Category Archives: spirituality

Happy Earth Day: Go get hugged!

‘They’ say we need 8 hugs a day to be at our best.

A celebration of earth's bounty: 'Spice and Tease' at NYC's Chelsea Market

A celebration of earth’s bounty: ‘Spice and Tease’ at NYC’s Chelsea Market

‘They’ say each person needs 56 trees’ oxygen to offset her personal production of carbon dioxide.

How many hugs then do trees need – or deserve – for taking care of us each and every day?

Before you read further:  go hug.  Hug a person and/or a tree.

Not aware of Earth Day?  It’s probably because it’s not a Hallmark holiday.  That’s a good thing –  (wasted) paper would exhaust the very resources to celebrate:  trees and water.

But the downside:  it’s not well celebrated – and our survival depends on it.  Literally.

Wikipedia  ‘facts’:  Earth Day (the first in 1970) and  International Mother Earth Day (by the United Nations in 2009) is observed annually on April 22  in support for environmental protection.   Around the planet, people are listening to music, learning about eco-friendly technology, recycling electronics, clothes, bottles and cans, and participating in cleanups.

I’ve done beach clean-ups, including in the Hurricane Sandy devastated Rockaway’s.  One long-time Rockaway resident observed:  ‘lots of people come here to clean up on one day.  Then, nothing.  Nobody comes to clean when the beaches get crowded – and dirtier.’

It’s true of course.

We put a lot of momentum into one day, and then go about our business.

That one day is our consolation, and a commemorative prize.

Aveda's annual water campaign provides awareness and clean drinking water!

Aveda’s annual water campaign provides awareness and clean drinking water!

But I wonder: why do the beaches need to be ‘picked up’ so often?   We’ve picked up cigarette butts, toys, bottles, cans, socks, towels, styrofoam cups, those big plastic cups, straws, and suntan lotion bottles. In April or May. Long before beach season begins.

People must believe it’s okay to bury their garbage along with their heads or feet in the sand….  Or that small stuff, like thousands of cigarette butts won’t make a difference because they are small.

Btw, cigarette butts don’t degrade.

Saturday, I volunteered with Riverkeeper, at NYC’s Hudson River Greenway.  The bright sunny day masked the freezing wind, keeping people moving along the beautiful green space that parallels the High Line and the Hudson River.  This event brought several environmental groups together to share information.

Solar One:  those little black squares are solar panels and the little colored things are spinning around
Solar One: those little black squares are solar panels and the little colored things are spinning around

(Interestingly, I was told, environmental groups compete for attention and funding, often not communicating and sharing thoughts and action.)

These groups do amazing things - not many people because it was FREEZING! Panelists including:  Riverkeeper, Waterkeeper, Grow NYC and Hudson River Greenway
These groups do amazing things – not many people because it was FREEZING! Panelists including: Riverkeeper, Waterkeeper, Grow NYC and Hudson River Greenway

The passing public collected ‘swag‘:  reusable bags from Magnolia Bakery, Aveeno face cream, and pamphlets.  People love free stuff.

Swag (bags from Magnolia Bakery) roadkill?
Swag (bags from Magnolia Bakery) roadkill?

I asked one event participant why Earth Day wasn’t a widely celebrated ‘event’.

‘Exhaustion from being over publicized’

Is this really what we want to hear?
Is this really what we want to hear?

I wonder if it’s become like the boy calling ‘wolf’:  the environmentalist calling ‘global warming, global devastation’ one time too many.


And we deal best with catastrophes when they strike –  all of us trying to stay afloat between devastating events from super storms to job loss.  Exhausting!

It’s almost understandable that clean air, water, healthy food, the diverse ecosystems that provides these things are exhausting to think about. Much less do anything about it.  I’ve often seen bottles in cans in Whole Foods garbage cans when a recycling bin is steps aways (and yes, I take them out and settle them in their proper receptacle!)

But here’s the most interesting thing:  Earth Day and Holocaust Remembrance Day are days apart.  


Maybe.  But these two days are joined in a tight hug.

This WWII poster says it all!
This WWII poster says it all!

Last year I wrote about the Bielski Partisans (movie: Defiance) WWII survival in the forests.

Wars, hate crimes, genocides ultimately are over resources.  Natural resources that come from the Earth.

People are killed over land, water, diamonds. Food.  Not to mention Nike’s.

So my thoughts on this beautiful Earth Day are:  Stand-up!

Hug a tree.  Hug a person.

Fight Genocide – fight for a healthy planet.

You can prevent war- reduce your consumption of ‘stuff’, turn off the water, drive less, recycle.

less is more earth day

Let’s focus on quality – not quantity.  Let’s care enough about ourselves and future generations to leave them a real inheritance.

Stand up by donating time, money, and energy.  Talk about and share these organizations:


Grow NYC


JNF (starting planting trees in Israel in 1901!)

Sierra Club

US Holocaust Museum

A Meaningful World (anti-Genocide)


CelebrateTrees: Tu B’shvat, the Jewish Arbor Day!

‘It is because of you we are here.‘  Lilka Bielski, Tuvia Bielski’s widow said as she looked up at the trees (in a video) in the Belarus forest where the Bielski partisans (best known from the movie ‘Defiance’)  survived the Holocaust.

Please go here to read more about amazing Partisans:

Please go here to read more about amazing Partisans:

These same trees that saved partisans during the Holocaust, are the ‘green lungs’ that maintain life.  Celebrating these – and all – trees, and the renewal and rebirth they represent – is what Tu B’Shvat is all about.

Forests provide safety

Forests provide safety

This holiday is sometimes called the Jewish Arbor Day, or what might be called the Jewish Earth Day.   Clueless, I’ve thought of this as the ‘dried fruit holiday’ since the kosher supermarkets in my neighborhood offer a smorgasbord of dried fruits which I happen to love.

Literally, Tu B’Shvat, a minor holiday, means the 15th of the Jewish month of Shevat.

Tu B'shvat delights

Tu B’shvat delights

What I love more, is understanding what this holiday is all about:  celebrating nature and our relationship to the earth and as a reminder to serve and protect trees.  In Israel it’s all about ecological awareness and planting trees.

I’ve learned this for the first time thanks to  Rabbi David Ingbor’s sermon one Friday night at the Romemu Synagogue.   Environmentalist or not, this is a time of physical and spiritual renewal.  A second Rosh Hashonah.   Check out Romemu’s site and download the sermon:

And listen to the music on “A Taste of  Romemu:

It’s so easy to take trees for granted, especially this time of year as they stand naked and silent, seemingly devoid of color and purpose.

'naked trees' in Brooklyn's Prospect Park, preparing for spring

‘naked trees’ in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, preparing for spring

Tu B’Shvat is the perfect time to start celebrating nature as we (humans and nature alike) enter this time of fertility after winter’s dormancy.  And don’t trees deserve a much-needed time of rest, of fallow, after all they do for us?

Those seeds strewn in the fall, and through Rosh Hashonah intentions?  They’ve had time to scatter and settle, hopefully to miraculously take root and prepare to bloom when conditions are right.

Tu B’Shvat is a reminder that life stirs before we see it:  just as our dreams don’t come true one sun-filled morning, but rather build over the course of mulching and mulling experiences and actions.

While this may be a minor holiday, trees serve a major purpose in Judaism and Israel, which I think is pretty amazing:

Jews were ‘told’ to plant trees when they ‘returned’ to Israel.

All the more interesting since there were virtually no trees there.  So now, when Israel boasts having more trees now than 100 years ago, it is easy to understand how this is true.

In 1901, early settlers in Palestine began planting trees as part of the Jewish National Fund (JNF).   Now, there are over 240 million trees in Israel!  In fact, one of the most popular ways to commemorate and celebrate an event or person is by planting trees in someone’s name through JNF.

(FYI, about planting trees…  James Michner, in his fictional book “The Source”.   writes about American Jews coming to visit ‘their’ trees, only to find they aren’t memorialized that way!)

Good thing there are so many trees since that proverbial peace symbol of an olive branch, well, we need lots more olive branches  from lots more olive trees…

While some of those who have planted trees were Partisans, and the children of Partisans, I think in this day and age we are all Partisans of a sort in need of safety.

We all need a safe place to hide – from the ravages of climate change.

10,000 trees were killed, uprooted, in New York alone during Sandy.  Ironic – the trees that will save us from climate disasters are destroyed during those same disasters.

I want the world to be a safe place, full of safe hiding places, preferably for play, not war.  So while I won’t literally be planting trees this weekend, I’ve already ‘asked’ JNF to plant a few to honor a niece.

planting tree

Who knew Tu B’Shvat is in fact a major holiday in intent?  A holiday of action and change!

Here’s to celebrating renewal and rebirth as we all start to thaw from our winter fallow.  And a reminder to go hug (and plant) a tree in thanks for the safety she provides.

Harlem’s Gospel experience and invitation

The Apollo theater, Harlem’s famous landmark was initially home to Yiddish theater before launching the career of musical giants including Michael Jackson!

On a hot August morning,  buses line Harlem’s 125th Street as hundreds of people snake single-file past street vendors and residents before dodging down side streets in search of spirituality.  Spirituality in Gospel music.

Soaking up the cultural and spiritual Gospel experience is a must-do for NYC tourists and residents.   A to-do that took this New Yorker 11 years to accomplish!  Along with fifty members of NYC’s

138th Street, Strivers Row was where the wealthy lived in Harlem 100 years ago

Shorewalker’s, we looped through Harlem’s Striver’s Row on 138th St. on our way

Striver’s Row @138th Street in Harlem, NYC.

to a large square building more reminiscent of a government building or bank than of a church.

Fitting I suppose for a religious institution.

Mount Olivet Baptist Church, at 120th Street and Lenox Avenue (now Malcolm X Boulevard), was built  in 1907 as Temple Israel for German Jews. Its four trunk like Corinthian columns could be mistaken for something out of imperial Rome were it not for the Stars of David nestled in their leafy capitals – and the Stars of David in the balcony section and the Ten Commandments and Hebrew inscription above the baptismal pool that was once the Ark. The synagogue was designed by Arnold W. Brunner, architect of Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, at Central Park West and 70th Street.

Hundreds of us – literally – are crowded into the back of the sanctuary of this exotic venue.  We’re sweaty and makeshift fans courtesy of the programs are both relieving and mildly distracting.

Stars of David atop the pillars of Ephases Baptist Church. Respectful of the service, I didn’t take any pictures inside.

It takes only minutes for us to sink into the warm ambience and spiritual energy that makes Gospel a full experience.   Four women singing around the piano in the front left, belt out songs, challenging us to participate. 

The question is, how do we participate? 

Do we sing? Clap? Stand and sway? 

Is there a protocol and how do we learn it?

Congregants rise to shake hands in welcome to  each other while slowly making their way to us visitors.  This is the easy part: it takes little enticement for us to eagerly reach out for connection, touch.

Many of Harlem’s churches, like Mount Olivet reveal rich reminders of its Jewish past, brief as it was.  In the balcony, emerald-green Stars of David are centered in the stain glass windows of this former synagogue.  Front and center, the Ten Commandments atop the ark, held the

Manhattan Grace Tabernacle in Harlem with its Magen David. The writing in the arch is Hebrew

Torah’s and now houses the Baptismal pool.  Hebrew lettering arched above reminds all of the German and Eastern European Jews who called this sanctuary and neighborhood home from the late 1800’s to the 1920’s.

This Gospel Church’s Jewish past  surprised many in my group.  Yet, human ‘migrations’ are the universal story of cities large and small, for better or worse.

Neighborhoods change, seemingly in a NY minute here in the Big Apple.  Subtle reminders remain, requiring focused attention and observation.  In Harlem alone about a dozen churches began their spiritual life as synagogues!

Former Allen St. Synagogue in the once Jewish Lower East Side and now Chinatown is a  Buddhist Temple and 99 cent store

‘In the name of G-d has sparked so many wars, yet sanctuaries fluidly change religious affiliation.  Both from year to year, and more often, from day-to-day.  My Kabbalat Shabbat, (Friday night services welcoming the Sabbath) are spent in a Presbyterian church.

There’s peace in those pews.  If we can pray in the same space, can’t we play nice?

As I sway and clap back in Harlem on that hot Sunday, letting my body blend with the music, my mind wonders and wanders: why don’t tourists  include Jewish services, or other religious services to their cultural experience?

Here in 2013, post-apocolyptic-Mayan-miss, there’s a perfect opportunity to understand and connect with others.  To develop and grow our empathy. 

If we can’t literally walk in someone else’s shoes to grow and develop empathy, it’s possible to pray in someone else’s pews. 

Have you had the opportunity to pray in another house of worship? 

What did you learn about your own religion and sense of spirituality?

Here’s to a year of peace, empathy, and, connection!