College students across the country marked the Jewish “New Year for Trees” last week, some munching on dried fruits and others pondering the spiritual lessons the arboreal and agricultural worlds can offer.

In Lancaster, Pa., students from Franklin & Marshall College and York College of Pennsylvania focused on a tree’s purpose as an allegory of human existence. With an eye to selected articles by the late Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Jay Litvin – his “How a Stupid Little Ruler Saved My Life” recalls gazing at a tree and thinking how firm it was in its mission of sheltering everything underneath its branches – Rabbi Elazar Green of the local Chabad Jewish Enrichment Center led a discussion while the attendees of his weekly Torah class enjoyed a festive spread of whole fruits and fruit salad.

Further north, meanwhile, students at York University in Toronto examined the mystical significance of the seven fruits and grains the Torah praises the Land of Israel for and their connection to a person’s Divine service. Rabbi Vidal and Chanah Leah Bekerman, who have directed the university’s campus-based Chabad House since 2006, organized the celebration, which featured live music and the opportunity for attendees to make their own fruit smoothies.

While the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat marks the blooming season of fruit-bearing trees in Israel and is legally, a cutoff point in the separation of some agricultural tithes from one year to the next, Jewish tradition imports spiritual significance to the holiday. A verse from the Torah draws a comparison between human beings and trees, which Chasidic thought has extended into several practical lessons. Among the teachings is that just as a seed must be perfect in order to grow into a strong tree, human beings – who, from the earliest age, are deeply impressionable – need the right kind of nourishment and protection in order to grow to their fullest potentials.

David Akinin, a native of Venezuela and president of the Chabad Student Group at the University of Chicago, saw in the holiday an “opportunity to spread Judaism.” He helped run a table at the campus library in the middle of the night, offering free snacks of dried fruits to passing classmates. Rabbi Yossi Brackman, executive director of the Chabad Jewish Center serving the university and the surrounding Hyde Park neighborhood, was also on hand to provide spiritual insights.

“Everyone was studying for midterms anyway, so the library was a great spot for our display,” said Akinin. “It was a cool way to increase Jewish awareness on campus.”

Going Green

Nearby at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Dovid and Goldie Tiechtel played up the holiday’s ecological tenets at a “Go Green” event sponsored by their Chabad Jewish Student Center.

At the event, students were invited to decorate a recycled bottles for use as vases. In keeping with tradition, fruit was served.

“It teaches people to be creative and not waste objects,” said freshman Elana Solomon. “If we want to celebrate the trees, we should stop using so much paper, and act in a more sustainable way so that we can help save the earth.”

The Chabad House at the University of Miami also focused on protecting the environment, emphasizing that Jewish life can go hand-in-hand with “going green.” They had Jacob Brudoley, an Israeli-born and U.S.-trained psychiatrist who lectures on the nexus between Torah and science, speak about the Torah’s approach to physical phenomena.

In keeping with the “all-natural” theme, a salad bar and freshly-squeezed juice bar offered refreshments.

“Judaism deals with all of these things,” asserted Rabbi Mendy Fellig, co-director of the Chabad House. “People are realizing more and more that the physical and the spiritual are closely intertwined.”