Michael Baror, deputy ambassador at the Israeli embassy in Kenya (with watering can), plants a tree at the Ramogi Institute of Advanced Technology in Kisumu, Kenya. Photo by Ryan Torok

The blessings of prayer, liturgical or personal

With the celebration of Tu B’Shevat, the New Year for Trees, on Feb. 11, environmentally friendly Jewish organizations and individuals fill social media feeds with exhortations to protect the environment and to appreciate the bounty of produce that most of us enjoy.

But do you know what blessing to say for planting a tree? And what if that tree is in Kisumu, Kenya, to celebrate a partnership of Kenya, Israel and Germany that has yielded great strides in tilapia fish farming?

This example sounds random enough to be made up, but it really happened for 12 of us on an Israeli Consulate-sponsored trip to Kenya last November to see the work of an Israeli international development organization called MASHAV.

As we watched a representative from each partner country plant a tree at the Ramogi Institute of Advanced Technology, I asked fellow trip participant Rabbi Noah Farkas of Valley Beth Shalom, “Is there a blessing for a trilateral fish farming partnership tree-planting?”

He said there wasn’t one, so we riffed on the concepts and words relating to the physical act of tree-planting as well as thematic meanings of partnerships. The rabbi’s version went biblical, invoking Eden, the first garden sown by humans and the notion that God creates everything. My version was more interpersonal: about God as the overseer of human existence and both witness to and nurturer of relationships between people and the earth.

We settled on the Shehecheyanu prayer that expresses gratitude for having reached a new or special moment or occasion.

But an idea also had taken root: Was there really no blessing for tree-planting? When I got home, I asked my favorite always-on-duty religious expert, Rabbi Google. I learned there is a blessing said on a fruit-bearing tree once a year during the month of Nisan, but generally, no blessing for tree-planting. Shouldn’t there be, especially when it marks a deepening of human relationship as well as the intention of seeding the earth?

I thought: Why not teach people to use their words to find their own blessings? And yet, the thought seemed heretical. Who was I — or anyone without rabbinic training — to negate the canonized liturgy? And if everyone was “vigilante blessing” things, would that put Farkas and my other rabbi friends out of a job? Would there still be a need for synagogue and community around standardized prayer?

Pondering these thoughts, I read the reflections of my friend and Jewish Journal colleague Ryan Torok, who also was on the Kenya trip.

“It’s comforting how the words of the Amidah are the same in Kenya as they are back home,” he wrote in the Journal. “No matter where one is in the world, Judaism is Judaism.” 

There is a tension between institutionalized liturgy and personal prayer. We have a robust liturgy, sanctioned by rabbis, time and generations of people who have intoned the same words in different geographical and emotional places. They have called on the same phrases for strength, as mantra, as comfort, as praise in countries around the world. Indeed, there are “official” blessings for lots of Jewish acts and occasions — even observing strange things or unusual people.

But in moments during which there are no standardized blessings, how do we non-rabbis — or those of us unfamiliar with the liturgy, unfamiliar with Hebrew, or even lacking a traditional belief in God — mark those moments?

There’s a Chasidic folktale about a young shepherd who was nearly illiterate and went to a synagogue, where he recited the letters of the Hebrew alphabet repeatedly. When asked why, he said he didn’t know the prayers but knew that if he spoke the letters, God would assemble them to form words expressing his intended prayer.

Depending on the audience, this story — and its many variations — is invoked to teach several lessons. In my interpretation, I learn two things. First, you don’t need officially sanctioned words to pray or express gratitude. Second, even when you are expressing your heart’s desires, gratitude or prayer — which may be very much outside of the communal norm — there is value and power to being in the presence of community.

We have our own letters, and we have our own words. We don’t need words that are biblical in origin, or grandiosely phrased, or rabbinically sanctioned. If the “God” concept is a challenge for you, opt out of language like “blessed are you, oh God,” and instead use “how incredible it is to be having this experience” or “how grateful I am to be in the presence of this thing.” Prayers don’t have to be in Hebrew, either, because if God is an entity or concept that has meaning for you, you can bet your bracha (blessing) on the fact that any deity worth anything would be fluent in any language.

I think that institutionalized liturgy provides a framework, something to rely on if we aren’t having a spontaneous or creative prayer moment. It also suggests words and phrases to guide us in our own interpretation of what it means to use language to express vulnerability, humility, respect, praise and gratitude.

Of course, most people — and that includes me most days — don’t create their own prayers. They may not see the point in prayer at all. Or they may feel unworthy, unpoetic or unholy. Or they may think personal prayer is forbidden or some sort of hubris, that when it comes to Jewish prayer, it’s codified liturgy or bust. And maybe that belief creates a stronger bond to both community members and to places of institutionalized prayer.

But perhaps, when we’re seeking ways to connect to prayer and gratitude, it’s not “this” or “that.” Rather, it’s worth looking to our structured community spaces, as well as into the unique words that we hold within ourselves and our unique experiences, to find the answers.

Take Tu B’Shevat to heart and start healing nature

These are the times for which Tu B’Shevat was created. The rabbis who envisioned this holiday were prophetic: They knew we would need to be reminded on a regular basis about howimportant trees are to our lives. And trees have never been more important to our survival than they are today.

Trees heal and protect us. They are our planet’s life support system. In our collective ignorance, we’ve unwittingly done so much damage to the natural systems upon which our lives depend that their ability to support us has been severely compromised. Climate change is just one consequence unfolding today.

So what do trees do? Most of us know they produce oxygen and take in carbon dioxide. Less obvious is the crucial role trees and forests play in moderating climate, preventing floods, filtering water pollution, ensuring water supply, lowering energy demands and preventing skin cancer.

Trees don’t ask for anything as they perform these services. As a result, humans forget how important they are. When we forget or no longer understand our need for trees and forests, we also neglect the need to plant, nurture and protect them. The result? Havoc.

Throughout history, as civilizations have forgotten and allowed 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, climate change provides an urgent reminder of the connections between trees and life support. At the most basic level, more trees equals more carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere.

But in Los Angeles, trees do much more. As trees shade asphalt surfaces, they reduce overall urban temperatures. Properly planted trees can reduce the “urban heat island effect” by as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit. As trees shade buildings, they reduce our need for air conditioning. One mature tree located for maximum shade can reduce a homeowner’s energy bills by as much as 10 percent.

Perhaps even more important is trees’ potential for reducing what is the largest single use of electricity in the state of California — the 20 percent of our state’s energy required to run the pumps that bring water to Los Angeles.

But don’t Los Angeles’ trees use this water? To some extent they do. But over their lifetime, if appropriately planted and cared for, trees can provide amazing water conservation services. Essentially, trees recharge our groundwater. Think of them as nature’s sponges.

Imagine a typical L.A. winter rainstorm. First picture the water as it hits our typical cityscape of driveways, parking lots and streets. The drops hit the ground and quickly surge, picking up toxins and trash and washing through storm drains into the sea, polluting, wasting and costing taxpayers more than $1 billion a year in water and flood control costs.

Now picture this rainwater as it lands on a tree. Imagine a healthy, mature tree — one surrounded by mulched earth. Here the rain’s fall is broken as it hits the canopy of leaves, where it is softened and slowed down. From there, the water drips gradually into the ground, cleaned and filtered through the soil as it goes.

A very large, mature oak tree (with a 100-foot diameter canopy) in a deeply mulched setting can retain as much as 57,000 gallons of water — two swimming pools’ worth — over an average year. That’s water that, if allowed to soak into our local aquifer, could help replace the water we transport (with fossil fuels) from the Colorado River and other distant sources.

What I’ve just described is the forest’s natural water cycle — it’s what operated in our region before we came along and in our ignorance, disregarded, overpaved and broke it. At TreePeople, the organization I’ve led for more than 34 years, our dream is to restore this cycle and in the process heal our city and make it sustainable.

How do we do that? We are working with volunteers from communities across the county to literally break up the concrete and asphalt and put the forest back in place. We are educating people about all the things that a forest can do and engaging them to bring those natural cycles back.

Clearly we have a big job. At one time, Los Angeles was a lovely, natural ecosystem. Now the city is two-thirds paved.

We have become one of the most unsustainable urban areas on the planet. But we can turn that around. And it can start with you this Tu B’Shevat if we take Tu B’Shevat to heart and engage in stewardship and healing of nature, so that nature can heal and protect us.

Everyone can play a role in this healing. You can plant trees in your home landscape, schoolyards, streets and parking lots. You can do this as an individual, a family, a congregation, business or club. You can plant fruit trees with low-income families to help increase their access to nutrition. You can work with your neighbors to green and beautify your neighborhoods and restore your connection with community.

You can also be an advocate for sufficient county and city funding to ensure that public trees are properly cared for.

To successfully do this healing work requires learning the tree lessons we’ve forgotten and adding new skills of community engagement to ensure the new trees can both survive and thrive.

TreePeople can be a resource. We provide training, tools, resources and volunteers to help people bring green to schools, streets, parks and damaged natural areas.

These truly are the times Tu B’Shevat was created for. To honor the deepest intent of the holiday, consider making a deeper commitment to trees and the environment. Consider making it a priority to heal and restore our natural systems all year round. In the balance is a chance to repair the significant damage we’ve done, and a chance to be a healing force that benefits us all.

Andy Lipkis is the founder of TreePeople.

Fires of war can’t extinguish the magnitude and majesty of Galilee’s forests

“We’re all healing — emotionally, psychologically, ecologically,” said Paul M. Ginsberg, director of the Forest Department in the Northern Region Office of Keren Kayemeth Leisrael (KKL), the Israeli arm of the Jewish National Fund.

He stood on a hillside looking over the Hula Valley, north of the Sea of Galilee.

At his back was a hillside forest of trees, many of them charred from last summer’s rocket fire.

For many young American children, the notion of trees growing in the desert is something they can understand about Israel, a way of seeing what makes Israel great. Israel’s trees are symbols of prosperity, of permanence and civilization. The trees are something children save spare change for. As a child I envisioned someday visiting my tree. Our investment gave us all a sense of ownership.

So when the trees burned at the hands of Hezbollah last summer, it was harsh.

Ginsberg, accustomed to planting and growing trees, spent most of the 33 days of the Second Lebanon War trying to save them. Rockets were going off around his home at night, military filled every vacant space in the region his work covers, and he and his crew voluntarily risked their lives fighting the fires.

He told his crews to go home, to be safe. They left only for a moment.

“People came back voluntarily; they didn’t have to come back to save the forest,” Ginsberg said on this recent spring day, shaking his head at the memory that hasn’t faded. “It wasn’t worth losing one person to save an acre of forest, but people came back. And not just Jews, also Arabs.”

Israelis, like most people, share a great sentimentality about their trees — and, indeed, theirs are especially hard-earned. Sparse rainfall means they take root only with the help of irrigation; unlike the unruly forests we’re used to, they grow in rows, many of them planted by hundreds of new immigrants soon after the War of Independence.

In part, tree planting was a way to keep people employed.

“Hundreds of workers came; they would truck them up, give them a hoe and say ‘get to work. Plant a tree and come down,'” Ginsberg said. “It’s important to understand that a lot of effort went into these trees.”

The forests serve many purposes for the Israelis, Ginsberg said. “They provide hiking areas and a beautiful landscape. They strengthen the local well-being. They stake claim to the land, and they are a biblical metaphor — a vestige of what may once have been.”

And what’s especially remarkable today, is not how many trees died last summer, but how many survived. And how serene the hills of the Hula Valley appeared on this spring day, nearly one year after they burned so ferociously.

Some of the blackened embers have been removed; some of the terrain has been left to renew itself, a process that already has begun. Some portions of the forests will be replanted. It’s an opportunity, Ginsberg said, to diversify. So the KKL is introducing new trees — mixing cedars, cypresses and others into the pine forests.

The resilience of these northern woods is a metaphor for Israel’s strength — the nation’s ability to put down roots and withstand intrusion. Across the way, within spitting distance, is the Golan Heights, where dry uncultivated land extends for miles, in stark contrast.

For more than half a century, Israel’s trees have withstood the elements, lasting longer than the people who planted them. Stalwart symbols of Israel’s claim to the land, they are memories of children’s coins, replenishing and renewing the land, even in the face of rocket fire.

The Circuit

Tu B’Shevat Time

All over Los Angeles, Jewish groups were finding innovative ways to commemorate Tu B’Shevat, the 15th day of the Jewish month of Shevat, which is the New Year for trees.

At Adat Ari El Early Childhood Center’s community garden, the preschoolers got down and dirty and planted citrus trees. The teachers at the Valley Village school use the garden to teach the children about the agricultural meaning behind many Jewish holidays, and as a source of learning about horticulture and growth, recycling and composting, and the Earth’s relationship to and reliance upon plants. Next up at the garden — growing horseradish and parsley for Pesach.

At the Westside Jewish Community Center (Westside JCC), hundreds flocked to their Feb. 8 festival, which featured a moon bounce, tree planting, kosher hot dogs and fresh roasted corn. The Gilbert Table Tennis Association, which is now housed at the Olympic Boulevard center, offered free lessons and playing time on its many professional tables. The Westside Symphonette gave a free concert, where world-renowned pianist Vivian Florian played “classics to klezmer.”

“This was a great day,” said festival co-chair Beatrice Germain, a former Westside JCC nursery school parent and current Westside JCC board member. “We are thrilled about the wonderful diversity of people from the community who came together for this event and the enthusiastic audience for the concert. It’s great to see the community together again — and our new lemon tree looks really nice in the courtyard.”

Over in Malibu, the Shalom Nature Center had 2,000 people show up at its festival, its biggest turnout ever. They even ran out of parking spaces! Different organizations came to work with the Nature Center staff, including groups from Temple Adat Shalom, Temple Ramat Zion, Congregation B’nai Brith in Santa Barbara, Temple Judea, Heschel West Day School, Temple Beth Am, Young Judaea and Beth Chayim Chadashim. Altogether, people planted more than 300 native plants and a few coastal live oaks at the event.

As fun as it is to celebrate Tu B’Shevat in one place, the Jewish Agency for Israel decided to do something more daring; to have a worldwide Global Tu B’Shevat seder using the wonders of interactive technology. Hagar Shoman-Marko, the Israel education emissary for the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles oversaw the event on the West Coast, which included 120 students from Milken Community High School, Shalhevet Middle and High schools and Sinai Akiba Academy, who joined their peers around the world by participating in the seder. They sat around tables with offerings of fruit, sang songs, recited blessings and interacted with their peers in Jerusalem, New Jersey, Atlanta and Toronto. A sedar highlights was a tree-planting ceremony at which students in Jerusalem planted trees on behalf of the participating schools in the Diaspora. A moving moment occurred when Sinai Akiba dedicated its tree to David Wolpe, wishing him a refuah shlema (a complete recovery), and teens all over the world responded with amen.

Hello Cello

On Feb. 8, Netivot held a desert reception at the home of Jason and Sari Ciment. Netivot is Los Angeles’ first and largest center of women’s Torah learning, and it has programs that encourage women to channel their artistic talents in a spiritual direction. The event honored Netivot’s teachers for strengthening women’s learning in Los Angeles, and it featured a performance by the renowned cellist, Alexander Zhirov.

Cheder Chic

On Jan. 26, Cheder Menachem Lubavitch held its second annual trustees dinner at the Wyndham Bel Age Hotel. At the beginning of the school year, the cheder went through a financial crisis, and the school was uncertain whether it would have enough funds to open again. The trustees took it upon themselves to ensure that the cheder continues teaching Torah to the young boys of Los Angeles.

The trustees banquet was a sumptuous affair with enormous and lavish flower arrangements on every table and a gourmet dinner that put those rubber-chicken evenings to shame. Rabbi Josh Gordon of Chabad in the Valley emceed the event, and 5th District L.A. City Councilman Jack Weiss spoke about how much the Waring Avenue school is contributing to the community.

Cheder Menachem is one of the few old-style Jewish learning institutions in Los Angeles. The boys elementary school teaches students Chumash and Gemara (Talmud) like they did in cheders of old. Most of the day is dedicated to learning Torah, with the boys repeating every Hebrew phrase after their teacher in a singsong voice. The school is also big on positive reinforcement. At Cheder Menachem, reprimands aren’t caustic. Instead, they are encouraging invitations to do better next time around.

More than 200 trustees attended the event, including Motti and Mechal Slodowitz, Yerachmiel and Danielle Forer, Carmen Tellez, Rabbi Chaim Nochum Cunin and Yocheved and Reuven Sherman.

Recycle Mania

We all know that it is better for the planet — and ultimately ourselves — if we separate our plastics and our paper. Yet, sometimes we need a little push to keep us on the recycling track. At Emek Hebrew Academy second-grade boys teacher Marci Lewis and assistant Shawn Moritz decided to get the students excited about recycling with an innovative project. For two weeks, students brought recyclable materials to class, and were assigned to create original inventions out of them, which they displayed in an “Inventors Showcase.”

Adam Sieger, one of the second-graders at Emek, said, “Recycling is important, and it helps the environment because the less trash we throw away, the cleaner the world will be.”

It’s a Kosher World Out there

If you keep kosher, any new kosher product that you see on the supermarket shelf is likely to give you a slight thrill. That is why the Kosher World Expo at the Los Angeles Convention Center was such an exciting three-day event. There were aisles of new kosher items that were free for the sampling. Yummy treats included the nondairy Jackie Mason cheesecakes, Campbell’s new kosher vegetarian vegetable soup, Jerusalem 2 Pizza and the Old City Cafe Burritos. The expo had 3,380 attendees from 18 countries and 25 states.

The expo gave a lot of the smaller exhibitors a chance to expand their business. Event organizers set up meetings with the exhibitors and the buyers from big supermarket chains like Ralphs and Gelson’s, which proved to be a godsend for businesses trying to get a toehold in the market.

“We are a small company, in business for less than two years, and we needed an opportunity to bring our products to the attention of some major buyers,” said Sandy Calin of Debbie & Sandy’s Homemade. “We really wanted to add one major market to our distribution. Not only did we receive an actual order, in writing, from Gelson’s at the show, but we also got commitments from Ralphs and Albertsons.”

Ambassadors for Israel

The emissaries of the education department of the Jewish Agency for Israel have been busy these days.

On Feb. 10, the agency held a mini-Israel festival at The Federation’s Wilshire Boulevard headquarters. The event opened with a memorial ceremony for Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon. It intended to expose secular and religious Jewish teens to Israel, and show them that the Jewish state is a democracy with a rich cultural and art-oriented society that has a world-class high-tech sector. More than 100 teens participated in the event.

At the end, the teens proclaimed that they would be “advocacy ambassadors for Israel” in their schools and youth groups.

Plant a Tree, Save a Car

When I was a kid in Hebrew school, all we did to celebrate TuB’Shevat was send some money to Israel to plant a tree.

Not unimportant, but hardly a High Holiday.

These days, Tu B’Shevat, which begins on sundown Friday, isa much, much bigger deal. Jewish environmentalists have claimed the holiday astheir own, and each year program a nonstop series of events, teach-ins,ceremonies and, of course, tree plantings to drive home the message that beingblue and white also means being green.

In this spirit, I celebrated Tu B’Shevat in two ways sofar: First, I planted oak saplings with my children last Sunday at Camp JCA Shalom’sTu B’Shevat Festival in Malibu.

Then, I called Laurie David.

David, along with columnist Ariana Huffington, raised themoney to produce a series of national television commercials attacking theAmerican addiction to the SUV. Spoofing the Bush administration’s publicservice spots linking drug use to the financing of overseas terror networks,The Detroit Project’s commercials draw a much more direct connection betweenthe gas-guzzling suburban SUV, Arab oil and terror. “Oil money supports someterrible things,” reads the tagline on one ad. “What kind of mileage does yourSUV get?”

David, a board member of the Natural Resource Defense Council,told me she has long been an environmental activist. Sept. 11, 2001, she realized, provided some of the best evidence yet for a saner energy policy. “Ifelt, what should the administration ask of us other than to shop?” she said.”Then the light bulb went off: We have to raise emission standards and stopsending trillions of dollars to unstable governments around the world.”

David convinced her friend, Huffington, to give up theLincoln Navigator (11 mpg) parked in her driveway. (David’s husband, “Seinfeld”co-creator Larry David, already drove a Toyota Prius gas-electric hybrid on hisHBO series, “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and in his off-screen life — 48 mpg).

Huffington wrote a column asking readers to contributeto a national anti-SUV ad campaign, and a flood of responses later, the ads, anda provocative Web site, www.thedetroitproject.com , appeared.

Their wittiness, and the high profile of their creators, havecreated a sensation, taking the message of energy efficiency out of a TomFriedman column and into the heartland. The aim is not just to raise awareness,David said, but to convince Detroit, Congress and the president that realsecurity means more fuel-efficient vehicles.

But does the president need convincing? There’s a passage informer Bush speechwriter David Frum’s new book, “The Right Man: The SurprisePresidency of George Bush” (Random House) in which he recounts a run-in withhis boss:

“I once made the mistake of suggesting to Bush that he usethe phrase ‘cheap energy’ to describe the aims of his energy policy,” Frumwrites.

“‘Cheap energy,’ he answered, ‘was how we’d got into thismess. Every year, from the early 1970s until the mid 1990s, American carsburned less and less oil per mile traveled. Then in about 1995, that progressstopped. Why?’ He answered his own question. ‘Because of the gas-guzzling SUV.And what had made the SUV craze possible?'”

“This time I answered, ‘Um, cheap energy?'”

“He nodded at me. ‘Dismissed.'”

Frum was chastened, but I am confused, and so was David whenI read her the passage. “There’s a disconnect, then,” she said, between the manwhose analysis of the problem is the same as her own, but whose solutions –drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), siding with the autoindustry against higher fuel-efficiency standards — seem to defy logic. Thenagain, during his White House years, President Bill Clinton, with none ofBush’s oil industry connections, didn’t raise fuel-efficiency standards either.

In the holiday spirit, I asked David, a Jew from Long Island,why The Detroit Project should be a Jewish one as well. “If you’re Jewish andyou drive an SUV, you need to think about what you’re doing,” she said. “If youcare about Israel, you have to see how Middle East oil money goes to suicidebombers and terrorist organizations.”

Unconvinced? See reports this week that Saudi money secretlyfinanced a series of anti-Israel ads in the United States.

As I’ve written before, Jewish groups such as AmericanJewish Congress and the Coalition for the Environment and Jewish Life havealready taken up the cause. But on Tu B’Shevat, it bears repeating that, whilethe problems facing the environment are vast, here is one we can eachindividually choose to address.

First, we can get rid of the gas-guzzlers in our garages(some SUVs get decent mileage, some sedans get much worse — you know who youare).

Secondly, we can help guide the debate over the environmentaway from special-interest politics and back to a bipartisan national concern.Remember, Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency and signedinto law the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and Endangered Species Act.

And the ANWR? A creation of Dwight Eisenhower.

So far, Bush’s record on the environment does credit toneither of these men.

Here is this holiday, Tu B’Shevat, which comes once a yearto teach us that protecting the environment is not the charge God gave toDemocrats, activists, Republicans or environmentalists, but to us all.