Celebrate Arbor Day for Jews, BJEs event in Golden Gate Park

Remember as a child bringing $1 or $5 (depending on when you were born) to religious school to buy a tree in Israel? Your money went off to some far-away country and you received a paper certificate in its place stating that you owned a tree in Israel.

Only years later did you realize that when you one day traveled to Israel, locating your tree would be difficult as it was part of a massive grove planted in the desert.

That has been the Tu B'Shevat experience for most American Jews. But not this year.

On Sunday, Feb. 15 masses of Bay Area Jews will gather at the Strybing Arboretum and Botanical Society in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park to celebrate what many Hebrew school teachers affectionately call "the Arbor Day for the Jews."

The afternoon celebration marks the end of the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education's Feast of Jewish Learning. It is held in cooperation with the Strybing Arboretum and Botanical Society, and funded in part by the Fleishhacker Foundation.

The event "is an opportunity for people to do something both educational and celebratory," said Robert Sherman, BJE executive director. "Plus, Tu B'Shevat is an opportunity to draw people's attention to the importance of trees and the interdependence of individuals and the natural world."

The BJE began its Feast of Jewish Learning in 1995. After a week highlighting the range of Jewish learning opportunities in the Bay Area, the Feast culminates with a large Jewish celebration open to all.

This year's Tu B'Shevat event starts with group singing, moving into a number of activity choices.

Young children and their families can visit different "stations" to create art projects with natural materials, play games, listen to stories, and plant seeds in cups to take home. Meanwhile, adults can join the Jewish Community Federation's Young Adult Division in repairing oak trees in the park.

According to Lisa Taback, JCF director of young leadership, a similar project at Stanford University "met with great success."

YAD members engaged in weeding, fertilizing, seeding and general environmental cleanup. They will do the same at Golden Gate Park.

"When we heard about the event, we wanted to do something special," Taback said. "It's an opportunity for young Jewish people to be involved in the community as a whole, and to show that we are also a community performing mitzvot."

The day will conclude with more singing and the distribution of snacks and gifts. Besides returning home with bags filled with fruits, nuts and seeds for growing, families will also leave with the tools to create their own Tu B'Shevat celebrations.

The BJE has created a booklet filled with prayers, songs, earth-wise activities and directions for a Tu B'Shevat seder. It is the latest in a series of booklets created for several Feast celebrations.

For example, two years ago participants received candles, a spice box and a similar booklet following a community havdallah ceremony in Golden Gate Park.

Kerin Lieberman, BJE associate director, said the how-to booklets will be sent to affiliated Sunday schools and parents of children in early childhood programs and were passed out to volunteers at the JCF's Super Sunday fund-raiser earlier this week.

"The community celebrations are learning experiences. Hopefully the booklets will find their way into families' libraries as something to refer back to," Lieberman said. "We're hoping that the families will give the material a life beyond an event."