The city branches into the Tu B’Shevat business to make L.A. naturally beautiful

Kiwi didn’t look good. The branches of the 2-year-old African tulip tree were spindly, its leaves sparse and brittle, ready to snap off.

“I think Kiwi hasn’t gotten enough water and rich soil to survive. Or maybe it’s frozen from the cold,” said Alana Billik, 9, as she and her brother Jeremy, 6, poured water around the tree’s base. They did the same for Miranda, another African tulip next to Kiwi.

“A year ago both were doing fine, with flowers underneath,” said Jeremy, remembering their last visit with the two trees.

Two years ago, the Billik children, along with their parents Shelley and Brad, came from Encino to Venice on a rainy Sunday morning to plant trees in one corner of Glen Alla Park, a small urban tract near the intersection of Culver City Boulevard and the Marina Freeway.

It was the annual planting for Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees, sponsored by local nonprofit environmental organizations TreePeople and the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life of Southern California (CoejlSC). Along with about 50 other parents and children, they had dug, planted, staked, mulched and even named approximately 60 trees.

“This goes to show that you have to select the right species for an area and plan for long-term care,” said Shelley Billik, noting that the oak trees planted that same day were now thriving.

Trees are serious business.

This is not news to the Jews. As far back as the first century, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai advised, “If you are holding a sapling in your hand and someone tells you, ‘Come quickly, the Messiah is here!’ first finish planting the tree and then go greet the Messiah.”

Those words still echo loudly 2,000 years later as we celebrate Tu B’Shevat, a holiday with no prescribed mitzvot, that originally marked the start of the fiscal year for Israel’s farmers. Today, this minor feast day has been transformed into a Jewish Earth Day that celebrates our vital and visceral connection to the land. It has become a time to reflect on and renew our imperiled environment and to remind ourselves that we are God’s partner in creation.

This year, as Jews living in Los Angeles, we are teaming up not only with God but also with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has launched an ambitious drive to plant 1 million new trees in Los Angeles neighborhoods, schoolyards and parks, on both public and private properties, over the next several years.

His Million Tree Initiative kicked off Sept. 30, spearheaded by the Department of Public Works in conjunction with various nonprofit groups. Its goal is to make Los Angeles the “largest, cleanest and greenest” city in the United States.

On Feb. 4, Lisa Lainer Fagan will be doing her part. The Encino resident is bringing not only her family, but also her entire “Living a Jewish Life” Havurah from Valley Beth Shalom — 10 adults and 27 kids ages 2 to 11 — to a combined Tu B’Shevat/Million Tree planting sponsored by TreePeople, CoejlSC and the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks.

The group has previously conducted Tu B’Shevat seders, a tradition originated by the 16th century kabbalists in Tsfat that incorporates eating various foods from the land of Israel, but this year they decided to get their hands dirty, literally, planting trees.

“It’s different when you go out into the real world,” Fagan said.

For Fagan’s group and for volunteers from Temple Beth Am, Sinai Temple, Nashuva and USC Hillel — an expected total of about 200 people — the “real world” this Tu B’Shevat will be Runyon Canyon Park, a 130-acre “urban wilderness” located two blocks north of Hollywood Boulevard, west of the 101 Hollywood Freeway and extending north to Mulholland Drive.

“It needs rehabilitation,” TreePeople’s Forestry Director Jim Summers said.

He pointed out that Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks, which selects the sites, has already organized plantings in Harbor City’s Harbor Regional Park and Lake View Terrace’s Hansen Dam Recreation Area and is now concentrating on the city’s center. This planting will put 300 1-gallon native California oaks and sycamores in the park.

“Tons of work goes into these plantings,” said CoejlSC co-founder Lee Wallach, explaining that not only does the location have to be carefully chosen but so does the type of tree and the exact spot where each one is to be planted. It’s putting “the right tree in the right place,” as environmentalists like to emphasize.

Volunteers for the Feb. 4 event are requested to commit for the entire four hours, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., to give them ample time to learn, plant and participate in the accompanying ceremonies — and still arrive home before the 3 p.m. Super Bowl kickoff.

“We’re asking people not to just go and plop a tree in the ground. We’re asking people to take time and think about what they’re doing,” Wallach said.

The Tu B’Shevat planting, like all plantings facilitated by CoejlSC and TreePeople, begins with 20 minutes of training. Volunteers are supplied with gloves and other necessary equipment, including digging tools to loosen the soil and dibble sticks to compact the soil after the holes have been dug.

They’re taught safety, such as holding the shovel down and not slinging it over their shoulders like one of the Seven Dwarfs. They’re taught to roll their tree out of the container and gently massage its roots to loosen them up. And they’re instructed how to build a berm, or circular ridge, around the tree and fill it with mulch to hold in water.

In many plantings, including this one, they’ll also be taught to set their tree inside a specially constructed chicken wire cage, positioning it two inches above the ground, to prevent gophers from eating the roots.

But for TreePeople and CoejlSC, the object isn’t just to plant a tree; it’s also to connect people personally and spiritually to their tree and to make them aware of nature’s splendor and its fragility.

Go Hug a Tree

Living in the asphalt-and-glass tangle of Los Angeles, it is sometimes easy to forget that we live in an area blessed with abundant natural beauty, from our gently folded green-and-gold mountains to our powdery sand, glittering sea and everywhere, the regal trees.

Until this week I had never been to Malibu Creek State Park — a mere 40-minute drive from my home — where I saw a family of deer grazing in a meadow, where the open skies are unblemished by billboards and antennae. Until last summer I had never been to Franklin Canyon, where unassumingly majestic wood ducks live in a still pond and the hills of Beverly Hills become graceful mountains with no signs of material mansions.

Tu B’Shevat, the fifteenth of the month of Shevat, is a yearly reminder to get out of the house and enjoy God’s world.

Designated in the Talmud as the new year of the trees, Tu B’Shevat marks the time when the sap starts rising and buds begin to appear on trees in the Land of Israel, first the shkadia (almond tree), followed by the others.

In Israel, the day’s halachic importance lies in calculating the age of the tree, as Tu B’Shevat is designated the birthday of all trees. This date affects in which year the fruit of young trees may be eaten and what tithes and offerings will be taken from the trees.

But for those of us with no trees to call our own in the land (aside from a JNF plaque, perhaps), Tu B’Shevat is an opportunity to get close to the yearly cycle of nature, to appreciate the complexity and depth of the natural surroundings that God has asked us to till and to tend.

Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th century German rabbi, told a story about a congregation who questioned why its rabbi was traveling to Switzerland, where there wasn’t much of a Jewish community. The rabbi replied, “I don’t want to meet my Maker and have Him say to me, ‘What? You never saw my Alps?’ ”
If the Alps are a bit far to make this year, here are a few suggestions for something a little closer to home.

Join the Party

The public is invited to commune with nature beneath the oaks and sycamores that canopy the grounds of Shalom Institute Camp and Conference Center of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles in Malibu, about 45 minutes from both the Valley and the city.

Last year about 1,000 people showed up for the festival, and Bill Kaplan, the institute’s executive director, expects a similar or larger crowd this year, if the weather is kind. The festival is also a reunion for Shalom’s campers and counselors.

The Tu B’Shevat festival will feature hikes and nature walks, tree planting, nature crafts and chances at the camp’s rope course and zipline.

Singers Cindy Paley and Robbo will entertain, while the Coalition for the Environment and Jewish Life will mount an exhibition, including books on Judaism and the environment, movies, quotes from the Torah about the environment and opportunities for advocacy.

“In our tradition we have the responsibility to take care of the earth l’dor va’dor, from generation to generation. What we do today affects our children and grandchildren and generations thereafter,” says Kaplan. “It’s about educating ourselves and being aware, and we’re trying to give people the tools to do that.”

The festival is Sun., Feb. 4, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. at Shalom Institute Camp and Conference Center. For directions and more information, call (818) 889-5500 or log on to

Take a Hike

The Children’s Nature Institute (CNI), a nonprofit group founded by a nature-loving mom in 1985, has a long roster of family-friendly nature walks. CNI docents lead several educational walks every week, where they help children use all five senses to decipher their environment. The hikes are about two hours of leisurely walking along a trail, some of them stroller-friendly. For groups of about 20 people, CNI will arrange for private walks.

The institute also does outreach through educational field trips for inner-city schools and for kids with special needs. Its Wondermobiles are portable museums about birds, insects and mammals that are available for schools and birthday parties.

I spoke with Lizette Castano, the assistant to the executive director at Children’s Nature Institute, about trails Tu B’Shevat hikers could tackle on their own. Here are some of her favorites.

Solstice Canyon in Malibu, off Corral Canyon Road from Pacific Coast Highway, has a beautiful, wide trail with sycamores and oaks where kids have fun searching for woodpecker holes or listening for the telltale tap-tap. The canyon has a small stream with frogs and other creatures living in little pools. The site is shady, with all the basics: bathroom, water fountain and parking.

Temescal Canyon is a good one for families with kids in strollers, with its paved trail and convenient parking. There are huge eucalyptus, oak and sycamore trees, plenty of squirrels and, if you’re lucky, deer.
For those without strollers, continue up the trail for a substantial hike up the canyon to a small waterfall and creek.

Temescal Canyon Road is off Sunset, near Pacific Coast Highway.

Malibu Lagoon is a good destination for a marine experience. Birds are plentiful at this oceanside lagoon, and there are bridges from which you can watch fish and other marine wildlife. Rock hunting and studying the sizes and colors of grains of sand stuck to clear tape are favorite CNI activities here.

There is a picnic area and parking off Pacific Coast Highway and Cross Creek Road.

Budding botanists can head out to Santa Ynez Canyon in Pacific Palisades, where a wide variety of plant life abounds and a stream runs through the area.