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


Wanted: Volunteers

This is by way of being an advance notice, a leg up, if you will.

At the start of the upcoming school year, the Jewish Federation will embark on a new venture, Koreh L.A., the Los Angeles Jewish Coalition for Literacy. Its staff is busy (today) setting in place a cadre of volunteers who will work with third-graders in Los Angeles’ public schools. The goal is simple: try to help improve reading ability — literacy is the formal phrase — by concentrating one-on-one with individual schoolchildren. That’s one volunteer assigned to work with one specific child one hour each week for the duration of the school year. Its virtue to me is that this is direct, purposive and personal; and, not to be underestimated, it is also modest in scope.

Not surprisingly, students have been the first to volunteer. For obvious reasons. Time is available; their teachers are encouraging; and there is the clear link to fellow students, even though the volunteers are several rungs up the ladder in high school and/or college. I would hope that adults volunteer here as well: lawyers and graphic designers, journalists and entertainers, corporate executives and salespeople, men and women whose time is neither bought nor given lightly.

As long as no one has solicited my opinion, I would suggest, too, that families have something to gain by volunteering; that is, parents and teen-age children and perhaps grandparents. To be sure, they might be dispersed within different schools, but, for a brief moment in their lives, they will have an opportunity to share a common set of experiences. It is by no means certain that the family’s easy and assumed patterns of authority and expertise will govern here.

While everything about the Federation’s prospective plan seems appealing and positive to me, I would like to add a cautionary note. There is always the danger that such programs take on an aura of paternalism. In blunt terms, they can be viewed by some as white Jews teaching blacks and Latinos, the haves shaping the agenda of the have-nots. Thirty-five years ago in Mississippi, in connection with the drive to push voter registration, white students fanned out in different parts of the state, working hard with children and adults in an effort to improve literacy. The situation was dangerous; the work, hard and filled with long hours; the work, ennobling.

But young black leaders turned resentful. They saw the whites’ intervention as just another turn in a long history of colonialism — well-intentioned but still controlled by whites, and young ones at that.

Perhaps the most dramatic incident that they pointed to was the sight of two sisters, 10 and 11, working in Jackson, Miss., with their mother, teaching adults the rudiments of reading and writing.

Much has changed in America in the intervening years, but I suspect that the feelings of blacks, young and old, have not altered that much on the sensitive issue of “white colonialism.” The fact that Jews are the volunteers will not matter one whit, nor, for that matter, the fact that the tutors will always be much older than the students. But it will be helpful that, along with Jewish volunteers, a larger citywide literacy campaign sponsored by the Los Angeles Times will seek volunteers from the black and Latino populations, among others.

I should acknowledge my bias here, though I suspect it is apparent in the comments above. I am heartily in favor of programs like the one the Federation is preparing. But I believe that they are most effective when the volunteers understand that it is a two-way street, that they have as much to gain and to learn from the transaction as the people they are assisting.

Without that approach, the tutoring, if not conversation, tends to be, at best, a form of amateurism. And what is at stake here is too important to leave to amateurs.

Those who are interested in volunteering should contact Dan Rosenfeld at Koreh L.A., the Los Angeles Jewish Coalition for Literacy, at (323) 761-8153. — Gene Lichtenstein