Columbia Jewish Congregation’s Tu B’Shevat seder explores kabbalistic symbols and mindfulness

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Columbia Jewish Congregation's virtual Tu B'Shevat seder
Columbia Jewish Congregation Rabbi Michael Hess Webber asks participants to share what fruit they will eat next during the Reconstructionist congregation’s virtual Tu B’Shevat seder on Jan. 16, 2022. (Screenshot by Rachel Kohn)

Zoom gatherings are no longer a novelty but a norm, yet Columbia Jewish Congregation managed to infuse something special into the medium during their Tu B’Shevat seder on Sunday night. Maybe it was the shared sensory experience of sipping wine and sampling different fruits in the company (albeit via Zoom) of more than 40 households of friends and neighbors. Perhaps the exploration of kabbalistic symbols and incorporation of themes of mindfulness and accountability tapped into a desire to feel connected and empowered less than 24 hours after a hostage situation at a Texas synagogue dominated the newscycle.

Whatever the explanation, a glow of sincerity passed from one participant to the next as couples and individuals took turns leading blessings, reading poems and connecting Tu B’Shevat with contemporary issues of social justice and environmental sustainability.

“Tu B’Shevat is a holiday that asks us to grow in awareness of the rhythms and cycles of the world around us and moments when they are disrupted by violence,” said CJC Rabbi Michael Hess Webber in an email on Monday. “The cycles of this Earth and of Creation contain within them experiences of pain and joy, challenge and resiliency, darkness and light – and everything in between. So here we are, in a moment where we are feeling ourselves, in a very tangible way, moving through these cycles. We are a people that can hold sorrow and grief in one hand while we hold joy and celebration in the other. We know this is not a contradiction but what it means to be human.”

During the program — which was a collaboration between clergy, the green team and the standing for racial justice committee — Hess Webber talked about the significance of the date of Tu B’Shevat, the 15th of the month of Shevat on the Hebrew calendar, as a midpoint between the first day of winter and the first day of spring. The kabbalists who first established the practice of Tu B’Shevat seders recognized this moment as an opportunity to tap into the Divine energy that flows through each individual and all of Creation, she said. The program also highlighted the convergence this year of Tu B’Shevat with Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

It was the second year CJC held a virtual Tu B’Shevat seder due to the pandemic, but the first year participants could receive Tu B’Shevat home kits delivered to their porches. The fruit-filled boxes included a list of their contents and how to eat them. Some of the items were as familiar as nectarines and oranges, while others were as exotic as figs and rambutans, but all were chosen deliberately for the kits to include three categories of fruit: some with a hard, inedible shell and a soft inside; some with a soft, edible outside and an inedible core; and some that were entirely edible.

“Symbolism is very much incorporated into the traditional seder,” Hess Webber said. “Traditionally, we understand that each of these fruits represent different aspects of our being. This year, instead, we imbued these three types with new meaning, incorporating different aspects of environmental justice.”

A hard shell protects vulnerable fruit, for instance. “As we eat this fruit, we ask ourselves, are we doing the work required to protect those who are vulnerable in our communities and our vulnerable planet?” she said.

The fruit with the inedible core was used to bring to mind disparity: “For some, life and its challenges are easy to digest, while those with less social and economic privilege are left with an inedible core,” Hess Webber said.

Finally, the fruit that could be eaten in its entirety was a prompt for considering consumption without reservation, “forgetting that resources are precious and limited,” she said.

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