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Tu Bishvat Plants Deep Roots in Our Environment

In the dead of winter, cherry blossoms bloom in Brooklyn, New York. And in the Midwest, the unseasonably mild weather allows Jack to still wear gym shorts when he plays basketball in the driveway. Then again, he likes to trudge barefoot in the snow.

Seems innocent enough, but truthfully I wonder if this bizarre temperature pattern is a subtle warning sign that our environment is in trouble. After watching former vice president Al Gore’s global warming documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” which explores the effects of arctic melt rates, devastating heat waves, and dangerous changes in ocean currents, I’m convinced that our children’s future is at risk if we don’t clean up our act, literally. Scientific buzz words, like global warming, climate changing, and greenhouse effect are no longer limited to a political agenda, but determine our survival. Since the beginning, Judaism has taught us to appreciate and take care of our intricate ecosystem that God has given to us, and just recently the rest of the world is listening.

With Tu BiShvat, or Jewish Earth Day, around the corner, now more than ever is the time to educate ourselves about the interdependence between trees and human and animal life. We require oxygen and produce carbon dioxide; trees and other plants require carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. When we destroy forested land, we lose forms of life.
No wonder the Torah is called “a tree of life for them that hold fast to it.” It’s our job as parents to plant the seeds of knowledge when it comes to environment-friendly habits.

So what can we do today to improve our world tomorrow? According to the National Resources Defense Council, if we all recycle our Sunday newspapers, we could save more than 500,000 trees every week. There’s a lot more we can do, too, including recycle everything from newspapers and magazines to plastic containers and motor oil and many more common household items that are listed in the book “50 Simple Things You Can Do To Save The Earth.” For example:
*Remind your children to turn off the lights and computer when they leave a room. According to the World Resources Institute, the more electricity we use the more industrial emissions we generate, contributing heavily to problems like the greenhouse effect and acid rain.
*Share a ride and carpool to soccer games and other activities. If each commuter car carries just one more person, we’d save 600,000 gallons of gasoline a day and prevent 12 million pounds of carbon dioxide from polluting the atmosphere.
*Styrofoam, which is actually ploystyrene foam and made from a known carcinogen benzene, is completely non-biodegradable and wastes already limited space in landfills. Even 500 years from now, that foam cup that held your
cappuccino this morning might still sit on the Earth’s surface. Even worse, it can float in the water and kill marine life.
*Get a grip on faucets and turn off tap water while you brush teeth, shave, and hand wash dishes. A household can save up to 20,000 gallons of water each year by doing so.
*Instead of plastic or paper grocery bags, re-use canvas tote bags when you shop. It takes one 15- to 20-year old tree to make enough paper for only 700 grocery bags. Plastic bags aren’t degradable and are made from petroleum, a nonrenewable resource. Plus, plastic bags wind up in the ocean and kill marine animals because they get tangled up in the trash bags and swallow them.
*Last, but not least, plant trees, which has been the major custom of Tu Bishvat for thousands of years. Americans use 50 million tons of paper annually, which means that we consume more than 850 million trees.

As we become more aware of our global environmental problems, Tu Bishvat has evolved from merely a marker on the calendar to a national celebration of our Jewish heritage and the preservation of our natural resources. By the way, the name Tu BiShvat is the Hebrew abbreviation of tet and vav, which adds up to fifteen. So Tu BiShvat literally means “the fifteenth of the Hebrew month of Shevat.”

Also known as the “birthday of the trees,” Tu Bishvat is first mentioned in the Mishnah, where the rabbis explain to ancient farmers that Tu Bishvat is the New Year for trees, just as Rosh Hashanah is the New Year for people. The date makes perfect sense because the majority of the annual rainfall in Israel typically occurs after mid-winter (usually in February) when the saturated soil is just ripe for planting new trees.

In the late 19th century, when Zionist pioneers began returning to their ancestral homeland, Tu Bishvat became an opportunity to repair and restore the once heavily forested and fertile land that was left a barren desert after centuries of war and destruction. New trees were planted and the ecology of the state of Israel flourished once again.

To this day, Jews everywhere are responsible for two homes—Israel and planet earth. It’s a mitzvah to plant trees in Israel, and many American and European Jews contribute money to the Jewish National Fund (JNF) in honor of their children or to commemorate a special event, such as a birthday or Bar or Bat Mitzvah. For more information on JNF, call 800-542-8733 or visit www. jnf.org.

Likewise, the world’s disappearing rainforests need our immediate attention. The tropical rainforests, located in a narrow region near the equator in Africa, South and Central America, and Asia make up only two percent of the earth’s surface, yet half the world’s wild plant, animal and insect species live there. Only one percent of these species has ever been studied, leaving undiscovered a possible cure for cancer in an unknown plant. If you want to find out more about how you can help support countries with rainforests, contact The Rainforest Action Network, at 425-398-4404 or visit www.ran.org.

Here at home, even though it’s not quite Spring in St. Louis, your family still can makes plans to plant a tree at a local park, school, or in your own yard when the ground is ready. If you don’t have a green thumb and aren’t sure how to get started, call or visit a local nursery, horticultural society, Shaw Nature Reserve, or the Missouri Botanical Gardens. Meanwhile, you can grow parsley indoors in preparation for your Passover seder.

Finally, a Jewish holiday isn’t complete without a feast. So to find out how to throw a fruit party or host a Tu Bishvat seder with delicacies reminiscent of Israel, read next week’s column.

“Mishegas of Motherhood” is the creation of Ellie S. Grossman, a St. Louis freelance writer and stay-at-home-mom who never stays home. Her stories are inspired by the real life of her family, including her two children, toy poodle named Luci, and her husband, but not necessarily in that order. Feel free to send any comments, prayers or recipes to ellie@mishegasofmotherhood.com.