Celebrating Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees, in a New England winter is a bold act of faith. Rabbi Jen Gubitz and Rav-Hazzan Aliza Berger will rejoice in our beautiful trees and the natural world with a Tu BiShvat sing-along during Havdalah on Saturday, Jan. 22, at the First Church in Cambridge. The event is the second of a new ongoing monthly series celebrating a Jewish holiday in song and word. Gubitz is a Reform rabbi who works at Temple Shalom of Newton and Modern JewISH Couples, and Berger is the rav-hazzan at the Conservative Temple Emanuel in Newton. The two bring their pastoral experiences to this new intergenerational endeavor.

The two rabbis recently told JewishBoston that they have been dreaming of this spiritual program in word and song for a while. The unique Havdalah program debuted last month at Hanukkah, celebrating the light and miracles of the season. Fifty people, ranging in age from 2 to 90, came together to sing and share food. “It’s a fresh startup kind of energy for all ages,” said Berger. “We’re building a vibrant community that’s somewhat unexpected and has this potential to keep growing.”


Growth is a driving factor in putting together the Havdalah program, and this month, that influence dovetails beautifully with Tu BiShvat’s themes. In the hands of these creative rabbis, Tu BiShvat shines in the middle of snowy and frigid January. Gubitz noted that she is currently cultivating the spirit of Tu BiShvat in her indoor aerogarden. “I really wanted to be a gardener this winter,” she said. “The aerogarden is in a temperature-controlled, highly-lit area. Although the company promised 100% germination with every seed pod, I’m on my third try. It’s a metaphor for January and February in Boston. It feels like nothing is growing but I believe the seeds will grow when they’re ready. I see it as an image of what it means to be a Jew in America who is not in the land of Israel.”

For Berger, who trained as an opera singer before she deployed her immense talent as a rav-hazzan, singing unleashes tremendous growth. She sees the Tu BiShvat holiday as an opportunity to grow voices with familiar tunes and then branch out into learning new songs. “We’re focusing on the language of growth and earth and plants,” she said. “The songs we’ll sing are a mix of popular music, American standards, camp songs, nigunim (wordless melodies) and traditional prayer. We hope this collection of songs will inspire growth in all of our participants. We are experimenting much in the way of the aerogarden—planting seeds and putting love and energy into song to grow something more.”

Aliza Berger
Rav Hazzan Aliza Berger (Courtesy photo)

No sing-along organized by two dynamic rabbis is complete without featuring words of Torah. Last month Gubitz taught a midrash about the first sunset that brought together Adam and Eve and the Flintstones. Adam and Eve experienced all that is new in the world, including the first sunset. In the midrash, the rabbis of the Talmud claim the words of Havdalah are written on the first couples’ hands. They further supply them with a candle to navigate the transitional moment commemorated in Havdalah. Gubitz noted that “the rabbis further instructed that you can look up at the stars if you don’t have a candle. If you can’t see the stars, you can literally use two stones and strike them together. You can create light in many ways. I joke that the translation actually calls them ‘Flintstones,’ and I thought, ‘It’s Fred!’”

Gubitz and Berger described their program unfolding in three phases. The first is the seed of an idea, which corresponds to kavanah, or the intention of the program. Each month there is a new theme to cultivate with music and teachings bringing it to life. Then there’s the blossoming, which both rabbis see in community-building. They are also the symbolic blossoms that participants take from the experience to affect their lives positively and inspire future growth.

Rabbi Jen Gubitz
Rabbi Jen Gubitz (Courtesy photo)

Berger pointed out that Tu BiShvat observance features a seder that brings together four separate worlds. Berger and Gubitz explained that the four kabbalistic worlds of the seder focus on the physical, the emotional, the cognitive and the spiritual. Certain foods are associated with each world and drive people to explore their inner and outer selves. “We have these different frameworks for self-evaluation,” said Berger. “But it also works for community connection. You want to make sure that your physical needs are met and that you are nourished emotionally so that it brings you to the next level.”

Since trees are the mainstay of the Tu BiShvat holiday, a bit of Googling about trees yielded facts augmenting their beauty and wisdom. Trees, it turns out, have an afterlife. When a tree dies, the living trees near them drive water through the stump to keep it alive. While the dead tree will never green again or make cones or seeds or pollen, it will remain alive to some degree. Under the ground, trees are intimately connected as they share nutrients between them. Ecologists call this phenomenon “the wood-wide web.” Roots graft directly onto one another. It remains a mystery as to why this happens, but researchers posit that these natural grafts stabilize trees and allow them to share resources during difficult times. It is nature’s ultimate example of community-building.

“On Tu BiShvat, we’re putting our faith in the natural world that will eventually grow around us and placing our faith in this community that we have been dreaming about,” said Berger. Added Gubitz, “We face hope and uncertainty together.”