Shirat HaNefesh celebrates Tu B’Shevat with forest gardens


UPDATED: 2/4/20 12:08 p.m.

For Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish festival for trees, falling at sunset in Feb. 9, Shirat HaNefesh in Chevy Chase, a non-denominational Jewish community, is partnering with nonprofit Trees for the Future to celebrate the holiday and fight climate change.

“Most of us want to do what we can,” says Rabbi Gilah Langner. “So this is a really powerful way to become involved and to affect what’s going on on the planet.”

Trees for the Future works with farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. It plants forest gardens which, the organization’s website says, are a “multipurpose distribution of vegetables, plants and … trees” that helps “provide families with sustainable food sources, livestock feed, products to sell, fuel wood and a 400 percent increase in their annual income in four years.”

It costs $640 to fund a forest garden. Langner wants the Washington-area Jewish community to fund 300 of them this year.

“One thing we can do to try to stop or slow down the process of climate change is to plant trees, like a gazillion trees,” Langner says. “This organization has an ambitious but realistic goal of planting 500 million trees by 2025.”

Langner says the idea came to her when she visited a congregant, the late Linda Sobel Katz, just before she entered hospice care. Katz was a member of Trees for the Future’s board and held the cause near to her heart, Langner says.

“After she passed away, I contacted Trees for the Future and I started to learn about what they do. We’re hoping to fund a forest garden or possibly more than one in memory of Linda Sobel Katz and we’re inviting other congregations to fund a forest garden as well,” she says.

Linda Sobel Katz, who died in March 2019, was a member of Shirat HaNefesh and board member of Trees for the Future. Photo by Liora Moriel.

Trees for the Future has training programs for farmers who take on forest gardens, teaching them about permaculture — like planting rows of nitrogen fixing trees, protecting plants from pests and caring for and marketing some 12 types of fruits and vegetables, according to its website.

“[They’re] using the land in a way that kind of allows for sustainability and diversity of planting on that land, so that’s something that we will hopefully be helping other organizations and congregations learn about as well,” Langner says.

While Shirat HaNefesh is spearheading the project, the community wants other congregations to become involved. So far, Langner has heard from Fabrangen, Adas Israel Congregation and Am Kolel.

Shirat HaNefesh has its own link on the Trees for the Future website for fielding donations: It went live a month ago, and by Feb. 3 had raised $3,862 out of a $12,800 goal.

The Shirat HaNefesh community at its 2019 Chanukah celebration. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Gilah Langner.

Shirat HaNefesh has an annual Tu B’Shevat seder, which includes music and food in what the rabbi describes as a “multisensory experience.” But funding forest gardens is a new initiative for the congregation that Langner says embodies Jewish tradition.

“We need to be part of a broader solution [to climate change] and there are in fact millions of things out there that are amazing,” she says, “but this one really caught my attention because it’s such a savvy way of approaching the problem and because trees are so much part of Jewish tradition.”

Twitter: @jacqbh58

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