Tu Bishvat, a Super Bowl Ad and Israel’s Soda Water Company

This Shabbat is one of the four Jewish New Years set forth in the Mishna. Tu Bishvat, or Jewish Arbor Day, occurs on the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Sh’vat. In addition to being a birthday for trees, the holiday is deeply connected to the agricultural cycle of the Land of Israel and in modern days has become a day for celebrating the environment and reminding us of our responsibility as good stewards of the land.

At the core of this ethic for environmental stewardship is the concept of bal tashchit – the ban on wonton destruction of the earth’s resources. This environmental principle, which includes waste reduction, should be a focus on the holiday of Tu Bishvat.

Daniel Birnbaum of SodaStream with Conservative Rabbis in Israel (Masorti Mission 2012)
Daniel Birnbaum of SodaStream speaking to Conservative rabbis in Israel

This value was articulated in a presentation I heard last month while I was visiting Israel. Together with a dozen of my rabbinic colleagues, we toured the headquarters of SodaStream, the makers of consumer home carbonated water products. Daniel Birnbaum, the CEO of publicly traded SodaStream, explained to our group the positive environmental impact of his products. “This is the new way to do soda. We’re revolutionizing it with a smarter way to enjoy soft drinks.”

In his presentation to our group, Birnbaum showed how SodaStream reduces the amount of packaging waste from cans and bottles. The company, he explained, also eliminates much of the pollution caused by the transport of bottled beverages. SodaStream has sponsored initiatives promoting waste reduction and improved quality of tap water. In his PowerPoint presentation, Birnbaum explained the alarming statistic that “460 billion bottles and cans manufactured every year, of which the vast majority are dumped as waste across parks, oceans and landfills.”

SodaStream's Daniel Birnbaum with Rabbi Jason Miller
With SodaStream’s Daniel Birnbaum at the Mishor Adumim production facility

In its most aggressive marketing campaign alerting the international community to the negative effects of plastic bottle waste, SodaStream displayed a 318-square foot cage in several countries. The cage contained 10,657 empty bottles and cans showing that the waste produced by one family over the course of five years from beverage containers can be replaced by a single SodaStream bottle. The “Cage Campaign” has now been on display in over 30 countries.

This aggressive marketing campaign erupted into controversy when one of SodaStream’s cages was erected in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2012. Coca-Cola demanded that SodaStream remove all of the empty products from the cages bearing Coca-Cola’s trademark logos and threatened to sue SodaStream if they didn’t comply. Birnbaum not only rebuffed Coca-Cola’s demands, but he went on the offensive by ordering the display of one of those cages right outside Coca-Cola’s headquarters in Atlanta.

Controversy is obviously something Birnbaum isn’t afraid of. Over the years he has taken a lot of heat for the location of SodaStream’s world headquarters in the territories outside of Jerusalem in the West Bank settlement of Mishor Adumim. The European Union’s highest court ruled in 2010 that SodaStream was not entitled to claim a “Made in Israel” exemption from EU customs payments because of the company’s primary manufacturing plant is technically located outside of Israel. Human right’s groups like Peace Now have long objected to SodaStream’s operations in the territories and publicly disparage SodaStream on the web.

Pro-Palestinian activists who advocate consumer boycotts of goods produced outside of Israel’s green line have protested SodaStream around the globe, saying the company has profited from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. They say Palestinian workers suffer from low wages and poor working conditions at SodaStream, but Birnbaum argues that none of that is true. For his part, Birnbaum claims he is a strong proponent of human rights, and that thanks to SodaStream thousands of local Palestinians in Mishor Adumim have good paying jobs. Those workers, he explains, would not be able to support their families without their jobs in SodaStream’s manufacturing plant.

In an effort to capitalize on SodaStream’s success, Birnbaum will be spending approximately $3.8 million on a 30-second spot during next month’s Super Bowl. Its recent “Setting the Bubbles Free” commercial, showing hundreds of soft drink bottles exploding when a person uses a SodaStream machine, was banned in the UK when television advertising monitoring agency Clearcast argued that it denigrates the bottled drink industry. Birnbaum is considering legal action in the UK and has countered publicly by asking, “Are we really being censored for helping to save the environment? This might be the first time in the world when an environmental approach has been shut down by the media to protect a traditional industry.” It will be interesting to see what Birnbaum and SodaStream have in store for the over 111 million Super Bowl viewers around the world.

I was quite impressed listening to Birnbaum speak passionately about SodaStream’s products and its environmental concern for the global good. The former CEO of Nike Israel (he also gained experience at Pillsbury and Procter & Gamble), was raised in a home in which strong Jewish values were preached. Birnbaum’s father was a Conservative rabbi who emphasized the importance of the State of Israel and philanthropic giving (Birnbaum is a major donor to the Masorti Judaism, the Conservative Movement’s Israeli affiliate). While Birnbaum, a Harvard MBA, is committed to his life as an executive businessman, he also gets a chance to participate as a leader in a synagogue for a few days each year. He travels to Cincinnati to serve as the High Holiday cantor of Adath Israel Congregation each Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur along with his wife Bat Ella, an accomplished Israeli musician.

Daniel Birnbaum, High Holiday Cantor at Adath Israel Congregation Cincinnati
Daniel Birnbaum with the High Holiday choir at Adath Israel Congregation

As Tu Bishvat approaches, I would encourage people to learn more about SodaStream and its positive impact on the environment. Yes, it is a publicly traded company on the NASDAQ with major investors and a goal of becoming a billion dollar company, but it also has a vision based on the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam — improving our earth. SodaStream will never be loved by the BDS (boycot-divest-sanction) movement, pro-Palestinian groups, or the big soda corporations like Coke and Pepsi. However, it is making a great product, putting thousands of at-risk Palestinians into the work force, and trying to make an impact in reducing the world’s waste from bottles and cans.

I guarantee that after SodaStream’s Super Bowl commercial airs, Daniel Birnbaum will be the topic of conversation around the world. He’s a guy who should be admired, not denigrated. So on this Tu Bishvat I hope people drink a soda water L’chayim to Daniel Birnbaum, set the bubbles free, and pledge to help eliminate waste caused by all those unnecessary plastic bottles that are ruining our environment. Happy Tu Bishvat!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

A Very Jewish Super Bowl

This year’s Super Bowl Sunday will place two major Jewish philanthropists against each other. The New York Giants are co-owned by the Tisch family and the New England Patriots are owned by the Kraft family.

Joint Media News Service’s Jacob Kamaras provided the “who’s who” for both families and which Jewish organizations they all lead. In the Giants’ owners’ box you have “film and television producer Steve Tisch, son of Bob, as the team’s chairman and executive vice president. Bob’s brother, Larry, was the father of Jim — former president of the UJA Federation of New York and former board chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Jim’s wife, Merryl, chairs the board of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty.”

On the other side of the field you have the Tisch family with “owner Robert Kraft’s wife Myra—who passed away last July—served as chair of the Boston-based Combined Jewish Philanthropies’ (CJP) board of directors and was twice co-chair of CJP’s annual fundraising campaign.”

Both families are responsible for donating mega amounts of charitable gifts to major Jewish organizations, both here and in Israel. So, which Jewish owner’s team will come out victorious on Sunday night? For that we have to go to Rabbi Joshua Hammerman, who each year uses his Torah erudition to select the Super Bowl winner.

This year, the Connecticut-based Rabbi Hammerman decides to not make a Super Bowl prediction because “this year’s matchup hits too close to home – and, more to the point, my prediction before Super Bowl 42 (of a Pats win) did not work out too well. So, because I prefer not to jinx my team, no prediction this year.” He does use the Torah narrative to provide some background on the game:

Just before Super Bowl 42, you recall, the Patriots were busted for spying. In my prediction before that Super Bowl, which I am not repeating here, I noted that in the book of Numbers when the Israelite spies confronted “giants” as the scouted out the land, they reported back that they felt “like grasshoppers.” I noted that anyone who has ever been to Boston knows that high above that home of the original Patriots, Faneuil Hall, there sits a weathervane in the shape of, you guessed it, a grasshopper!

I also noted (in that prediction, which I’m not repeating here) that the Patriots wandered for just over 40 years before winning the first championship in 2002. So they had already served their time for the sin of the spies, which, as you recall from Numbers, was 40 years. For 40 years, the Patriotic spies were never able to stand up to the Giants…or the Raiders or Steelers or Dolphins, for that matter. But no more. First they sacrificed the Rams in Super Bowl 36, then they pillaged the Panthers and flew on wings of Eagles. Now, coached by a former Giant, they have become giants – in their own eyes, and the eyes of the other teams in the league. 

I then noted (but am not repeating here) that Giants are called both Nefilim and Anakim in the Torah. The Nefilim were mythic humanoids that filled the earth before the flood, much like the Titans of Greek mythology (a Giant-Titan Super Bowl would have been a doozy), while the Anakim were the ones who petrified the Israelite spies. There is one other giant of note in the Bible: Goliath. But it isn’t just Goliath who bit the dust, folks. When Rashi tried to explain the term Nifilim, he related it to the Hebrew word “nafal,” “to fall.” As Rashi (he was so good at predicting games that they called him “Rashi the Greek”) understood it, the Giants fell.

Based on Rashi, I concluded then that the Giants would fall. What I didn’t account for was the heroism of an unexpected David, whose last name is Tyree, who also happened to be a Giant. That was then, this is now. I can’t repeat my prior prediction, lest I tempt fate and repeat the result.

Many people enjoy Super Bowl Sunday, but not for the actual football match up. It is after all the second biggest eating day of year after Thanksgiving. So many people look forward to the food. I found this very non-kosher, but very cool looking Super Bowl food creation. It could very easily be adapted to a kosher creation by using only kosher deli meats and getting rid of the cheese and cheese snacks. And while we’re at it, how about substituting some rye bread and onion rolls for that white bread? I know one former NFL player who would enjoy this treif tray. Former New England Patriots punter Josh Miller, who is Jewish, played for the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX and was recently quoted as saying that he was craving a ham sandwich with less than a minute to play in that game, which the Patriots won 24-21 over the Philadelphia Eagles.

Finally, I feel inclined to give some credit to Yeshiva University for offering a learning opportunity during halftime of the Super Bowl. The YU Torah Halftime Show incorporates Torah into the Super Bowl experience. It is a series of three 8 minute presentations on “Torah and Sports” topics, featuring leading faculty members Rabbi Ely Allen, Rabbi Lawrence Hajioff and Dr. Yitzchak Schechter. The Torah learning show will be available for viewing on YU’s dedicated website on Sunday. Here’s the promo video for the YU Torah Halftime Show:

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller