Youth seder honors importance of trees

Celebration: Children at a Columbia synagogue partake in the Jewish holiday Tu B'Shevat.

January 30, 2004|By Rona S. Hirsch | Rona S. Hirsch,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

As children nibbled on dates and figs, sampled grape juice and danced the horah to songs about planting, a bearded man named Honi appeared in a long, striped robe.

The mesmerized children at Columbia's Beth Shalom Congregation listened as Honi explained that he had been asleep for generations after scoffing at another man for planting a carob tree for future grandchildren. But when Honi awoke to find the man's descendants picking carobs from the fully grown tree, he realized the importance of planting.

"We plant trees now so people in the future will have a good world," Rabbi Susan Grossman of Beth Shalom told the youngsters. "If we don't plant trees now, your grandchildren won't have trees in the future."

The importance of tending to nature was the theme of the Tu B'Shevat seder, a Jewish ritual that celebrates the birthday of trees, held Sunday afternoon at Beth Shalom. The 90-minute interactive program was co-sponsored by Beth Shalom and the Howard County chapter of Hadassah for their respective youth groups.

"It's important to bring to children the joys of Judaism at a young age and show the celebrations," said Sheryl Cooper, Hadassah president.

About 50 parents and their children attended the seder led by Grossman and Cantor Alan Rubinstein of the Bolton Street Synagogue in Baltimore.

"It's a multipurpose event," said Phil Rogofsky, Beth Shalom's youth chairman. "We're always trying to build on the spirit of Judaism and educate the children about Jewish ways, and build on community spirit within our synagogue. We are also trying to promote the environment and ecology."

Tu B'Shevat, which in Hebrew means the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, begins at sundown Feb. 6 and ends the next evening.

Beth Shalom will also sponsor a combined Tu B'Shevat seder and Shabbat dinner at 5:45 p.m. Feb. 6. The event will feature Israeli foods and discussions about ecology, mysticism and Israel.

The holiday marks the new year for trees and signifies the time in Israel when sap begins to rise and new fruit grows on trees. Sixteenth-century kabbalists -- or Jewish mystics -- in northern Israel believed that the flow of the universe is renewed on Tu B'Shevat. They compiled a seder that features fruits native to Israel and philosophical discussions.

The ceremony is celebrated by many Jews today, particularly in Israel. The ceremony includes 15 varieties of fruits, grains and nuts, four glasses of wine or grape juice and discussions drawn from the Torah and kabbalah. It is customary to eat fruits with a pit, such as a date; fruits with a shell or rind, such as an orange; and fruits completely edible, such as a fig.

According to the kabbalah, said Grossman, the fruits represent different levels of actualization.

"The fruit with the pit represents our interior, which is vulnerable and needs to be protected from the world," Grossman said. "The ideal is that our hearts should be open and look for actualization for peace in the world."

The four cups of wine are also significant. Each cup is blended with different proportions of red and white wine, symbolizing the cycle of the seasons. The seder begins with white wine, representing winter. Drops of red wine are added to each cup until the fourth cup is red, symbolic of the fall harvest.

At Sunday's seder, tables were set with cups of grape juice and plates of dates, figs, carobs, walnuts, dried apricots and slices of oranges and apples. The program combined storytelling with song, dance and blessings over the fruits and juice.

"Trees are so important to us that we have a seder," Grossman told the children. "On Tu B'Shevat, we want to thank the trees and think about taking care of them."

Grossman discussed the symbolism of each of the fruits and significance of the different grape juice. "We will lift up our cups of white grape juice in honor of the brrr of winter and snow," she said.

Before the second cup, the rabbi instructed the group to add drops of red grape juice. "It is sweeter because the grapes were growing in the sun," she said.

In between discussions, Rubinstein led participants in the singing of Tu B'Shevat songs about planting and a prayer for peace.

As the group sang a popular Israeli pioneer song, Rubinstein led everyone in the motions of carrying shovels, hoes and seeds. "Put tools on your shoulder and we will harvest our crop when we get back to our places," he said.

The rabbi and cantor also led in dancing the horah several times, spreading the group into a circle that stretched around the room.

But the seder's highlight came when Rubinstein ducked out and returned in costume as Honi, a rabbinical figure from the first century who, according to tradition, slept 70 years.

Throughout the skit, Rubinstein led participants in song and then told the children that there is nothing better than to see the future.

"At least I know if I go to sleep now and wake up in another thousand years, I will see the results of all your good work," he said.

This was the first time that Sloane Kinstler of Ellicott City and her family attended the event. "It's been a great experience for the children to learn about the holiday," she said.

Ryan Benedek, 6, of Clarksville, who participated with his mother and grandmother, couldn't pinpoint what he liked best about the seder. "Every part of it was good," he said.

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