what it means,” Gutin said, and each child will decorate clay planters in which they will actually do some planting.

The event will begin with a Shacharit service led by Rabbi Ronald Roth and Cantor Eric Wasser, she said. At the end of the day, “we will look at the full tree we created so we can all learn from one another.”

Participants will be encouraged to “talk about how we can go forward and take care of our world,” Gutin said. “We’re taking the concept of caring about Israel and applying it also in our own lives.”

In the context of the Hebrew school, that will translate into a commitment to recycle. She is hopeful that this commitment will be reflected in the synagogue and home as well.

Rabbi Mordechai Shain, executive director of Lubavitch on the Palisades, said that his group is having a “huge seder on Friday night and a massive children’s program on Saturday.” He estimates that 200 people will attend the festivities.

Shain said that every child will be given a bag containing different kinds of fruits.

“They will play a game to understand what the fruits mean and learn to do blessings on each fruit,” he said.

At noon, the entire congregation will join in a fabrengen – a gathering – sharing a lunch in honor of the holiday.

“People really love it because they don’t just eat the fruit, but we explain how the seven species represent the seven character traits of human beings,” he said, reeling off the attributes of kindness, restraint, determination, mercy, humility, bonding, and receptivity. “Each time they eat a fruit, they feel as if they’re expressing those characteristics.”

A focus on Israel

Some congregations will use Tu Bi-Sh’vat to deepen congregants’ connection to Israel.

At Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck, a Tu Bi-Sh’vat seder will serve as the culminating event of the shul’s annual Shabbaton. (Over the weekend, Beth Sholom members and friends will offer some 25 different learning sessions on the theme “Defining Moments in Jewish Time.”)

Estelle Epstein – a cantor and bar/bat mitzvah tutor at the synagogue – said she expects about 100 people to attend the seder, which she will lead. It will be run under the auspices of the shul’s Ayin L’Tzion Committee, designed to heighten Israel awareness.

Participants will use readings pulled together by the committee last year.

“Now we have a standard seder,” Epstein said. “It’s loosely based on the kabbalistic idea of going from white to red.”

The seder begins with a cup of white wine, indicating winter, she said. Red wine is added gradually, “adding more red, to indicate spring and planting.” Participants also will get to sample a wide range of fruits, and Epstein will introduce a variety of folk songs and dances. The event will include a “little quiz” at each table, including questions about Israel and trees.

The organizer said she expects the event to be a success because “congregants like to come together, sing, and celebrate their connection to Israel.”

At Temple Avodat Shalom as well, “The accent is on Israel,” Cantor Ronit Josephson said. “We tell kids that Israel is the only country that has more trees now than it did when it was established. Our primary concern is to teach them love for, and pride in, Israel.”

Music is also a large part of the River Edge celebration.

Josephson said the synagogue choir will sing on Friday night, incorporating pieces that celebrate both Shabbat Shirah and Tu Bi-Sh’vat.

On Saturday, the synagogue will serve “a Tu Bi-Sh’vat nosh” and show the movie “Beaufort,” which deals with the last Israeli stronghold in Lebanon. On Sunday, religious school children and their parents will have what the cantor called “an informal seder, tasting from the fruits we eat on Tu Bi-Sh’vat.”

“There’s a whole weekend of celebrating,” she said, predicting that attendance will be good. She noted that when the weather is nice, the lower grades get to plant something as well, although this year that seems unlikely.

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