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.

Tu B’Shevat Lessons

Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish birthday or new year of the trees, is a really fun and lightweight holiday, celebrated mostly by schoolchildren. As a child, this was one of my favorite holidays. I loved planting trees and somehow felt very much at home with this simple way to participate in tikkun olam (healing the world).

As founder and president of TreePeople, I’ve spent the past 30 years giving lectures about Tu B’Shevat. I began to ponder what moved our rabbis, thousands of years ago, to mandate the annual appreciation and celebration of trees. Trees are beautiful, but the reasons why they are so important that they deserve their own religious holiday are numerous and surprisingly very relevant to our lives today.

Trees were and still are absolutely critical to human life. Most of us know that trees produce oxygen, eat carbon dioxide, produce food, wood and paper, prevent erosion and are the source of thousands of chemicals and products on which we rely on a daily basis. Less obvious is the very crucial role trees and forests play in moderating climate, preventing floods, filtering water pollution, producing medicines, ensuring water supply, lowering energy demands and preventing skin cancer.

Tu B’Shevat is about literacy. Trees don’t ask much as they perform their great service. As a result, humans forget how important they are. When we forget and no longer understand or appreciate that we need trees and forests and also need to plant, nurture and protect them, we wreak havoc. Throughout history, as civilizations have forgotten and allowed their forests to be destroyed, they’ve perished. It’s a fairly simple cycle. When trees and forests are cut down, they are replaced with deserts. Floods, erosion, desertification, drought and famine replace fertile soil, abundance and stability. Our rabbis knew this. People forget.

Today, the message and need for Tu B’Shevat is more crucial than ever. It is very easy to assume that technology has lessened the need for trees. Because so many of our critical needs are met by hidden infrastructure, we have allowed ourselves to become dangerously ignorant of the current need for healthy trees and forests in cities near and around our homes, in rural mountain forests and in the ancient forests around the world.

Consider Los Angeles, where environmental illiteracy is costing us dollars and lives. We have growing energy and water shortages and skyrocketing rates of skin cancer and respiratory illness. In constructing this city, we wiped out the natural forest ecosystem (oaks, chaparral and other plants) by sealing much of the soil with roads, parking lots and buildings. We’ve replaced the natural flood control and water supply system consisting of trees, permeable soil, mulch, creeks, wetlands and rivers with roads, concrete flood control channels and water supply canals. The meager annual rainfall L.A. does receive is actually enough to meet half our needs, if we were to capture it and use it wisely.

But we throw away most of this precious rainfall and make it a vehicle for polluting our beaches as it washes toxins and trash from driveways, parking lots and streets into storm drains and into the sea. At the same time, unshaded, heat-absorbing urban areas such as streets, parking lots and school yards make cities up to 10 degrees hotter in summer, thereby dramatically increasing the demand for energy for air conditioning and creating more air pollution. This costs L.A. taxpayers more than $1 billion per year in water and flood control costs alone. This hurts people and drains resources away from social programs and jobs. Similar issues affect cities around the world.

But these problems can be fixed. Trees and elements of forest ecosystems, such as mulch, can be used to recreate nature’s cycles and make Los Angeles a more sustainable city. If we were to invest the funds we’re currently losing — in flood control, water supply and pollution clean-up — in planting and maintaining city trees or an urban forest watershed system instead, we could cut our water use in half, lower air and water pollution and create new sustainable jobs for up to 50,000 people. According to the Lawrence Berkeley Labs, 10 million more trees strategically planted in the greater L.A. area could save as much as $300 million per year in medical costs for treating respiratory ailments.

Creating this city forest is where the message of Tu B’Shevat becomes especially relevant. Everyone has a role to play in learning about, appreciating, planting, caring for, supporting and protecting trees. We can plant trees to cool our homes and lower energy costs; we must plant our school yards with tall shade trees to protect our children from skin cancer; we can remove some of the paving from parking lots and create planting areas that absorb and treat polluted runoff and shade the parked cars; we can plant fruit trees with economically disadvantaged families to help increase their access to nutrition; and we can work with our neighbors to green and beautify our neighborhoods and restore our connection with community. We must also be advocates for sufficient city funding to ensure that public trees are properly cared for.

Tree planting is simple and fun, but its implications are profound. After a lifetime of urban forestry work, I’ve come to think of planting trees as a form of acupuncture for our world. The right tree planted in the right place can help heal many ills. But even with the right tree properly planted, the healing doesn’t take place without an ongoing personal commitment to ensure that the tree survives and thrives.

That’s where TreePeople comes in. We’re a local nonprofit organization. Our mission is to inspire people to take personal responsibility for the urban forest. Our focus is on educating and supporting people as they plant and care for trees to improve the neighborhoods in which they live, work and play. We provide training, tools, resources and volunteers to help people bring green to schools, streets, parks and damaged natural areas. We also have youth programs throughout greater Los Angeles. Contact us if you want to join a planting, enroll in a training or support the work.

To contact TreePeople, call (818) 753-4600 or log on to