Monthly Archives: February 2020

Tu B’Shevat! Time to plant a tree or two!

See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it’” (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah, 1 on Ecclesiastes 7:13)

Would you like to celebrate Tu B’Shevat in a meaningful way? Plant a tree—or two—or be part of the Trillion Tree Campaign. No matter how many you plant, you will be doing your part for the environment.

Although there are still doubters, climate change is a real threat to our future. According to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world has 11 years to take dramatic policy action and shift away from fossil fuels to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Reports like that keep me up at night.

In his 2019 book Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? ,Bill McKibbon describes the present as a bleak moment in human history — and we’ll either confront that bleakness or watch the civilization our forebears built slip away. Okay, that information keeps me up at night AND gives me nightmares!

I can despair, or I can take action. As Jew, I am called to the social justice theology of Tikkun olam, the perfecting or the repairing of the world. This principal keeps me strongly anchored to my religion. Full disclosure: When I attend services, I love the music and the flow of the prayers. Often, however, prayers that praise God are not as important to me as prayers that call me to action. And some holidays call us to action more than others. One such holiday is Tu B’Shevat. 

Long before the first Earth Day in 1971, long before the first American Arbor Day was held in Nebraska in 1872, and long before the Spanish village of Mondoñedo held its first arbor plantation festival in the world in 1594, Jews celebrated Tu B’Shevat The holiday, which originated in the Talmud, was based on the date chosen for calculating the agricultural cycle of taking tithes from the produce of the trees, which were brought as first-fruit offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem. Although the holiday fell out of practice after the destruction of the Second Temple, kabbalists in the Middle Ages revived the holiday, adding the practice of holding a seder in which Biblical foods, including wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates, are eaten.

For those of us who care deeply about the future of our planet, 

Tu Bishvat offers a Jewish connection to contemporary ecological issues. Modern Jews view the holiday as the opportunity to educate Jews about their tradition’s advocacy of responsible stewardship of God’s creation, manifested in ecological activism. 

And one such way is to plant trees. Many American and European Jews observe Tu Bishvat by contributing money to the Jewish National Fund, an organization devoted to reforesting Israel.Founded in 1901 to buy and develop land in what was then the Ottoman Palestine, the JNF has planted over 240 million trees in Israel along with other environmental achievements including the building and development of dams, reservoirs, and parks.

More recently, planting trees has taken on a global focus. Inspired by Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement whose goal included organizing women in rural Kenya to plant trees, the Trillion Tree Campaign has already resulted in the planting of 13.6 billion trees in 193 countries. 

According to a recent study released by Dr. Thomas Crowther and fellow scientists at ETH Zurich, a Swiss University, planting billions of trees across the world is one of the biggest and cheapest ways of taking CO2 out of the atmosphere to tackle the climate crisis. As trees grow, they absorb and store the carbon dioxide emissions that are driving global heating. New research estimates that a worldwide planting program could remove two-thirds of all the emissions from human activities that remain in the atmosphere today.

According to Crowther, the impact of planting billions of trees across the world is “mind-blowing.”one of the biggest and cheapest ways of taking CO2 out of the atmosphere to tackle the climate crisis. Best of all, it is “available now, it is the cheapest one possible and every one of us can get involved.”

In January 2020, members of the World Economic Forum, which was held in Davos, Switzerland, announced the creation of 1t.org, aimed to unite and promote reforestation efforts worldwide. It will  several other established initiatives including the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021 -2030; the Bonn Challenge, Trillion Trees Initiative, and the Global Partnership on Forest and Landscape Restoration.Even President Trump, while a sceptic of climate change, has signed on, stating he wanted to show “strong leadership in restoring, growing and better managing our trees and our forests.” 

I am not naive enough to believe that my making contributions to JNF or other agencies committed to reforestation will single-handedly solve the climate crisis. I will do my best to further reduce my carbon footprint by driving a hybrid car, bundling errands that require driving to use the least amount of fuel, and using energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs. I will continue to recycle despite changes in recent policies in many areas that limit what we can put in our bins. (I still feel guilty every time I throw plastic and glass containers in the garbage!) I will continue to read, study, write and advocate for the environment. And I will vote for politicians who share my concerns for our planet.

“It’s the little things citizens do. That’s what will make the difference,” stated Wangari Maathai, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her environmental efforts. “My little thing is planting trees.” If we can choose to do our own “little thing,” we may be able to keep our planet healthy. After all, as expressed in a popular meme, “There Is No Planet B. “

Sources: 

First published in Jewish World. February 6,, 2020.

Storm lover wakes up to the realization that life is fragile

Eli Helfand 1919-2019

When I was six years old, I loved summer storms. As the sky turned dark, the thunder clapped, and the lighting shot across the sky, I would watch from the safety of our living room window. My mother assured me that the noise was just God bowling.

When I was sixteen, I loved summer storms. By that time, my parents had purchased a cottage on Willsboro Bay in Upstate New York  From the safety of our porch,  I would watch the rain come down in sheets and the waves rock our boat that was moored 200 yards off shore. 

When we moved to Florida, I still loved summer storms. But I soon learned to respect their intensity and duration. Our state has as many as 100 stormy days a year, and our climate means that these storms can happen any month of the year. Florida also has be dubious honor of being the lightning capital of the United States. I have been witness to their fury again and again from the safety of our lanai. And on several occasions, I have had to take shelter quickly as the weather changed too quickly for me to realize what was coming. 

But now, almost five years after our move, I now see these storms as a reminder as to how fragile our lives can be.

Last July, on what started out to be a beautiful July day a group of fellow residents were playing golf on the course in our 55+ community, Very suddenly, the sky darkened as huge black clouds moved in. The golfers, all seasoned Florida residents, knew what to do. They abandoned their game and headed for their golf carts and shelter. 

It was too late. A bolt of lightning struck two of the men. One was thrown to the ground, shaken but okay. The second person was struck full force, and the electric travelled through his body. By the time he was brought the the hospital, he was brain dead. The doctors kept him on life support long enough for his devastated wife and children to say their good byes. 

What are the chances of getting hit by lightning? According to Wikipedia, it is one in 700,000. For my neighbor, the odds were 1:1. 

What happened that fateful morning? Did they give each other a kiss before he headed out the door? And what were their last words to one another. “I love you! See you later.”Or was their conversation ordinary and mundane. “We need to pick up some milk” or “The Red Sox are playing the Yankees tonight.” Or were their last words those that she regretted? “You promised you would fix  that leaky faucet!”

I am 69, and my husband Larry is 71. The specter of death hangs over us a little more heavily than it did twenty—or even ten—years ago. Friends die suddenly from heart attacks or slowly from cancer. No matter, their loss is sad. 

Sad, but not tragic. To me,”tragic” is the death of a 31-year-old daughter to leukemia. Tragic is losing a nineteen year old granddaughter to a car accident on a rainy night one block from her home. Tragic is losing a sixteen year old grandson who had been severely disabled since he was a baby. And tragic is losing a husband from—literally— a bolt out of the blue. 

“Biz hundert un tzvantsig!” (May you live to 120!”) is  a popular Jewish blessing for a long healthy life. Each loss, whether the number of years were short or long, whether their death was sad or tragic, is my personal reminder to treat each moment with gratitude. “Life is so transient and ephemeral; we will not be here after a breath,” said Dr. Debasish Mridha,  an American physician and philosopher. “So think better, think deeply, think with kindness, and write it with love so that it may live a little longer.” 

Some of us are fortunate enough to live a great deal longer.My mother’s first cousin Eli Helfand passed away last April, three months after his 100th birthday. A World War II veteran and a graduate of Clarkson College, Eli spent almost all his working life in Richfield Springs, New York, where he owned and operated Ruby’s Department Store. He had two wonderful marriages, raised four strong, independent children, and got to enjoy his five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. 

What I remember most about my cousin Eli are our strong family connections. During the Depression, when his parents were struggling to get their Upstate New York store afloat, Eli spent summers and school vacations with my mother and her family in New York City. He introduced my parents and served as best man at their wedding. Eli drove the car that the newlyweds took from the city to Alburgh, Vermont. Mom shared the front seat with Eli’s mother Rose while my father sat in the back seat with all the wedding presents, including a floor lamp that Bill had to hold for the eight hour trip. My parents remained close to Eli and Florence, who attended my parents’ 60th anniversary. When Florence passed away and Eli remarried, he and Marty became an integral part of not only my parents’ life but also of mine. We visited them at their homes in Otsego County in New York as well as their retirement home in in Englewood, Florida. 

Eli and I share another close connection. His daughter Marsha and I are only weeks apart in age.  We spent time with each other as children as well as our four years as students at University at Albany. We have attended each other’s weddings as well as those of our children. 

In August, 1962, I spent a week with Marsha and her family at their cottage on Canadarago Lake. We played and replayed Ray Steven’s (what now would be considered politically incorrect)song about Ahab, “the sheik in the golden sand.” We baked cookies. We went swimming and boating. And when the storm clouds moved in, we ran back inside. From the porch windows, we watched the lightning flash across the sky and listened to the thunder echo off the surrounding hills. We turned the Ray Stevens second back on and danced around the living room in our bare feet. We were safe in the childhood belief t that life would treat us kind and that we would  live forever—or at least for one hundred twenty years.