Observing Tu B’Shvat and MLK Day
Environmental Justice and the Jewish New Year for the Trees
One important principle of conservation: everything you do impacts others. Dr. King recognized that social justice could not be achieved without environmental justice – including healthier living environments for underprivileged communities, and universal access to clean air, water, and soil. As he said in his 1967 Christmas sermon, shared below.
Today Kehillah honors both of these holidays by planting an apple tree and spending some time in reflection around the meaning and significance of both of these holidays.
Click to expand Senior, Bobby Targ’s speech, click again to minimize
“...because the means represent the seed and the end represents the tree”...
In discussing means and ends, let’s talk about New Years. Plural. They mark goals, and changes being made to achieve them. One full spin around the sun marks four new seasons of exploration, Rosh Hashanah marks the start of a new page onto which we write the stories of our lives, and the 15th of Shvat marks the first signs of a new spring and a time for flora to bloom. The latter new year, Tu’Bshvat indicates not only a point wherein nature flourishes, but humanity does by extension.
People and the environment in which they’ve lived have been intertwined since people have been a thing, and Tu B’Shvat helps us remember that. On this particular New Year of the Trees is another marker of a beneficial transition for people: Martin Luther King Jr Day. You all know Doctor King — civil rights leader who rallied against Jim Crow and other racially discriminatory policies from the late 50s to the 60s. But what may be less known was his impact in forwarding environmental justice.
Now, before we proceed, we have to settle on a decent definition of what environmental justice even is. It’s a deceptively difficult question to be sure. Does anyone have any ideas? [wait ~30 sec for the students to posit ideas] This past summer, I got the opportunity to study environmental justice from a legal perspective, working on a 50-odd page legislative compendium about it. After months of research and work, the legal counsel with which I was working concluded that environmental justice is the pursuit of providing every American with a clean and safe place to live. And this goal begins with the environments of low-income and people of color communities, as those groups continue to experience disproportionate impact in comparison to others with regard to environmental issues.
For years, African American sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee had experienced profound racial discrimination from all angles. They possessed few of the workers’ rights that white employees of similar facilities enjoyed, had 94 cent wages, and could be fired on a dime. They were expected to tend to the gardens of the politicians who oppressed them while being given strict instructions to avoid Black areas of the city. Memphis is 65% Black. The environment in which the majority of the population lived experienced a disparate, racially-motivated hit in quality, leading to sickness in those parts of town, making it that much harder for Memphis African Americans to escape oppression. So the sanitation workers organized a strike. On April 3rd 1968, Dr. King Jr. delivered a speech, commending the sanitation workers for their bravery and more to the point, the pursuit of environmental justice. He said to the people “I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. I’ve seen Black boys drink blacker water from their faucets while the white man a block over suckles ambrosia. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but
I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.” The next day Doctor King was assassinated.
But we aren’t here to grieve that loss, but rather to celebrate Dr. King’s successes, as only two weeks later the sanitation workers were given better wages and the ENRD was sent into Memphis to inspect the disproportionate level of toxins in the Black areas of the city in comparison to the White parts. They found, of course, that there was a disparate impact, for which the Black neighborhoods were duly compensated. Through MLK’s speech and the courage of the sanitation workers, the ideals of environmental justice were brought a little closer to fruition, adding a new safe place in which everyone can work, learn and play.
The next year, in 1969, the Cuyahoga River—which flows through largely low-income and racial minority communities—caught ablaze because of the unlawful dumping of volatile waste from a nearby factory. In the suit against the plant, attorneys used precedent that MLK set several years previous to win their case. They effectively said that the only reason why the factory could be so close to the river in the first place was because the communities most affected by the environmental hazards that it’d pose would not have enough of a voice to fight back. And in 2021, the same argument was used in a mass-tort case against the City of Flint Michigan, for reasons of which you’re likely already aware. Dr. King Jr.’s effect on environmental justice was so profound that long after his untimely passing, his ideas regarding the subject continue to be held in high regard.
When you really break it down, Tu B’Shvat marks the point in the year when people have the cleanest and most helpful environment. The 15th of Shvat is when the trees begin to be fruitful and the graminoids surrounding them start to bloom. And environmental justice is about ensuring that that clean and safe environment keeps existing for as long as possible for as many people as possible.
Tu B’Shvat isn’t about all the trees, and neither is Environmental Justice. They’re about marking that transition between a period where the environment and its people are out of sync and the period where they (and we) can bloom together.
1967 Massey Lecture #5, also known as Dr. Martin Luther King JR’s “Christmas Sermon on Peace,” Dr. King said:
Click to expand MLK’s speech, click again to minimize
It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated.
We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.
Did you ever stop to think that you can’t leave for your job in the morning without being dependent upon most of the world? You get up in the morning and go to the bathroom and reach over for the sponge, and that’s handed you by a Pacific Islander. You reach for a bar of soap, and that’s given to you at the hands of a Frenchman. And then you go into the kitchen to drink your coffee for the morning and that is poured into your cup by a South American. And maybe you want tea: that’s poured into your cup by a Chinese.
Or maybe you desire to have cocoa for breakfast, and that’s poured into your cup by a West African. And then you reach over for your toast, and that’s given you at the hands of an English-speaking farmer, not to mention the baker. And before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half the world.
This is the way our universe is structured. It is its interrelated quality.
We aren’t going to have peace on earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality.
Below you can view pictures and videos that give a glimpse into parts of our observation of both holidays. Students Yuval Mazor ’22, and Rachelle Lang ’22 of JLC along with Roni Gal-Oz ’22 of Stu Gov led the program. Above, you can read the thoughtful piece written by Kehillah Senior, Bobby Targ.