EL SOBRANTE, CALIFORNIA — In a state park outside of San Francisco, 200 Jews and pagans gathered on Sunday in honor of the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat, standing beneath a forest of towering eucalyptus to celebrate trees and the practices indigenous peoples utilized to take care of them.
Jews around the world marked Tu Bishvat, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shvat, on Monday. According to Jewish tradition, the date marks the “New Year” by which farmers calculated the age of trees and the proper amount of fruit to tithe to the Temple. In recent years it has also become a rallying holiday for the Jewish environmental movement.
Wilderness Torah, a 13-year-old organization that celebrates Jewish tradition centered around agriculture and nature, joined forces with JeWitch Collective, a gathering of “Jews, pagans, and those who love them,” to honor trees at a time when fires and environmental devastation are destroying record numbers of them around the world.
After months of fires, torrential downpours are finally extinguishing most of the raging bush fires in Australia. On Sunday, participants learned that when a fire races through a forest, the outcome can be dramatically different depending on the temperature of the flames. A cool fire, quickly passing through an area, can actually be beneficial to the forest ecosystem, helping to regenerate new growth and clear out dead brush before it accumulates.
Then there are the hot fires, like the devastating fires witnessed in Australia over the past months. These massive fires burn so hot they have created their own weather system, shooting pyrocumulonimbus clouds, or fire-generated thunderstorms, high up into the atmosphere.
“In Australia, for tens of thousands of years, indigenous people have burned forests regularly,” explained Starhawk, a writer, educator, and environmental activist who is both Jewish and pagan. “This keeps underbrush from choking out the bigger trees, so that when fire does come through, it will be relatively cool.”
She noted that the regions devastated by brush fires in Australia were areas no longer maintained by indigenous groups and therefore did not always undergo prescribed burns.
“Humans have been using fire for 300,000 years to manage our landscapes,” added Starhawk, who uses only one name. She noted that forest fires often inspire terror, but they don’t always need to.
“In communities where fire is a factor, like our community in northern California, we are very much centered around the volunteer fire department and the ways we support the fire department,” Starhawk said.
“The amount of time and effort people put into it is immense, they know how important it is for the whole community, and you know how dependent you are on everyone else putting out their cigarettes and not burning stuff in the middle of the drought at the wrong time, and being awake and aware to report a fire if they see one. You can’t have this illusion that we’re each the master of our fate. We are interdependent on each other, and we have to take care of each other. That’s one of the powerful lessons of fire,” she said.
The daylong festival in the woods outside of San Francisco was the first time that Wilderness Torah had held an event with JeWitch, though Wilderness Torah has held Tu B’Shvat in the Forest celebrations for years. The two groups often celebrate many of the same themes.
“Our mission is to awaken and celebrate the Earth-based traditions of Judaism,” said Rabbi Zelig Golden, one of the co-founders of Wilderness Torah. The organization hosts programming on major Jewish holidays and its programming attracts around 3,000 people a year.
The group also runs youth programs for about 130 kids in California’s Bay Area. “B’hootz,” is a nature-based Sunday school, along with as B’Naiture, a wilderness rite-of-passage for bar and bat mitzvah aged students. Wilderness Torah’s seminal event is a five-day Passover festival in the Mojave desert in southern California called Passover in the Desert.
“Judaism in general has become disconnected from the land,” Golden said. He traces this disconnect not just to the pressures of technology and the modern world, but from deep in history.
“Twice [the people of] Israel have been forced from their lands, and the taproot of tribal traditions has been cut,” he said, referring to the destruction of the Temples and Jewish exiles thousands of years ago.
Diaspora Jewry required the creation of Judaism without the deep connection to a specific land, forcing a schism that continues to echo to modern Judaism today, he explained. Similarly, the festival’s opening ritual paid respect to the Ohlone, a native people that inhabited California’s coast before the Spanish arrived and, like many indigenous groups around the world, were forcibly removed from their lands.
Starhawk said that the important thing — a lesson that Australia is learning too late — is to listen to the native people in each place, because they hold unique and ancient information about each location.
“In many places in California, we are fortunate to have wonderful indigenous teachers who still have some of that knowledge” about forest care and safe burn practices, Starhawk said.
Although there was no sacred fire during the Tu Bishvat meal and festival on Sunday, fire is often an integral component of both Wilderness Torah and JeWitch gatherings. Wilderness Torah youth groups learn safe-fire practices and how to tend their own fires during solo wilderness expeditions.
“Sacred fire is at the heart of every indigenous practice, including ours,” said Golden. In Judaism, eternal fire accompanies every ark that holds a Torah (although this fire has generally been represented by a light bulb since the advent of electricity).
The Tu Bishvat in the Forest festival included dance and movement workshops, forest bathing, Zohar-inspired music offerings, and teachings about alternative rituals. Rabbi Arthur Waskow, an activist rabbi, shared stories from a 1997 Tu Bishvat seder held in California as part of the Redwood Rabbis’ protest against logging of old-growth redwood forests.
During the rituals, strong winds whipped through the tall eucalyptus trees, sending showers of leaves and bark onto the group below as they danced, sang, and hugged in the California sunshine.
“Judaism as its roots is very much an Earth-based religion,” said Starhawk, who also teaches permaculture, a system of ecological design that studies and mimics naturally occurring patterns in nature. “It’s all about how you live on the land. It’s about how you respect it and the wisdom that people have accumulated over thousands of years of living on that land.”
“For me, it’s really important that the foundation of that care for the earth also has to be a foundation of justice for people, and I’ve been very involved with people working to end the occupation and justice for Palestinians,” she added.
In the meantime she is focusing her efforts close to home, teaching at ecological regeneration workshops in areas that were devastated in the last season of wildfires in California.
“Here in California fire is a key issue, just like Australia and the Amazon where we’ve seen major fires that are enormously destructive,” she said. “This is directly related to climate change, to the droughts, to the increase in temperatures, and to the lengthening of dry season.”
In the face of ecological devastation, Starhawk draws comfort from the wisdom of ancient rituals, both Jewish and pagan. She began practicing paganism at age 15, but said the Jewish community keeps “sucking [her] back into the fold.” Holidays such as Tu Bishvat help her connect the two practices as well as honor the natural world, something that is paramount in both of the religious traditions.
“Earth-based spirituality is about understanding that the earth is sacred,” Starhawk said. “Not in the sense that you bow down to it, or that you take it away from someone else, but that you take care of it, protect it, and that your well-being is bound up with the Earth’s well being.”