As a child, Eric Goldberg remembers planting trees in plastic cups and attending mini-seders as part of religious school lessons on Tu B'Shevat.
Now a rabbi at the same childhood synagogue, Shir Ami-Bucks County Jewish Congregation, Goldberg will help lead a seder this week intended not just for kids, but the entire congregation.
As the world has grown more conscious of the environment, the minor holiday celebrating the birthday of trees has blossomed into a popular peg for Israel and eco-education. Aside from collecting charity for the Jewish National Fund to plant trees in Israel, synagogues around the area host seders and other activities designed to bring the whole community into the celebration.
"We are really looking for people who may never have experienced this in their life before," said Goldberg, in the hope that Tu B'Shevat events will deepen their connection to Jewish ritual and Israel.
In biblical times, Tu B'Shevat served as the annual date when farmers recorded the ages of their trees in order to keep track of taxes and orlah — the first three years when a tree's fruit was considered God's property and not to be eaten. Later, mystics developed a seder to reflect their connection to Israel and God's relationship to the world. The holiday gained renewed interest even before the State of Israel was created, as planting trees became a symbol for Jewish attachment to Israel.
Tu B'Shevat celebrations picked up in the States following the creation of Earth Day in 1970.
Gail Becker, executive director of Doylestown's Temple Judea of Bucks County, recalled holding seders at her synagogue off and on for two decades. While they're not serving a full meal this year, clergy plan to hold a mini-seder before Shabbat services Friday featuring fruits and nuts grown on trees and four cups of wine. The first cup is white, then red is added to each successive cup to represent the changes in the seasons.
On Feb. 7, the eve of the holiday marks the first Tu B'Shevat event in the city for Hazon, a national nonprofit promoting sustainable environmental practices. About 200 people are expected to attend a gourmet, multicourse dinner and live auction at the National Museum of American Jewish History.
The New York-based agency has been building a presence here since it began coordinating with local volunteers four years ago to run CSAs, or community supported agriculture programs, with synagogues in South Jersey, Elkins Park, the Main Line and, most recently, Center City. More than a hundred Hazon supporters showed up for a farm-to-table Sukkot fundraiser in 2010 and a Lag B'Omer barbecue in Medford, N.J., last February.
Like the Sukkot supper, local chefs Michael Solomonov and Jon Weinrott will prepare the kosher meal, for which attendees will pay $180 each.
Valerie Yasner, one of the event chairs, said it would remind people that "trees give us so much and we are so dependent on them, and in our disconnected lives we forget that."
At some synagogues in the area, Tu B'Shevat seders have become an annual highlight.
Cantor Amy Levy brought the tradition from her previous synagogue when she came to Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park eight years ago.
This year, she said, they're getting extra creative with a multi-faceted "walk through the seasons" seder and Shabbat service so that congregants can experience the liturgy in a way that's "fresh and alive." Middle and high school students will read prayers they wrote and reflections on what it means to feel scarcity. The event will also include songs, Israeli folk dances and a PowerPoint presentation.
"It really gives us an opportunity to explore our connection to the earth both spiritually and in a social action way," Levy said. "Ultimately, we hope that people will end up with a deeper connection as a person to their responsibility to the earth and that intrinsic sense of being connected to everything."
Old York Road Temple-Beth Am in Abington began hosting a full-blown seder meal before Hebrew school a few years ago, drawing more than 160 parents and students. "It's more than even just celebrating the holiday, but it makes it easy to come and be together at the synagogue," explained Karen Kantor, executive director.
Congregants have gotten into it, too.
One volunteer made a huge tree out of papier-mâché for the lobby, and decorated it with pictures from the seder. Another has donated parsley seeds that the students plant and then harvest for Passover.
The holiday has probably become a bigger deal because of the increased concern over both the environment and the lack of the younger generation's ties to Israel, Kantor said.
In fact, they focus more on Israel because today's youth are being raised with more environmental awareness than their parents or grandparents, added education director Mimi Polin Ferraro. For example, she said, last year when the holiday fell just a few months after the major forest fire in the Carmel Mountains, the kids raised more than $1,000 to donate to JNF to replant trees.
Shir Ami hadn't done a community seder for several years, but decided to reinstate it after requests from congregants, said executive director Hilary Leboff. They'll provide a chicken meal, with potluck sides, before Shabbat services this week.
Said Goldberg, the rabbi: "It's a reminder to us as Jews that although we have farmers who plant trees and our ancestors have done wonderful things to cultivate these trees and plants, we're always partners with God in seeing the literal fruits."