Ben Shapiro has an ambitious goal.
The sustainable gardening and landscaping teacher, community activist, gardener and chef wants to plant 1,000 trees this spring.
Each year, Shapiro plants as many trees as possible and eyes Tu B’Shevat as the unofficial start of his annual campaign. This year, he acknowledged, is the most aggressive goal he’s set for himself.
Tu B’Shevat is the “New Year of trees” and is celebrated on the 15th of Shevat. In the U.S., the holiday usually occurs in January or February when many cities are still in the throes of winter, but the holiday is based on what is taking place in Israel. Because the rainy season has just ended in the country and the ground is saturated with water, sap begins to rise in the trees, meaning fruit can begin to bud.
Tu B’Shevat has begun to take on a larger significance for Jews in the United States concerned with the environment and how they see their relationship to the Earth.
Shapiro will speak at Parkway Jewish Center on Feb. 14. His talk about sustainability and the ecology of Pennsylvania and Ohio takes place a few days after the holiday ends on Feb. 10.
While he acknowledges not being the most observant Jew, Shapiro said that the topic of his lecture, following so closely after Tu B’Shevat, is not a coincidence. Sounding like a character from Dr. Seuss’ book “The Lorax,” he explained with a laugh, “It’s the tree holiday — why not celebrate that? I’m here for the trees.”
The environmentalist is the nephew of Cantor Henry Shapiro, the spiritual leader of Parkway Jewish Center, who was inspired to include his nephew as part of the “Souper Shabbat Plus Lecture Series.”
“We’re surrounded by a lot of acreage, a lot of woods,” Henry Shapiro explained. “I actually booked him three or four years ago, but we got snowed out. Hopefully, this time the weather will cooperate.”
The younger Shapiro believes its not simply planting trees that is important. The area and needs of the people must to be considered, as well: “We have a land mass that desperately needs an edible forest cover. Why can’t there be acres and acres of pawpaws and chestnuts and hickories and hazelnuts and pecans and on and on?”
These new seedlings would begin the process, according to Shapiro, of reclaiming forests made barren by our industrial past.
“We cut down so many forests, to do what — to mine clay, to mine steel, to plant corn? When we were done, the diverse food forest didn’t come back.”
It’s because of this past, Shapiro explained, that we have a societal obligation to reverse course where possible and maintain pockets of ecological diversity where possible.
The Oberlin College graduate said his talk at the synagogue will address some of those issues as well as answer the questions, “Where do you get trees in abundance that are affordable?” and “Where can you find places to plant them?”
These questions are important, he added, because public resources like the Ohio Forest Nursery have closed, meaning there is less access to plants and seeds.
“The resources are still there but the channels to get them are very unclear for someone like me obsessed by trees,” he said. “That means they are almost invisible to someone that would just like to plant more trees or see their neighborhood provide food and shelter and habitat and just be a lovely place to live.”
While Shapiro’s project has regional and global ramifications, it also echoes the bumper sticker seen on so many VW buses: “Think Global. Act Local.”
As he explained, trees can help rehabilitate brownfields and former industrial sites, prevalent throughout Pittsburgh.
“Imagine that it takes 10 or 20 years for a hazelnut tree to bear fruit. During that time, the tree is building itself, taking carbon from the air, energy from the sun, while the tree’s system pulls up water and nutrients from the soil, being pulled into its bark, trunk and branches. It’s also pulling out all kind of toxins and binding them to the wood. The tree acts like a filter, taking the toxins but not putting them into its fruit. You then have soil that is healthier and safe to crop or plant.”
Of course, Shapiro pointed out, there is a more Jewish reason to think about trees, plants and the environment in general: “tikkun olam.”
Henry Shapiro recounted a story that illustrates why it’s so important to be stewards of the Earth: “During the first century, in the time of the rebellions, the Romans cut down all of the male date palm trees in Judea. Because of that, the females, which look like the date palm trees we picture in our mind when we think of palm trees, couldn’t flower and the species went extinct in the land.”
While Tu B’Shevat is a holiday celebrated more readily in Israel, the cantor pointed out that there are reasons for the Pittsburgh Jewish community to embrace the holiday.
“We might be two countries, but we have one large environment, and as we’re finding out more and more, what’s good for one is good for all.” pjc
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.