By Shiryn Ghermezian
A Florida-based program aimed at empowering Jewish people to help keep the ocean clean is attracting attention from communities around the US and even in Israel.
On Rosh Hashanah, Jews throw bread in the water to cleanse themselves of their sins symbolically. The “Reverse Tashlich” project calls on Jewish communities to switch the process and remove these human “sins” from the water in waterfront cleanups.
The project is part of the Tikkun HaYam (“repairing the sea”) initiative launched last year. It was founded by Rabbi Ed Rosenthal, also the founder of Scubi Jew, a Hillel club that teaches marine conservation through a Jewish lens.
“It applies a modern context to an ancient practice,” said Rosenthal, the Suncoast Hillel rabbi at Eckerd College in Tampa Bay, Fla.
“It is intended to raise awareness about one of the greatest existential threats to our planet, the ongoing destruction of the ocean.”
Eckerd College has a large marine-science program and a beach on campus.
Three years ago, about a dozen students went to their local waterfront and cleaned nearly 100 pounds of trash.
Every year, approximately six milliontons of human-made trash pollute the water.
Last year’s first annual “Reverse Tashlich” event included nine locations and 307 participants.
Some 650 pounds of trash were collected from Miami, Tampa Bay and Washington, DC.
The next event is scheduled for Oct. 6.
Groups in Boston, Minnesota, California, New York and Israel have expressed interest in participating.
“Our dream goal is having this one day a year where the Jewish community gets involved in their ecosystem and helps make an impact in their environment,” said Shayna Cohen, director of Tikkun HaYam.
“As Jews, we are required to care for the environment, but there is a stark lack of environmentalism when it comes to the ocean and the Jewish community . . . marine conservation.”
Ahead of October’s event, individuals or team leaders can register on the “Reverse Tashlich” website, which is added to the public page so people can join.
Cohen provides coaching, guide books and online seminars to help organize ahead of the event.
“We want anybody to feel empowered to make a difference in the ocean,” said Cohen.
“We call it ‘Tikkun HaYam’ because people, especially Jews, have a tendency to forget that even though they may speak of going ‘green’ to save the environment, we actually live on a blue planet,” said Rosenthal. “The ocean makes up 71% of the planet. It produces more oxygen than all of the rainforests and trees in the world combined.”
Tikkun HaYam’s website includes discussions about “the deep Jewish connection to the sea and the profound spiritual nature of water,” in Rosenthal’s words.
“Water is the most unifying force in the world,” he continued. “Every living organism from a worm to a whale, from a weed to a towering oak tree, from an amoeba to man . . . is made up mostly of water. The human body is 70% water. Water is the source of life.
“If the ocean dies, we die. I can’t think of a more tikkun olam effort than that,” he said, using the Hebrew phrase that inspired Tikkun HaYam’s name.
Cohen believes that because humans live on land, many times the issues of the ocean are “out of sight, out of mind.”
With “Reverse Tashlich,” she said, “people can go somewhere in their local area and see that the fork that they used the day before might be the fork that they are picking up out of the mangroves, or they see the plastic bag that they probably got from their groceries a week ago is entangled in a tree, and they can connect themselves to the issue and the solution.”
She added, “Having a hand in making the world a more beautiful place is an incredibly transformative experience. I’m hoping that this is a way to jumpstart people’s empathy and inspire them to care for this ecosystem that they don’t normally think about, and get them curious and interested in exploring what else they can do to make the ocean and the world in general a better place.”