It’s just about that time of year in Albany, when legislators might be heard wishing for money to grow on trees. Tu-B’shvat, the New Year for Trees, is celebrated around the time lawmakers return from the holiday recess and settle in to shape the budget. On Monday, Chabad of the Capital District was found in the Capitol lobby looking to give legislators a taste of the holiday of Tu B’shevat.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was among the 200 legislators, legislative aids and staff who munched chewy dried fruits in honor of the day that celebrates trees. Serving fruits of Israel–dates, pomegranates, figs–is traditional, but Chabad representative Rabbi Yisroel Rubin and Rabbi Nachman Simon of Chabad of Delmar, mindfully added a New York State twist by including New York grown apples and pouring sparkling Kedem grape juice, made from concord grapes grown upstate. For the first time since Rabbi Rubin began offering the Tu B’shevat spread in 1979, the festivities were just outside the Assembly chamber instead of in a side room or legislator’s office.
“We are here to serve the Jewish needs of everyone in Albany,” said Rabbi Rubin. “We are here for their personal growth.” As the rabbi with the longest tenure in Albany, lawmakers are comfortable turning to Rabbi Rubin for help. He has brought a minyan, an assembly of ten men, together for legislators who needed to say kaddish, the mourner’s prayer. Chabad of Albany can be counted upon to hang mezuzahs in offices and arrange for kosher food for visitors and lawmakers. Spending time in the Capitol has given Rabbi Rubin deep appreciation of the term “public servant.” When the Assembly is in session, work hours can extend into the wee hours of the morning. The legislators “work hard at arriving at a decision. Nothing is taken for granted; everything is analyzed. They put in a lot of hours trying their best for the good of New York State,” he said.
Tuesday, when thousands of concerned Jewish parents and educators motored up to Albany by the busload to show support for a tuition tax credit bill, Chabad of Colonie representative Rabbi Yaakov Weiss extended the Chabad welcome. From a truck stationed near the Capitol building, Rabbi Weiss distributed hot coffee, bottled water and snacks. Some rally goers, whose mass presence was organized by the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel of America, gathered near Rabbi Weiss’s truck to recite the afternoon prayers. Up in Albany, Chabad is known for its services to travelers; its sukkah in the Price Chopper supermarket parking lot is visited by thousands each year.
In recognition of Chabad’s year-round outreach to government workers and elected officials, Rabbi Rubin was selected to offer the invocation in both legislative houses on Tu B’shevat morning. Assemblyman John J. McEneny of the 104th Assembly district, which covers Albany County, made a presentation on the Assembly floor that was full of references to Rabbi Rubin’s Tu B’shevat messages in previous years. “It’s clear that they are listening,” said Rabbi Rubin. “When I meet people later on, they remember our parties.” And more than that, one legislator, a member of an environmental committee, circulated a memo that included one of Chabad’s Tu B’shevat messages whose green theme was drawn from the Talmud.
Having a state capitol in his Chabad district doesn’t change Rabbi Rubin’s focus very much. “I serve their needs like I do any other part of our community,” he said, except that the people who nibble from his Tu B’shevat cake are the ones who help decide the fate of the entire New York State.