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

New Leket Israel App Released on Tu Bishvat

It’s too bad that the new movie “The Lorax” (an adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ classic tale) won’t be released for another month because today is the birthday of the trees! The 15th day of the Jewish month of Shevat is known as Tu Bishvat and is the official beginning of the “fiscal year” for harvesting the crops in Israel.

In the Torah, there is a series of mitzvot (commandments) relating to crops and produce that applies to harvesting in the land of Israel. While many think of Tu Bishvat as a Jewish Arbor Day when everyone plants a tree in Israel, it actually is a day dedicated to feeding the hungry. The Torah legislates that once grains and fruit have been gathered in Israel, there is a mandatory gift called terumah that donated to the Kohen (priest). Following this gift offering, there are ma’aser (tithing) gifts that are required to be given including the ma’aser ani, which is a tithe consisting of 1/10th of the remaining crops to be given to poor.

In addition to the tithing requirements, the Torah also mandates that, “When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings” (Deuteronomy 24:19). This is known as the gleanings of the field, or leket in Hebrew. In Michigan, we have a wonderful community food bank called Gleaners that supplied over 40 million pounds of food to soup kitchens and shelters throughout the state. Our family spent the recent Christmas morning volunteering at Gleaners Community Food Bank in Detroit and it was a wonderful opportunity for my young children to learn about the concept of gleaning and our responsibility to feed the hungry among us.

In Israel, one of my favorite organizations is Leket Israel (formerly known as “Table to Table”). Every time I visit Israel I make certain to take my group to Leket Israel to volunteer. Serving as the Israel’s national food bank, Leket Israel is the largest food rescue network and works to alleviate the problem of nutritional insecurity among Israel’s poor. Their statistics are staggering: 40,000 volunteers helping to rescue over 700,000 meals and 21 million pounds of produce and perishable goods. Leket Israel supplies over 1.25 million (7,500/school day) volunteer prepared sandwiches to underprivileged children.

Today, Leket Israel released its new iPhone and Android applications, which are available in both Hebrew and English. The new apps help the user find the closest food agency to donate any excess food from an event at a catering hall, an office party or a celebration at home. Leket Israel is the first nonprofit in Israel to design such an application. Some U.S. based food banks offer mobile apps to feed the hungry like the Boston Food Bank’s Give A Doodle app which lets users donate food by simply doodling a picture of food on their iPhone, Android and tablet touch screens.

Leket Israel’s Founder and Chairman Joseph Gitler is proud of the new app. He said, “The Leket Israel App will allow both Israelis and tourists visiting Israel easy access to finding the closest location in need of the surplus food from their event. We are very excited to have created the first of its kind in Israel and to use technology to better serve those less fortunate.” Both the iPhone and Android versions of Leket Israel’s new app are sure to contribute to feeding Israel’s growing poor population.

On this Tu Bishvat, in addition to raising our commitment to protecting the environment and being thankful for the fruit bearing trees that nourish us, let us also bolster our commitment to feeding the hungry in our midst. Support your local food bank and remember to donate your gleanings to vital organizations near you that are doing important work like Leket Israel and Gleaners Community Food Bank.

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

The Giving Tree for Tu Bishvat

Ten years ago I was asked by the editor of the journal Conservative Judaism to write about my favorite book from my childhood. There was no question I would write about Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. In honor of the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat — the birthday of the trees — I republish those words on this blog.

The Giving Tree

“And then the tree was happy… But not really.” Ever since I made the decision to become a rabbi several years ago, I have had a recurring vision of my future rabbinate. In this vision, I am sitting in a nursery school classroom at the synagogue reading The Giving Tree, my favorite children’s book, to the class. It is a tender story with many lessons to give about a young boy’s relationship with a tree. Through the years I have discovered many of the metaphors that abound throughout this parable – metaphors about nature, parents, and God.

The tree has a simple goal, and that is to make the little boy happy. When he asks the tree for money, she suggests that he sell her apples. When he asks for a house, she offers her branches as lumber. He keeps asking and she keeps giving, until all that is left of the tree is a stump when the young boy returns as an old man. And he sits on it.

This is a wonderful story for teachers to use when discussing the law of bal tash’chit – the Torah’s ban on wanton destruction of nature. Our role as God’s children is to repair the world (l’taken olam b’malkhut shaddai) and we must be careful not to exploit such precious gifts as trees, and nature’s other resources.

It is telling that as the boy matures into an old man, Silverstein continues to refer to him as the “boy.” This shows that the tree continued to give even as the boy grew, just as this wonderful book continues to give even as the audience of young boys and young girls gets older. People of all ages will appreciate the feelings of both joy and tears that this book elicits. This is why I no longer only envision myself as a rabbi sharing The Giving Tree with nursery school children, but with “children” of all ages as well. Each time I read this story, I am taken away and then I am happy… But not really.

(Originally published in Conservative Judaism, Vol. 53, No. 4, Summer 2001)

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