Posted on February 7th, 2012 | Filed under Challenges, Community, Featured, Leadership, News, Popular Culture, Social Issues, Theology
Tagged with Arab-Israeli conflict, community, ethics, Hope, identity, Islam, Judaism, morality, Peace, politics, Questions, Religion, seminary, tolerance, transformation, Violence
Tonight we celebrate Tu B’Shevat, the New Year for the Trees. We taste and honor delicious fruits of the tree through our Tu B’Shevat seder (ritual meal) and celebrate the incredible complexity and beauty of the natural world.
In many communities, Tu B’Shevat is an opportunity to gather together to both rejoice in our connection to the nature and to examine our relationship to the environment. All across the country, seders are sprouting up, attracting hundreds of young, passionate Jews from all parts of the Jewish world who are hungry for ways to link their religious identity to their social and environmental values. Increasingly, the seder is becoming a vehicle for discussing challenging issues at the nexus of food and the environment—global hunger, agribusiness, energy consumption—and for providing tools to make more environmentally-conscious decisions. This has been my focus on Tu B'Shevat, that is, until this year.
While I am energized and inspired by the way the holiday has become catalyst for the Jewish environmental movement, since returning a few weeks ago from five months in Israel I am conscious of other issues, values, and difficult discussions for which the Tu B’Shevat seder might provide a forum. Trees in the region are often a political issue and have become the focal point in strategic policies in the ongoing Conflict that plagues the country. This year, as I celebrate the New Year for the Trees and meditate on the themes of renewal, my thoughts are drawn to two memorable encounters I had with trees in Israel and the insight into the Conflict that these experiences gave me.
The first experience was a trip my classmates and I took to Marda Permaculture farm in the town of Marda in the West Bank. This being one of our first forays into the West Bank, we were unsure what to expect. Our visit took place during the fall, when olive picking was at its height. During olive season, Palestinians have experienced settler violence when going out to their fields to tend to their harvest. In order to show solidarity and to provide some protection from possible attacks, small groups of internationals have organized to accompany Palestinians during harvest and to help with the picking. Though we weren’t in an area that typically experienced violence, we were excited to get a taste of what life was like in a Palestinian village, to support this permaculture farm, and to help with harvesting olives.
Our day was spent intertwined with the trees. Though the olive trees numbered only about 5 or 6, it took 10 of us hours to get through only a portion of the harvest. We climbed and leaped and wrapped ourselves around branches and trunks, defying gravity as we whisked the green and purple fruits from their stems. We got to know Murad Alkhufash, founder of the farm, and learned that his family has been farming the region for more than ten generations. We met Murad’s brother, mother, and nieces. Together, we all enjoyed tea as we watched the sun set from the roof of their house after a long day's work. We saw olive trees that were hundreds of years old, all gnarled and tangled from the roots up through the trunk. We ran our hands—chalky and dry after so much picking—over the smooth skins of the thousands of olives we had harvested. At Marda I began to understand the deep connection between people and their trees and to see that in this region trees are an essential part of people’s identity, history, and, most of all, future.
Months later we were again with Palestinian olive growers, this time looking out at a farmer's trees across a barrier. As part of trip to Bethlehem with Encounter—a program that brings Jewish leaders to the West Bank to witness Palestinian life and gain a deeper understanding of the Conflict—we met with Omar, an olive grower from the village of al-Walaje. Standing on Omar’s front porch, we could see below his field of olive trees that he is now cut off from by the path of the Separation Barrier. This was one of many instances we saw where the Wall is cutting off farmers from their fields. In many cases, the Wall divides the land such that the trees become a part of Israel while the Palestinian farmers and land owners are kept on the other side.
We learned that within the past year the Israeli Supreme Court authorized a decision to completely enclose al-Walaje by the Separation Barrier, citing reasons of security as its motive. In Omar’s case, the Wall not only cut him off from his trees and his village off from the surrounding land, but the path of the Wall was such that Omar’s house would itself became completely surrounded. Behind the house we could see the underground tunnel that was being dug for Omar and his family. This tunnel will soon be the only means for the family to enter or exit the village once the wall is completed. Like Murad, Omar has been farming this land for generations. The trees are his livelihood and his lifeblood and they are getting further and further out of reach.
As a rabbinical student and Jewish environmentalist I am passionate about the ways in which our texts and rituals can help ground and deepen our commitment to living in a way that is healthier and more sustainable for ourselves and for the planet. I am also interested in probing the boundaries of my own capacity for self-reflection and introspection as my Judaism comes into conversation with other challenging and controversial issues.
It is amazing to see how successful we have been in using the holiday of Tu B'Shevat to harness passion around issues of environmental sustainability. While we still have a long way to go, in a short time the Jewish environmental movement has become a powerful force for change. How now can we use this holiday to probe deeply into the other difficult issues that we, as a community, often chose to avoid?
My image of Marda Permaculture Farm via Wikimedia Commons.