Grecian Jews marked the holiday of Tu B’Shevat by bringing life back to a forest southeast of Athens that was claimed by fire more than two years ago. All told, 80 members of the Greek capital’s Jewish community planted some 200 trees in Kalyvia Thorikou, a suburban area near the city’s international airport. Chabad-Lubavitch of Greece, in cooperation with the Plant-a-Tree organization, sponsored the Sunday arboreal event.

“It was a nice day,” said Daniel Cohen, who joined Athens residents and families from the suburbs of Kifissia and Glyfada to work the earth. “I thought I might go with friends.”

In the end, Cohen – who had never planted a tree before – gave eight saplings a new home, making him one of the more prodigious members of the group.

“It was very interesting,” said the 27-year-old “We did it ourselves.”

Formed just months before a series of forest fires in Greece claimed the lives of 84 people and destroyed 670,000 acres of forest and farmland in what was called Greece’s worst fire season in 50 years, Plant-a-Tree has supervised the introduction of more than 19,000 trees to damaged forests.

Known as the New Year for trees, Tu B’Shevat – which fell out on Saturday this year – marks the date between one year’s tree-based produce and the next for tithing purposes. It’s traditionally celebrated by eating fruit, specifically those for which the Land of Israel is known, and in the modern era, has been a time to plant trees.

Because Shabbat observances preclude working the soil, communities around the world held special ceremonies on Friday and Sunday. Many of the 100 campus-based Chabad Houses, meanwhile, featured special menus for their Shabbat meals emphasizing exotic fruits.

In Greece, along with the tree planting event, children gathered to do art projects, sing holiday-related songs and learn about the special day.

Michal Katz, who attended with family, said that it was a perfect time to reforest an area destroyed by fire. A native of Israel, where citizens annually take to the forests to plant trees, Katz had experience in the task dating back years. But the Greek event was a first for her three children.

“They took their mission very seriously,” said Katz, who has a seven-year-old daughter and five-year-old son. They meticulously kept their saplings straight as they placed them into the ground and packed soil around them.

Plant-a-Tree, which advocates the protection and preservation of green spaces around Athens, provided pine and other species – all local varieties – to plant. The organization will water the trees for the first two years.

A sapling takes root near Athens. (Photo: Constantine Nikitiadis)
A sapling takes root near Athens. (Photo: Constantine Nikitiadis)

For Future Generations

Just last summer, fires sent locals from the northern suburbs fleeing into Athens. Many, including Chabad-Lubavitch of Greece directors Rabbi Mendel and Nechama Hendel, were told to stay put in the city as firefighters battled the blazes.

“Fires unfortunately are not an uncommon phenomenon in most Mediterranean countries,” said Plant-a-Tree co-founder Panos Valampous-Kountouras, whose organization is trying to set up a firefighting team to protect its saplings.

Nechama Hendel said the chance to get outdoors and bring new life to an area was an enjoyable experience for everyone involved, especially the children.

“It was a very nice atmosphere,” she said. “Companies sponsored the fruit, sound system, pictures and video.

“Our children kept counting the trees,” she added. “They were so excited.”

For her part, Katz said she appreciated the meaning the Hendels infused in the activities through Torah-based talks in Greek, English and Hebrew.

One story they told was a Talmudic parable of Choni Hama’agal, who stopped an old man who was in the midst of planting a carob tree, a species known to take 70 years to bear fruit. He asked the old man why he would plant a tree that he wouldn’t be able to enjoy.

The man answered: “I came to a world full of carob trees. Who do you think planted them?”

Choni Hama’agal fell asleep, and when he woke 70 years later, he found the old man’s grandson picking carobs off of the tree.

So too, explained the Hendels, the present generation cares for its descendents by planting seeds for their benefit.

“There were a lot of people,” said Katz, “but everyone was quiet when they heard the story.”