Tu B’Shvat: Celebrating Shared Roots
In this generation, the holiday of Tu B’Shvat may be more important than ever. Where Jews traditionally ate dried fruits of the Land of Israel to demonstrate our yearning to return, today we also eat ripe fruits, to illustrate the abundance and blessing apparent in our return to Zion. Together, the preserved fruit and the fresh fruit symbolize how, after a 2,000-year journey in exile, we are growing and flourishing; how we remain planted in the traditions of our past and rooted firmly in the rich soil of our heritage.
Ohr Torah Stone’s Yachad Program for Jewish Identity is cultivating our people’s continued growth through nourishing and nurturing the Jewish identity and values which are common to us all. “Our Yachad coordinators utilize the spirit of the Jewish holidays to bring together families who might not otherwise interact with one another,” explains the program’s director, Betzalel Safra. “Even Israelis who seem at first glance to have nothing in common share common roots and heritage.”
Across Israel, the Yachad Program’s Jewish Identity Coordinators engaged thousands of Israelis in planting of saplings, Tu B’Shvat “happenings,” and festive Tu B’shvat seders.
“Most of our facilitators actually ran more than one seder,” reports Safra. “Beyond the communal gatherings, many of our coordinators also ran seders for specific populations in their midst; Russian, Amharic or Spanish-speakers, people with special needs, seniors adults, new immigrants, singles, children and mixed religious-secular gatherings also took place.”
In addition to food, the seders featured four cups of wine ranging from white to red, in a nod to hibernation, reawakening and gradual strengthening of life force. “Tu B’Shvat represents nature’s spring renewal; as such, it has become a day of spiritual renewal for the Jewish people, representing a seasonal turning point, when the harshness of winter begins to wane,” says Safra. “Freezing winds may blow outside, but inside the tree, spring has sprung. It is a call for spiritual awakening and the realization of one’s potential – themes that speak to us all, no matter what our background.”
“Sometimes Israel feels like a divided country, agrees Galit Hamber, the Yachad Program’s coordinator in Netanya. “Everyone is concerned about the external threats to the country’s survival, but the divisions separating one Jew from another within the state are equally troubling, and often overlooked. One of the things we do through Yachad is to bring together Jews from different backgrounds in informal settings, where they can comfortably share Jewish experiences. Not only are unaffiliated Israelis given the opportunity to celebrate and learn about the holiday, but ultimately stronger Jewish communities are being built.
“The idea is to emphasize the ways in which we are the same, rather than the ways in which we are different,” she says, relating that her group raised a glass to Tu B’Shvat, followed by three other toasts: the past – in which many of the older attendees recalled their dreams of Israel and their struggles in reaching this country; the present, in which everyone revealed what they loved most about the country; and of course, the future, marked by participants’ hopes, dreams, prayers and blessings.
“Tu B’Shvat can be celebrated by all sectors of society – religious and secular,” affirms Aryeh Engleman, veteran Yachad coordinator in Petach Tikva. “Everyone enjoys eating fruit, planting trees and deepening their connection to the land; as such, it’s a wonderful opportunity for everyone to connect with one other, with the land and with the wonderful values brought forth by this day.
“A whole orange is made up of different segments,” he explains. “So too is the Jewish people; one whole consisting of many segments. And yet, at the end of the day, we are all part of one fruit, all wrapped in the same peel that is our history, heritage and destiny.”
Extended Family Trees
Yossi Duvdevani, the Yachad facilitator in Azur, ran concurrent programs for parents and children, bringing them together for a concluding seder with all the fruits they could eat. Each child was given a paper leaf to cut out and decorate, on which they wrote their personal wishes and prayers; the parents, meanwhile, were presented with a large card cut out of a tree upon which they wrote the ideals they felt are needed to form a cohesive community, such as mutual respect, patience or unity. When the children and parents reunited, the leaves on which the children wrote their wishes were added to the parents’ ‘ideals trunk,’ forming one solid tree, symbolically bringing individuals and families closer together.
And Racheli Semo, Yachad’s coordinator in Jerusalem’s Givat Massuah neighborhood, also focused on the tree as a symbol of extended family. In what has already become an annual tradition, she brought 65 fourth grade students from the local secular school celebrated the holiday or growth and renewal with 65 senior residents of a nearby home for the aged.
“What can saplings and old trees learn from one another?” asked Semo, in the spirit of the holiday. “Young trees are soft and fragile, but they are full of promise; one day they will grow branches and they will bear fruit. In the meantime, they can look to the mighty oaks in their family or community trees and take shade from the harsh elements, lean on their sturdy trunks, enjoy their nourishing and refreshing fruits and know that the waters of life flow in their deeply entrenched roots.”
The encounter was part of Project Kirva – meaning ‘closeness’ – a larger initiative Semo established in the community a year-and-a-half ago, in which fourth graders in the local secular school come to terms with old age, studying the Jewish approach to seniors in theory and bonding with them in practice. During the first few months of the year, the pupils delve into the ramifications of aging, both positive and negative. After a while, they’re assigned projects relating to the elderly within their own families, and toward the middle of the year, they adopt a grandparent from the old age home, with whom they meet regularly for joint learning, art projects and holiday celebrations.
“As a Yachad facilitator, Racheli is very attuned to the dismantling of walls between the secular and the religious, and she’s always looking for ways to unify the community by running events surrounding our shared Jewish background,” says Carmella, the schoolteacher who first co-launched the Kirva Project with Semo in 2011. “This project was another opportunity to shatter misconceptions, to imbue our youth with honest Jewish values, and to build a strong intergenerational community. I see the results with my own eyes, through the fourth graders who are now finishing high school. The change in their outlook will be everlasting.”