Tu Bi Shevat South African Style

We were in Cape Town, South Africa, my husband's country of birth. Sandwiched between the eerily flat-topped Table Mountain and the Atlantic and Indian Oceans is the beautiful Cape Peninsula with more species of flora and fauna than the entire continent of Europe. Architecturally stunning homes overlook the seething seas, lush vineyards ascend the mountains. On each visit I stand agape within Kirstenbosch Gardens which guard the remaining species of trees that go back to primordial times, a vision of the Garden of Eden.

This visit I'm picked up by my dynamic colleague, Rabbi David Hoffman, z"l, head of the Cape Town Reform congregations. It is Tu Bi-Shevat and he has promised something unique will take place. Outside in the waiting mini-van is something surprising to start with, the Cape Town rabbis of every denomination are waiting inside. Our mystery trip takes us into the hills, it seems all are in on the surprise and won't tell me where we are going.

We stop for refreshment and each of us is presented with an overflowing platter of fifteen fresh fruits of the season. The fruit in South Africa exceeds imagination in diversity and sweetness. I'd never tasted fresh lichees before, or Cape gooseberries, or Hanepoot grapes which redefine nectar, fresh, soft, sweet loquats, the papaya and mango - ripe to perfection. We do not dive into the platters, rather we eat and bless in accord with the order of the Tu Bishvat seder of the Kabbalists and muse on the metaphors and rise with the spirituality each level offers:

Assiyah Level: Tree fruits with a rind or shell

Yetzirah Level: Tree fruits with a soft exterior and seed within

Beriyah Level: Totally edible tree fruits

Atzilut Level: Tree fruits of entrancing fragrance

Each course of the ritual begins with a glass of wine or fruit - white, then pink, then light red, then full red, winter, spring, summer, fall. We bless the wine and the fruits each in their turn and discuss the spiritual meaning of the symbols. Rabbi Sherman, well into his nineties, is the emeritus Reform rabbi, he gets into the spirit of the first level of fruit by suggesting that we look at the polarities of having a tough skin. We take each other higher and deeper. My orthodox colleague, Rabbi Steinhorn, expands upon a mystical passage from the Zohar between courses of wine and fruit.

This is the way a Tu Bi-Shevat seder is meant to be!

Everyone back in the van? We're off to our next stop on the mystery trip? Apparently they have yet another surprise in store.

Tu Bi-Shevat is meant to help repair this world, to realize that it once was the Garden of Eden, to experience that awareness so that we will want to maintain it, to restore it. South Africa could have been such a garden, but it is not. To give this Tu Bi-Shevat meaning beyond the ceremonial, my colleagues take me to the edge of the other South Africa, Cape Flats. The Flats are townships of hundreds of thousands of families living in tiny houses and shacks of corrugated metal sheets in abject poverty and terrible internal turmoil.

Gangs, addictions and an out of control AIDS epidemic are among the conditions that plague these humans who were once required to live here under the racist policies of Apartheid, and now in a climate of 60-80% unemployment have nowhere to go.

Though I want to explore, they assure me it is not safe to stop for long. Our ride continues and next we approach a forest. Why are we coming here?

The sign over the entrance reads The Nelson Mandela Peace Forest and below it something to the effect of, "a project of the Cape Town Jewish National Fund." As a child in Hebrew school we received card board circles with slots for coins to be hung on a tree in the school court yard. A filled circle would make the planting of a tree possible in Israel, such work is assigned to the Jewish National Fund, JNF.

Inside a team of local women meet and escort us to hear a children's choir. The center director explains the program. Here people from the flats can come to learn agriculture, to help reforest the devastated land, teens receive mediation training skills. One by one the mothers get up to explain the hope this project has brought into their lives for their children's futures.

The Cape Town rabbis tell me the JNF Peace Forest project was originally developed by a volunteer, a Cape Town dentist. It was considered radical at first and now is embraced, a small God-spark in a seemingly helpless situation.

Each of us make our own donation and the local rabbis recommit to bringing notice of this project to their congregations as a serious part of the Jewish community's tzedakah, "charity/justice" commitment to humanity. This was the perfect completion of the Tu Bi-Shevat seder, expressing true spirituality, a going beyond the self and planting a tikkun, a "repair" that touches creation back to the beginning of time.