Trees are essential for living. Our tradition celebrates them on Tu Bishvat. One Israeli custom associated with the holiday that began in the early 20th century was the act of tree planting. The newborn Teachers’ Union (Hisdatrut HaMorim), early Palestine, circa 1912, wanted to reaffirm this forgotten day of the Jewish calendar, so they joined what was one of the greatest efforts of reforestation in the land of Israel. Seemingly apolitical, even tree planting has become politicized in present-day Israel. There are Jews unsympathetic to the Bedouins who plant trees on Tu Bishvat on contested Bedouin land to reclaim it for other uses, and there are Jews who plant trees in Palestinian villages to replant the trees that have been uprooted by West Bank settlers.
This year, Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR) set out to the Palestinian village of Awarta to replenish the tree supply, given the uprooting that has gone on there. RHR has picked olives from the olive trees, and the area has become a place where the settlers have tried to stop such gatherings, sometimes using force, but always accompanied by hostile threats. Nestled under the settlement of Itamar, Hence, the IDF is routinely called in to keep an uneasy quiet between the rabbis and their allies who have come to plant trees and pick olives with their Palestinian sisters and brothers and the settlers who oppose them.
When Rabbi Nava Hefetz, director of education for RHR, Rabbi Michael Marmur, Chair of RHR and faculty member of Hebrew Union College and Rev. Gavriella Zander of Agusta arrived in Awarta by car, buses with volunteers to assist them from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv pulled up as well. Rabbi Hefetz told the group to get started along with the villagers. Within minutes, an IDF jeep pulled up with soldiers, and asked the group to leave.
Rabbi Hefetz, taking full responsibility, and calming the agitated volunteers, asked the soldiers to speak to their commanders. The soldiers responded affirmatively to this request and Rabbi Hefetz recognized, once the officers’ jeep pulled up, that these men were most likely seasoned officer reservists. As one officer began to question why these volunteers were there, the other officer started to film the exchange.
“What are you doing?” one officer asked. Rabbi Hefetz answered, “We are here to replant the trees that the settlers have uprooted. We are not here to provoke, just to honor Tu Bishvat and honor the local Palestinian farmers.” “Who are you?”, the officer wanted to know, and Rabbi Hefetz responded, “We are Rabbis for Human Rights.”
At that moment, the officer noticed that Nava was wearing a kippah, and said, “This is quite unusual, a woman with a kippah! Are you a rabbi?” “Yes,” she responded. “I am the director of education for RHR.” The officer then continued, “Are you a Reform rabbi?” and the questioning began to take a different turn. The tone was now almost conciliatory, and Nava answered, Yes, I am a graduate of Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem.”
“Wow,” said the officer, now smiling, “I had my bar mitzvah in a Reform synagogue in Modiin with a woman rabbi, I don’t remember her name.” Nava adds, “You must mean Rabbi Kinneret Shiryon!” “Yes, that’s her!” he exclaimed.
Then the second officer chimed in. “Hey, my son had his bar miztvah (at the Reform synagogue) in Raanana, also with a woman rabbi!” Rabbi Hefetz nodded. “You must mean Rabbi Tami Kolberg,” and together, the two officers asked in unison, “Do you know all the rabbis?” To which she said, “Certainly — those who are affiliated with Rabbis for Human Rights.”
Rabbi Hefetz then returned to the matter at hand. “We are not here to provoke. We are here to plant olive trees and be on our way.” The officers then instructed the soldiers to leave and, turning to Nava, added, “Have a good day!”
On January 14, 2022, with rain coming down, 150 saplings were planted, a Hebrew and Arabic ceremony was held, with the prayer: “It is a tree of life for all who uphold it, and its ways are the paths to peace.” Trees restore breath, trees give life, trees renew our hope. And sometimes, seeds planted by women rabbis in Reform synagogues, demonstrating equality, fairness, and progress, bear the fruits of justice and light.
In honor of the 50th anniversary of the ordination of women.
The above was coauthored by Rabbi Nava Hefetz.