Healing Holiday

Tu B'Shevat focuses desert-dwelling Jews on environmental ethics.

When Sara Golan-Mussman came to the Sonoran Desert and saw prickly pear cactus, she felt right at home. Prickly pear is so much a part of the emotional-spiritual landscape of Israel that native-born Israelis are called "sabras" after the Hebrew name for the fruit of the cactus.

A sabra is "prickly on the outside, and sweet on the inside," explains Golan-Mussman, cantorial soloist with Congregation Kol Haneshamah in Tucson.

She assumed the cactus itself was native to Israel, until encountering it here. Spanish explorers gathered the green stems of a species of prickly pear in central Mexico to serve as a Vitamin C source on the long voyage home. The cactus later became popular as an ornamental in the Mediterranean, explains Avinoam Nerd of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, in Beer Sheba, Israel.

The deserts of the American Southwest and Israel share many other connections.

Whether it is the Colorado River in the United States or the River Jordan in the Middle East, diversion of water from major rivers is a loaded political topic. As residents pump more groundwater than is replenished each year, water tables in both regions continue to fall, endangering the trees that are key in their respective ecosystems.

If the deserts themselves are in need of healing, they still draw people seeking cleansing and renewal.

People from around the world travel to the Yam HaMelach, the Salt Sea, as the Dead Sea is known in Hebrew, to experience the intense sun and salt-water soaks that have been shown to be clinically effective in healing psoriasis. And for decades, physicians advised people with asthma and other chronic respiratory problems to move to Tucson.

As the holiday of Tu B'Shevat approaches, Jews all around the world prepare to celebrate nature and teach their communities about environmental issues.

And from the Sonoran Desert, people with multiple chemical sensitivity call out, urgently speaking of the need to discontinue the use of the toxic products that are making them so very ill.

TU B'SHEVAT ORIGINATED as a new year for trees in ancient Israel. Farmers ate only the fruit from trees that were at least four years old, and gave 10 percent of the harvest to feed the poor and support the priests of the Temple in Jerusalem. The day lost much of its practical importance when the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. (common era, referring to the same date as the Christian-oriented A.D. 70).

In the 1500s, Jewish mystics living in the town of Safed above the Sea of Galilee revived the holiday by developing a seder modeled after the ceremonial meal eaten at Passover.

Participants eat a variety of fruits and nuts that embody certain spiritual qualities. In recent years, Tu B'Shevat has become increasingly popular as a time to focus on Jewish environmental ethics.

Gathering to express gratitude for the organically grown fruits of the land shows that environmental action can be very communal, notes Tzadik Greenberg, chair of the Southern Arizona Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.

The group will be holding its fourth annual Tu B'Shevat seder Sunday, January 27 at the Tucson Jewish Community Center, one of many cosponsors for the event. A number of congregations are also hosting seders on that and the following day, as well as on February 3.

SAZ COEJL's Greenberg and Congregation Kol Haneshamah's Golan-Mussman will lead participants in songs, prayers, poems and the ceremonial eating of fruits and nuts. The event will also include a light meal of pita, humus and salad, and the distribution of saplings from Trees for Tucson.

This is only the second such large public seder; the group held earlier Tu B'Shevat gatherings at members' homes.

SAZ COEJL officially began in the spring of 1998 when William Drabkin, Rochelle Gerratt and Jonathan Seidel attended the national COEJL conference in Washington, D.C. and met with leaders there about forming a regional affiliate.

But the seeds for the organization had been planted in 1996 when Seidel started raising environmental issues as director of education at the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona. With the early encouragement of John Peck, then director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, and Stuart Mellan, then executive vice president, he worked to bring together a wide range of people.

Seidel produced two educational programs through the "EcoSpirit" committee, one on feminism and the environment, and the other on Israeli literature and the environment.

Seidel, Drabkin, Garrett, Debra Colodner and Neil Markowitz began regular conversations in the fall of 1997. Seidel, who moved to Eugene, Ore. last spring, explains that he had been involved with national COEJL since its founding in 1993, and his goal had always been to encourage the formation of a regional affiliate in Tucson. He also tried to raise interest in Flagstaff and Phoenix.

The founders of SAZ COEJL included primarily educators whose focus was not on overt political action, but on transformation through helping Jews experience nature and learn about the ethics of responsible stewardship spelled out in the Torah, Talmud and other writings.

They began by organizing "eco-spiritual hikes," in which participants would walk in nature, pausing to read from Jewish sources on the environment, or to pray or meditate.

Such hikes are still core to the group. In December, members of both SAZ COEJL and Kol B'Yachad, a Jewish social organization, met at Sabino Canyon to hike and hold a Havdalah ceremony under the stars.

Havdalah takes place after the sky darkens on Saturday evening, and three stars become visible, marking the end of Shabbat, the weekly Jewish holiday of rest and renewal. Hike leader Gregg Garfin, a climatologist at the University of Arizona, noted that Jewish tradition "has a rich heritage of honoring transitions."

The tzitzit, or fringes, of the prayer shawl "remind us that we're not separate from Hashem," said Garfin. "Hashem" literally means "the name," and is one of the many Jewish ways of referring to a God whose name is not spoken aloud.

Garfin observed, "Transition times in our life can be difficult, filled with struggle, and yet they are often times rich with change, new ideas, energy and inspiration." He noted that in the natural world, the transition areas from one plant community or bioregion to another are often rich in species diversity.

He encouraged participants to take the transition time of Havdalah to appreciate the richness of the interplay between the spiritual insights received on Shabbat, and the concerns of the workweek.

Leaders in SAZ COEJL also ask community members to apply what Greenberg, the chair, refers to as the "storehouse of wisdom knowledge" of traditional Jewish sources. One example is an early program on water conservation, which included both a talk by a representative of Tucson Water and a discussion of Biblical passages about conservation led by Seidel.

With so many environmental challenges to address, the small group faced the risk of trying to go in too many directions at once.

When Laura Pinnas moved to Tucson in 1999, she brought the idea of developing a strategic plan, which had been effective for Shomrei Adamah, the Jewish environmental organization in which she had been active in Washington, D.C.

SAZ COEJL held two "visioning sessions" in 2000, one of which was facilitated by Mark X. Jacobs, executive director of national COEJL. The steering committee then began a strategic planning process, and continues to meet monthly to refine the plan, says Pinnas, who serves as vice-chair and secretary.

This helped the group to focus on goals and stay on track, notes Gerratt, who serves as treasurer co-chair and Israel chair. "Going slow" has been the right strategy, she adds, even if group members are sometimes impatient.

Even with a good plan in place, it was still challenging for the group of overcommitted volunteers to develop the programs they envisioned. So Susan Silverman applied for a fellowship that would pay her to coordinate the activities of both SAZ COEJL and the Jewish Arts Alliance. The Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona agreed to be the 501(c)(3) fiscal sponsor for the endeavor.

When the fellowship didn't materialize, the Federation decided to spend some of the grant money allocated to the Jewish Community Relations Council, because the environment and the arts are both so important to Jewish communal life, says John Peck, former director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, now vice president of the Federation.

SAZ COEJL and the Jewish Arts Alliance may also serve as a form of outreach, attracting Jews who do not feel they fit into other local Jewish organizations, explains Peck. Gerratt, one of the founders, hasn't felt drawn to participate in traditional religion and SAZ COEJL is her only connection to Jewish community. She is especially interested in the similarities between our area and the Negev in Israel, and now serves as Israel chair.

In 1999, the Federation had provided SAZ COEJL with time from an AmeriCorps volunteer, although members of the group did not mention him when asked about the evolution of the group. Peck describes that time as a period of learning for both SAZ COEJL and the volunteer; Seidel's perspective is that the volunteer was not a good match for the group.

Silverman, who has written grants for local nonprofits, is a "terrific resource" who has helped the group coalesce and develop the infrastructure needed to take on more projects, Peck comments.

This year the group is also receiving a small budget from the Federation. While local health food stores donated organically grown fruits and nuts that were fresh or processed in accordance with the laws of kashrut for the Tu B'Shevat seder last year, the organization did not have the funds to reimburse members for other purchases, explains Silverman.

SAZ COEJL has proven stable enough to survive the departure of three of its five founders. Drabkin left to start his own nonprofit, the Youth Corps of Southern Arizona, which teaches at-risk teens about environmental stewardship and team building through conservation projects on national lands. Seidel accepted an offer to serve as assistant rabbi of Temple Beth Israel in Eugene, Ore., and Colodner left to focus on her job as director of the Earth Semester at Biosphere 2 and raising her two children.

SAZ COEJL steering committee members asked Greenberg to take over as chair when they knew Seidel would leave in June of 2001. Greenberg had a variety of experiences that prepared him, ranging from taking classes with Seidel, to involvement with national COEJL, study at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a summer internship at Elat Chayyim, a Jewish spiritual retreat center.

SAZ COEJL also appears to do a good job of providing structures that allow community members to contribute their knowledge and skills.

For example, Garfin, who led the Havdalah hike, is organizing a forum that brings together scientists, environmental policy specialists and rabbis to discuss "Ecology and Torah: Why Should Jews Care About the Environment?"

And after Gerratt, the Israel chair, led the first Sierra Club trip to Israel and Egypt in April 2001, SAZ COEJL worked with four other organizations to host her slide show on the landscapes and environmental challenges of the region.

Cosponsors not only bring physical resources, such as use of rooms at the Tucson Jewish Community Center, but more established groups also promote events, and experienced leaders serve as advisers, notes vice-chair Pinnas.

Serving as an adviser to SAZ COEJL is part of Rabbi Stephanie Aaron's honoring of "our mandate to be shomrei ha'adamah," or guardians of the earth, she explains. She adds that we need specific ways of reminding ourselves of our kavanah, or spiritual intention. Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia suggested that people extend the light of Hanukkah throughout the year by spending at least 18 minutes each day carrying out the kavanah associated with one of the candles. So Aaron intends to run at least 18 minutes each day as part of training to take part in the Redwood Marathon this May; at Congregation Chaverim's Tu B'Shevat seder she will invite others to run or walk with her, or sponsor her in raising funds for the preservation of ancient redwoods.

National COEJL requires local groups to have three sponsoring organizations before they are recognized as official regional affiliates. And while Silverman's position as a SAZ COEJL coordinator who is employed as program coordinator for the Jewish Community Relations Council is unique, she explains that COEJL affiliates usually receive support from their local federations.

One can ask if there is a cost associated with this support, if a group supported by the Federation may feel a pressure to stay in line with the values of a large, more conservative organization whose major donors may oppose some of the views expressed by SAZ COEJL members.

Peck, the Federation vice president, emphasizes how administrative support from the Federation has helped SAZ COEJL establish itself, when it is so challenging for volunteers to put in the number of hours required to build an independent organization. He observes that SAZ COEJL has some "different dynamics than what we're used to. And we need to be sensitive to that and it's OK, because those different dynamics also inform us and educate us." SAZ COEJL affects "how we perceive things,"

which he thinks is good.

Both he and Seidel, the former Berkeley radical who notes that he is more confrontational than the other founders of SAZ COEJL, talk of the need for everyone to contribute to dialogue.

All Jews must give tzedakah, often translated as charity, but it's rooted in the Hebrew word for justice, and all must be part of discussion, says Seidel. No one should be excluded or demonized, he comments. "Kol Yisrael aravim zeh ba zeh; all Israel [meaning the Jewish people] is connected, all are bound together. Everybody has a place at the table, whether a billionaire developer or a poor Jew who is an environmentalist."

"Does the Jewish community have the courage to tackle critical environmental issues at home?" asks Seidel, noting that dependence on Middle Eastern oil and unsustainable sprawl are key issues in Jewish suburban life.

WHILE SEIDEL focuses on the green committee at his new synagogue in Oregon, the sands of the Sonoran Desert continue to draw people seeking warm winters, connections with the unique plants and animals of the region, or clean air. But when people with multiple chemical sensitivity move here, they are often surprised to find that Tucson has become a big city with its own air quality problems, says Ariel Barfield, chair of the Human Ecology Action League of Southern Arizona.

Barfield notes that studies have found that approximately 16 percent of the U.S. population experiences adverse effects from exposure to chemicals commonly used in products such as carpeting, fragrances and air fresheners, and 2 to 6 percent have been diagnosed with multiple chemical sensitivity, in which commonly used chemicals trigger pervasive symptoms such as severe headaches, difficulty concentrating, nausea and debilitating fatigue.

Finding accessible, affordable housing is a great challenge for people with multiple chemical sensitivity. HEAL of Southern Arizona receives at least 40 calls a year from people seeking housing. It is frustrating to have few referrals to offer callers, some of whom are living in their cars or in tents out in the desert, says Barfield.

But environmentally accessible housing is in such short supply that Barfield herself is having a hard time finding a house on the edge of town for her family. She notes that over half of the people active in HEAL of Southern Arizona are currently searching for better housing.

The closest independent living center that employs an advocate specializing in assisting people with multiple chemical sensitivity and electrical sensitivity is New Horizons in Prescott Valley. Disability advocate Susan Molloy gets calls from 60 to 80 individuals each month. Many calls are from people who are homeless, or are facing the imminent loss of housing.

A person may have to flee an apartment after it is sprayed with pesticide, or someone may call when his family is contemplating a move. After developing extensive survival systems as a homebound person, he knows it will be very challenging to start all over in a new city.

In such situations, it is common to experience a feeling of impending doom that is "dead-on accurate," notes Molloy, who earned an M.A. in disability policy. It's not paranoia when people who have developed environmental sensitivities "feel that their lives are being threatened, and their place in society is about to be ripped away," she comments.

While people can turn to a wealth of books to learn about environmentally healthier personal-care products, building materials and healing practices, Molloy explains, "We don't have a handle yet on how to fit ourselves into our society's customary construction and maintenance protocol. We don't fit."

Prevention involves reducing the use of toxins in general, and of "knock-down" chemicals such as piperonyl butoxide, which Molloy explains is used as a synergist in pesticide application. It inhibits liver enzymes in mammals, and related enzymes in insects. Since exposed people or other animals have less of the "juice" needed to break down toxins, they are especially vulnerable to the effects of these toxins.

Molloy notes that the chemicals usually found in carpet and flooring adhesives may also be particularly damaging. One woman, who uses the name Cougar, developed multiple chemical sensitivity after working in a series of newly remodeled offices in California. As Cougar became more sensitive to commonly used chemicals, she lost her job, her home and many of her friends.

When she visited her mother and brother, who live on a moshav, a type of collective farm in Israel, she became ill from diesel fumes and heavily scented laundry products.

After trying to live with other family members, she moved from national-park campground to campground, feeling very isolated, and becoming increasingly exhausted.

She considered it a "miracle" when she found a women's campground outside Tucson in December 2000 where there were "women who were very much into finding out about MCS [multiple chemical sensitivity] so they could accommodate me."

Some women were willing to use fragrance-free soaps, shampoos and laundry products all the time, and she was able to build friendships with them. Others might make it a priority to use safer products at a potluck so that she could attend.

Among the few belongings that fit in her car, Cougar had brought along some precious Hagaddot, which tell the story of exodus and liberation celebrated at Passover. She and the two other Jewish women at the campground organized a seder, the ceremonial meal that begins the celebration of Passover each spring.

Cougar left not long after the event, when the temperatures in her 8-by-10 foot storage shed "cave" of a home became unbearable. After a summer of camping on a friend's land in California, she returned this November.

Her return was made easier by the fact that one of her friends from last year had already cleaned up the bathroom and shower areas, removing scented soap, and urging women to follow the campground's agreement to keep scented products out of common areas.

The mix of women is different each year. As Cougar thinks ahead to Passover in March, she notes that one of the women from last year is not here, and doesn't know if the three Jewish women this year will organize a seder or not.

Indoor events are usually not accessible to people with multiple chemical sensitivity. Joanne Weiner misses attending the annual Tucson Jewish Film Festival and the frequent art exhibits held at the Tucson Jewish Community Center. She reacts to elements in the building itself that she senses could be either cleaning or extermination products, as well as to the scented products worn by people attending events. She notes that she and three other people with multiple chemical sensitivity described their access needs on the film festival's feedback form several years ago.

The person previously in charge of the film festival is no longer working for the Tucson Jewish Community Center, and it is not possible to know how that information fell through the cracks, says Ken Light, executive director. He encourages people to express their concerns to him directly. While he is not guaranteeing any specific outcome, he says that any concerns will receive attention.

Sandee Brooke knows that the process of change often takes many calls, many letters, many actions. A lifelong Tucson resident, she has volunteered in numerous institutions serving the city as a whole and the Jewish community. But her ability to participate in her own congregation has declined sharply as she has become more chemically sensitive, and the membership of her congregation has changed, attracting people who use more scented personal-care products.

One of her saddest experiences this year was that she was feeling ill by the end of the Kol Nidre services that she describes as so beautiful, so important in her life. The next morning she was having seizures, and could not attend the rest of the services for Yom Kippur, the most holy day in the Jewish calendar.

Brooke's career as an activist began in childhood, as her parents volunteered in the anti-atomic and civil rights movements. She says that as the fight for civil rights took on the different faces of a broad spectrum of peoples of color, then of feminism, and then of people with disabilities, she thought each fight was a brand new one.

But she says that when her parents died about five years ago, "I began to understand that I've been fighting exactly the same battle over and over and over"--that is, the battle for "the ability for each individual to live the best lives that we can."

If it has taken 30 years to gain wheelchair access to public buildings, the work to create access for people with environmental sensitivities is even more challenging, notes Brooke.

Part of the problem is the invisibility of the disability. While some people wear masks or use oxygen, others have no adaptive device that identifies them. Most of the chemicals that induce symptoms are themselves invisible. And observers don't usually recognize the connection between chemical exposures and the neurological, digestive or cardiovascular symptoms that they may bring on.

"When I roll up to the bottom of a flight of stairs in a wheelchair, the barrier is obvious--I can't get in that way," Brooke explains.

But if she enters a building and goes into a bathroom acting like a "perfectly rational human being," is then severely affected by the disinfectant spray and comes out "babbling like a three-year-old," no one understands what has just happened, and at that moment she is not capable of explaining it.

Another challenge is that disability access needs sometimes conflict. She hasn't been to services since the building's glue-down carpet was replaced recently. While linoleum would work better for both environmental and wheelchair access, she notes that carpet helps absorb some of the echoing sound waves that limit participation by people with hearing disabilities.

The barriers to full participation by people with multiple chemical sensitivity are "far more difficult than for any other community I've ever worked for," reflects Brooke.

But change is happening. "I'm a hugger," Brooke says. Sometimes when she gets close to someone, she realizes she can't hug them because their scented products would rub off onto her, and make her sick for the rest of the day. There are people in her congregation and general circle of friends who listen, and either switch to fragrance-free products all the time, or don't wear scented products when they know they'll be seeing her.

"People are becoming educated and changing how they approach the issue of their own scents. I find that very hopeful," says Brooke, planting her own seeds of change this Tu B'Shevat season.

Comments (0)

Add a comment

Add a Comment

Tucson Weekly

Best of Tucson Weekly

Tucson Weekly