As far back as the Mishnah, the 15th day of the month of Shevat on the Jewish calendar has been celebrated as "the new year for the trees"--a day to celebrate nature and our people's connection to the land.
The father of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, described a utopian future state of Israel, placing high importance on the values of environmentalism and ecology--50 years before the state was established and long before the creation of the "green movement."
In modern-day Israel, the 15th of Shevat (Tu B'Shevat), is a day to celebrate the ecology and plant trees. This year, Tu B'Shevat also included a unique celebration--one unimaginable just a few years ago-of the indelible bond of our people in three very different communities; three "branches" of one robust "tree," planted thousands of years ago.
Upon the initiative of the Jewish Agency for Israel, three Jewish communities came together in January to celebrate an unprecedented Tu B'Shevat, thanks to both the Abraham Accords and the silver lining of the COVID pandemic--that we've all gotten accustomed to virtual calls.
For the first time, we celebrated this holiday with three communities separated by thousands of miles--but sharing one computer screen. Families from our Chicago community spent time together with families from the new Jewish community in Dubai, while the bridge to that connection were families from JUF's Partnership Together region of Kiryat Gat, Lachish, and Shafir.
Dozens of participants from our three countries spent a fun hour together, getting acquainted and learning about each other, about our different lifestyles, and our ways of celebrating Jewish holidays. The Rothbart and Rosenblat families from the Partnership region, the Mosbachers from Skokie, and the Cohen family from Dubai shared videos of their families everyone with a joyous "Chag Sameach" in Hebrew.
Three generations of the Straussman family from the Shekef community within the Lachish Regional Council shared a video of themselves planting a willow tree earlier that same day in honor of all the participants at the event. Ben Straussman, a member of the Partnership's steering committee, said he considered it one of the most moving celebrations of Tu B'Shevat he had ever been part of.
The importance of this event goes beyond a mere celebration of ecology, earth, and nature. Following the signing of the Abraham Accords and the opening of full diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, the small and growing Jewish community in the UAE can finally celebrate its Judaism openly and proudly.
It is only fitting that our Chicago community and our Israeli Partnership community used the first opportunity to celebrate with them. Together, we celebrated Jewish peoplehood--a value cherished and fostered for millennia, a unity that has kept our people strong in the face of adversity.
Ambassador Eitan Naeh, Israel's newly appointed Head of Mission to the UAE, spoke at the celebration. Naeh, who had previously served in Israel's Consulate General in Chicago, was visibly moved to share this historic moment with Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog and JUF President Lonnie Nasatir. Once again, JUF was at the forefront, marking a precedent in the Jewish world and bringing Jewish communities.
We truly are three branches of one strong tree, nourished by and nourishing one another.
Ofer Bavly is the Director General of the JUF Israel Office.