Tu BShevat seder Sunday to mark Jewish Earth Day

The Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life has battled in the courts and on the streets to protect natural resources.

Sunday, the group will celebrate the inspiration of its efforts.

The community is invited to the second Tu B'Shevat community seder at 6 p.m. Sunday at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

Trees, donated by Friends of the Urban Forests, will be bedecked with Torahs to symbolize "protection of our forests, since trees are what Tu B'Shevat is all about," said Saskia Swenson, Bay Area program director of COEJL.

COEJL, based nationally in New York, has stretched its own boughs wide in protection of that symbol of Jewish life and continuity.

Tu B'Shevat, or the "New Year of Trees," begins at sundown today.

"In recent years, Jewish communities have begun to celebrate Tu B'Shevat as a Jewish Earth Day — organizing seders, tree-plantings, ecological restoration activities and educational events, expressing a Jewish commitment to protecting the earth," said Mark Jacobs, COEJL's national director.

In biblical times, 10 percent of the harvest was set aside for the poor each year. Tu B'Shevat — literally, the 15th of the month of Shevat — marked the start of a new fiscal year.

In the 17th century, "Jewish mystics created a Tu B'Shevat seder and Haggadah, based on the 'four worlds' of action, emotion, thought and spirit," said Swenson, who is based in Oakland. "Using the mythical approach, we, too, will study text and talk about it."

The first Tu B'Shevat seder drew about 180 from around the Bay Area, and organizers expect at least that many this year.

The event is a team effort between the Jewish Community Relations Council, the New Israel Fund, the Israel Center of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, "and us," said Swenson.

The planning process offered plenty of opportunities to get started on the discussion, since the group used only recycled paper and opted to borrow plates instead of using paper or plastic dishes.

"I would hear, 'Gosh, it would be so much easier to use disposable things.' But we talked a lot about the importance of practicing what we preach in terms of sustainability," Swenson said. "We went out and bought organic produce together."

Educating comes naturally to Swenson, a native of northern Vermont. Serving COEJL has allowed her to meld her two passions: Judaism and the environment.

As director of the Center for Eco-Literacy in Berkeley, she prepared materials for school programs, helped students plant gardens, reforest creeks — and, in the process, build community. At the same time, she taught Jewish studies to youngsters at Kehilla Community Synagogue in Berkeley and Temple Isaiah in Lafayette.

For a child who grew up as Swenson did, near farmlands, a river, 30 acres of forest "and no television," an awe for nature is almost inevitable.

"I would come home from school, and immediately tumble outdoors with my dog," she said. "When milkweeds were blooming, I would have a certain game I played. When dandelions were in bloom, I'd make dolls out of them." In the warm weather, she would "throw a stick in the river, then plunge in and watch it drift to the bottom." She watched in amazement when that river flooded and waves of water swept over the cornfields.

But when she landed in Oakland, she discovered that the Bay Area does not afford those opportunities.

Moreover, she added "people are unlikely to want to protect the environment unless they have first connected with it. Taking protective action comes naturally once you feel that, and it comes out of a sense of fullness rather than anxiety."

To that end, COEJL holds "eco-Shabbat" services in members' yards and gardens, in Oakland's Redwood Park and by Marin's Bass Lake.

"We get out into nature so that transformation can occur," she said. "It gives juice to your principles."

But while members may commune with nature, they also go toe-to-toe with business and political leaders, and they mean to win major protections.

They lobbied Home Depot successfully to stop drawing lumber from endangered forests, and testified against a Maxxam logging plan for the Headwaters Forest in Humboldt County.

"The government reconsidered," she said happily.

COEJL events, she added, show unaffiliated Jewish activists that "a deep love of the environment is not outside Judaism. But you wouldn't know unless somebody showed you — you wouldn't know where to look."

Leading small-group discussions at this year's seder will be Rabbis Victor and Nadia Gross of the Oakland-based Aquarian Minyan, Michael Lerner of Beyt Tikkun in San Francisco, Dan Goldblatt of Beth Chaim Congregation in Danville, and Henry Shreibman, head of schools at Brandeis Hillel Jewish Day School in San Francisco and San Rafael.

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.