Tight-knit Camp Towanga community mourns tragedy

When a massive oak tree toppled over on a stage where five counselors were having breakfast at Camp Tawonga, killing one and severely injuring two others, news of the tragedy quickly rippled across the Bay Area Jewish community.

Founded in the 1920s, the camp located near Yosemite National Park is a pillar of California Jewish life, and thousands of Bay Area Jews are among its alumni.

The death of Annais Rittenberg, 21, a senior at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and an art counselor at Towanga, in the July 3 accident hit close to home.

“Tawonga has been the main Jewish part of my life,” said Moorea Blythe, 18, a counselor at the camp.

In the Bay Area, which has among the lowest affiliation rates of any major Jewish community, Tawonga’s pluralist, nondenominational approach has been a key to its success. Many campers come from homes that are unaffiliated with a synagogue or Jewish institution, and the camp’s philosophy reflects the population.

Tucked into a forest adjacent to Yosemite, Towanga features many of the standard trappings typical of summer camps. But its pluralistic culture emphasizes spirituality over organized prayer and allows campers significant leeway in crafting their own approach to Jewish life.

“Maybe some like to pray, others like to connect to their spirituality through nature,” Jamie Simon, the camp director, told JTA. “We want to offer a lot of different modalities for connections to Judaism, and hopefully something will ring true for each child.”

The area where the camp is located is also near and dear to the hearts of Bay Area Jews.

At San Francisco’s Temple Sherith Israel, a stained-glass window installed in 1905 depicts Moses bringing the tablets bearing the Ten Commandments down from El Capitan, the vertical rock formation towering over the Yosemite Valley.

Hannah Horowitz grew up north of San Francisco in an area with few Jews. A former camper and counselor at Towanga, she said the camp helped her connect to nature and make connections with other Jewish youth.

“For the first time, I had a whole community of Jewish peers that I was really close with,” Horowitz said.

Joni Gore had a similar experience. She grew up attending a Conservative congregation, but only at Tawonga was she was able to explore Judaism on her own terms, she said.

“Tawonga helped shape my Judaism by making me focus more on a cultural aspect and on what kind of a person I wanted to be, not necessarily that I have to go to synagogue every Saturday,” Gore said.

David Waksberg, CEO of Jewish Learning Works, San Francisco’s board of Jewish education, said the camp has been successful at helping the campers find their Jewish identity meaningful.

“Tawonga has done a great job in delivering Jewish learning in an experiential way to northern California families in ways that are authentic and meaningful to people here,” he said.

Falling tree at Calif. summer camp kills counselor

A tree fell through a dining hall at a Jewish summer camp in Northern California, killing one and requiring four others to be airlifted to a nearby hospital.

NBC News reported that a counselor, Annais Rittenberg, was killed.

A Cal Fire spokesman, Daniel Berlant, posted on Twitter that emergency crews were responding to a “mass casualty” event on Wednesday at Camp Tawonga, with 20 reported injuries, the Los Angeles Times reported.

There were conflicting reports as to whether any children were injured in the incident. Gregg Rubenstein, director of finance for the camp, told The Associated Press that the staff was still assessing the situation but no campers were among the injured.

A spokesman for the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office, Sgt. Jim Oliver, told myMotherLode.com that children had been trapped under the tree but were not necessarily injured.

Founded in 1925, Camp Tawonga is located near Yosemite National Park and headquartered in San Francisco.

Israel to plant more than 3,000 trees to memorialize Newtown victims

More than 2,000 people have donated funds to plant a grove of more than 3,000 trees in Israel in memory of the victims of the Newtown shooting.

Hadassah has raised more than $61,000 toward the planting of trees honoring the 26 victims of the Dec. 14 massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. The trees will be part of the Beersheva River Park, a 1,700-acre water, environmental and commercial area being constructed by the Jewish National Fund in Israel’s desert city.

The idea for the Newtown grove grew from a request made by Veronique Pozner, whose son, Noah, was the only Jewish victim of the shooting at the Connecticut school. Pozner said memorial contributions could be directed toward the planting of trees in Israel.

The president of Hadassah, Marcie Natan, said her organization decided quickly that it wanted to honor all the victims of the massacre, not just Noah.

“Everybody was so affected by the massacre and wanted to do something to express their solidarity with the families,” Natan told JTA. “Each of us have had the experience of non-Jews who have found it very meaningful when a tree is planted in the Holy Land. We felt no one would be offended by this and we thought it would be a very appropriate way to honor the memory of the victims.”

The trees will be planted in a section of the park that Hadassah already had committed to populating with trees. At $18 per tree, the gifts in memory of the Newtown victims thus far are enough to cover more than 3,300 trees.

Sapling from Anne Frank’s tree to be planted at Yad Vashem

A sapling from the chestnut tree that Anne Frank wrote about in her diary will be planted at Yad Vashem.

The sapling, donated by The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, was taken from the 150-year-old tree that was toppled by a storm in August 2010. A fungus and insect infestation had weakened the tree.

At Yad Vashem, the sapling will be planted near the Children’s Memorial and International School for Holocaust Studies. Among those scheduled to attend the ceremony is Hanna Pick, a Holocaust survivor and friend of Anne Frank.

Saplings have been sent to institutions around the world.

A global campaign to save the rotting tree was launched in 2007 after Amsterdam officials deemed it a safety hazard. City workers caged the trunk in a steel structure to protect it, but the storm proved too strong.

Anne Frank made several references to the tree in her famous diary, which she kept for the two years she and her family hid in the attic. The last entry about the tree, on May 13, 1944, said that “Our chestnut tree is in full bloom. It’s covered with leaves and is even more beautiful than last year.” It reportedly cheered up Anne and gave her hope for the future.

Anne Frank died at Bergen-Belsen in March 1945.

Israel offers good-will gestures for Christmas

Christian Palestinian residents of the West Bank will be allowed to enter Israel, including overnight, for Christmas.

The gesture is among several being implemented by Israel’s military and Civil Administration for Palestinians celebrating the holiday.

Also, some 300 Christian Palestinians will be allowed to go to Ben Gurion Airport, subject to a security check; 500 Christian Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip over the age of 35 will be permitted entry into the West Bank and into Israel for religious and family gatherings subject to a security clearance; and 200 Christian residents of Arab countries will be permitted to enter the West Bank for the holiday.

Thousands of pilgrims are expected to visit the West Bank city of Bethlehem during the Christmas season. Christmas ceremonies will take place in accordance with the “Status-Quo Principle,” relating to the ceremonial traditions established in years past, according to the Israel Defense Forces.

Meanwhile, the Israeli city of Haifa unveiled in its city center a 38-foot Christmas tree made of recycled water bottles and other plastic objects. The tree, comprised of 5,480 recycled bottles and illuminated by LED-certified lights, was created by Israeli designer Hadas Itzcovitch and her father, artist Ernest Itzcovitch, to raise awareness of environmental issues.

Anne Frank’s tree collapses

The giant chestnut tree that Anne Frank wrote about several times in her diary collapsed in stormy weather.

The tree, at more than 150 years old, had developed a fungus that weakened it, and it fell over Monday in heavy wind and rain, according to reports. Weighing about 27 tons, the tree was encased in a steel harness nearly two years ago to keep it upright. Its trunk reportedly snapped about three feet from the ground.

“It broke off like a match,” a spokesman for the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam told Reuters. The Anne Frank House was not hit, though several neighboring structures were said to be damaged.

Saplings taken from the tree have been planted around the world. A sapling from the tree reportedly will be planted in its place.

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 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.

Reggae grows another Jewish branch

One of the most meaningful Jewish gifts would have to be the planting of an elan, Hebrew for tree, in Israel in one’s honor.

And in the case of Los Angeles-born musician Elan, no other name would suit him quite as well.

His reggae and dancehall-inspired music has firmly planted him in the genre, and after a handful of years fronting for Bob Marley’s mighty musical outfit, The Wailers, Elan is reaching out to audiences worldwide with his mid-2006 debut solo release, “Together as One.”

Elan Antias, 31, was born in Los Angeles’ Fairfax district to a Sephardic Moroccan father and an Ashkenazic American mother.

“Because of my parents’ different Jewish backgrounds, I got to eat gefilte and hot fish,” Elan said with a laugh.

The clashing cultures at home inspired Elan’s interest in world music. At 20, he was introduced to the head of A & R at Virgin Records.

“My two friends had told this guy that I was a singer and he just assumed that I was a professional,” Elan recalled. “The truth was, they’d only heard me singing for fun. I didn’t have anything recorded, so at the meeting I told him what I would like to do, which was a mixture of roots and dance hall.”

While under deadline to produce a demo for the music exec, Elan ran into The Wailers’ longtime guitarist Al Anderson. Anderson was so impressed with the way Elan could duplicate the emotional tenor of Bob Marley’s vocals that he asked Elan to tour with The Wailers.

Elan performed his first show with the band in front of 6,000 people without so much as a single rehearsal, and he stayed as their singer for three years touring the world.

In 2003, Elan recorded a reggae-inspired version of Bryan Ferry’s 1985 hit, “Slave to Love,” for the Adam Sandler film, “50 First Dates.” Around that same time, Elan got to know Tony Kanal, the London-born bass player for the O.C. pop group, No Doubt. The two made fast friends and vowed to work together. When No Doubt went on hiatus in 2003, Kanal signed Elan to his Kingsbury record label and the two got to work on “Together as One,” an album that incorporates their common love for reggae, dancehall and alternative ’80s music.

Kanal and Elan enlisted the talents of such artists as Sly and Robbie, Fatis, DJ Cutty Ranks and even Gwen Stefani, the singer for No Doubt. The result is a tantalizing gem filled with beats, words and feelings that properly represent a genre that has suffered from a lack of commercial success ever since Bob Marley’s untimely death.

The second single to be released from the album will be the title track, and Elan is hoping to enlist the support of organizations like Amnesty International to put together a video for the song that depicts positive footage of people helping others in need. And despite his incredible success, which he passionately credits to God, Elan still lives in the Fairfax district where he grew up, perhaps proving that the roots of any tree are always a solidifying force in life.

Elan will perform a free concert in the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf at 3726 S. Figueroa St. on Sat. Jan. 13, 2 p.m., after the USC-UCLA basketball game.

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 www.shalominstitute.com.

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.

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


Draw a Picture Win A Tree

“For we are as the trees of the field; this means that our life depends on the trees.” — Sifre Judges 23

To participate in The Jewish Journal’s First Tu B’Shevat Art Contest, create a picture that you believe best depicts the quote above. Winners will be judged on creativity and originality. You may use any medium you wish. The prize? Your work of art reproduced in The Jewish Journal and a live, fruit-bearing tree courtesy of TreePeople.

The three contest categories are ages 2-5; 6-9 and 10-13. Please send us your entry by March 2, 2001. Be sure to put the artist’s name, address, phone number and age on the back of each entry. Only entries that come with a self-addressed stamped envelope will be returned.

Questions? E-mail us ateditorial@jewishjournal.com. Have a wonderful Tu B’Shevat!