Tu B’Shevat seders gaining in popularity and spirituality

Tu B’Shevat seders gaining in popularity and spirituality

When ‘4-year-old Adina Allen sits down Jan. ” to the Tu B’Shevat seder she helped organize for young Jews in the San Francisco Bay Area, she and the others at her table will be celebrating the connection between environmental activism and Jewish teachings.

It’s a logical connection for a holiday known as "the New Year of the Trees."

Although it was created by the ancient Israelites as a dating device to determine which fruit trees were old enough to be tithed in a given year, Tu B’Shevat of late has taken on a more overt ecological role, from Jewish National Fund tree-plantings in Israel to synagogues and JCCs sponsoring composting lessons or cleaning garbage from riverbanks.

Recently, Jews in their ‘0s and 30s have seized upon the holiday, running Tu B’Shevat seders that are more explicit both in their call to environmental activism and their reliance on Jewish text.

"It’s a holiday that’s easy to get behind, especially for our generation," says Josh Miller, 33, who with Allen is part of the core group of Jewish activists that put together this year’s first communitywide Bay Area Tu B’Shevat seder specifically for young adults.

"The ideas of environmentalism speak to our personal spiritual values. So when there’s a Jewish celebration that resonates with those values, it’s a home run."

Nigel Savage, the director of Hazon, a New York-based environmental group. says that a perfect storm in popular consciousness has occurred in the past 1′ months, fanned by the fallout from Hurricane Katrina and the popularity of Al Gore’s film "An Inconvenient Truth."

"We’ve passed the tipping point in our consciousness of global climate change and food, and the way we celebrate Tu B’Shevat will change, too," Savage says.

"Part of what’s appealing is that it allows people to come together with food and wine and create community," says Rabbi Eve Ben-Ora of the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, whose young adult group The Hub is a co-sponsor of the Bay Area seder. "It gives them a way to connect to their Jewish identity without a lot of heavy religious overtones."

Emily Rosenberg, the site director for Avodah’s service program in Chicago, says that’s why it decided to hold a seder this year for the first time.

"We’ll relate Tu B’Shevat to issues of environmental justice and environmental racism," she explains. "Who benefits from the growth of trees? Why does toxic waste impact low-income people more than others?"

Many organizers are using the holiday to advocate for organic food and locally grown produce, favorite causes of the Jewish food movement. Savage says that at the Hazon seder, along with the "seven species" mentioned in the Torah as native to the land of Israel, the group will serve winter produce indigenous to North America and discuss "why, as Jews, we are committed to Israel and to local organic produce."

Most of the seders are kosher, even if few of those attending keep that mitzvah — it’s a matter of Jewish identity-building, organizers explain.

The San Francisco seder is calling itself eco-kosher, meaning the food served was sustainably grown and produced in a socially just manner by workers who receive a living wage. That, too, combines progressive politics with religious imperative, Ben-Ora explains.

"Eco-kashrut is not under the auspices of the Orthodox rabbinate," she says. "It allows people to say more loosely what it means while still maintaining an elevated sense of awareness of the food we consume," which is an important tenet of Jewish tradition.

Miller expects about 100 attendees at $10 to $1′ each — $’ back for those who bring their own cups and plates to reduce waste. "It seems weird to eat kosher food off Styrofoam plates using plastic spoons," he says.

While "traditional" Tu B’Shevat seders may ask celebrants to consider what they might do in the coming year to help protect the environment, the haggadah distributed this year by Philadelphia’s Shalom Center tells people to take out their pens and, at the seder table, write letters to lawmakers.

"As we drink the second cup, we commit ourselves to keeping the ethical dimension of the global climate crisis at the center of conversation and legislation," the haggadah reads, before instructing the seder guests to write to their senators supporting the Lieberman-Warner climate security bill expected to come up this year.

Rabbi Jeff Sultar, the haggadah’s author and director of the Shalom Center’s Green Menorah campaign, has run activist seders, but says this marks the first time he is explicitly tying the holiday to global climate change.