“If somebody went into your synagogue and threw garbage on the bema or painted a swastika on a wall, there’d be an uproar, yet this realm — which the tradition teaches is God’s — we treat like it’s a garbage dump. By 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.”
These are the words of Ed Rosenthal, executive director and campus rabbi of the Suncoast Hillels. Over 20 years ago, when Rosenthal was working at Emory Hillel, too many students applied to Emory’s Birthright Israel trip. As campus rabbi at the time, Rosenthal had to figure out how to engage the students who weren’t accepted.
He noticed that many applicants were scuba divers, and so began the program Scubi Jew, which encourages college students to explore their Jewish identities by connecting with the ocean.
Scubi Jew is a division of Rosenthal’s initiative Tikkun HaYam, or Repair the Sea (a play on tikkun olam, or repair the world), which seeks to raise awareness in the Jewish community of threats facing the marine environment, and of the spiritual wonders of the ocean. In addition to shore cleanups, students dive in near-zero visibility to remove debris from the St. Petersburg Downtown Reef.
“The students do it through a Jewish lens. It’s not like, ‘We’re doing this just because we love the environment and we like to dive,’” Rosenthal said. “They do it because they’ve learned about the values of bal tashchit, the prohibition against needless waste and destruction.”
Because Rosenthal grew up in landlocked St. Louis, his only exposure to the ocean was from watching shows like Flipper and The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. When he was 16, he asked his mother if he could get scuba certified, to which she responded, “If God meant for humans to be underwater, He would have given us gills.”
On a hiking trip in the Sinai during his first year of rabbinical school, Rosenthal finally went snorkeling for the first time.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, there’s a whole ‘nother universe under here.’ Even to this day, I think, ‘Why are we spending so much money exploring outer space?’ We’ve not even explored a fraction of our own planet,” he said. “I’ve always been drawn to the water, and it wasn’t until I had to find ways to engage the Jewish students at Eckerd College on a deeper level that it forced me to look deeper into our tradition.”
When Rosenthal joined the Suncoast Hillels 12 years ago, he discovered Eckerd College, a small liberal arts school in St. Petersburg, Florida. At the time, the campus had no Hillel, but Rosenthal learned that 30 of Eckerd’s 100 Jewish students were certified scuba drivers. Additionally, he found that Eckerd’s biggest major was marine biology, followed by environmental studies.
And so Rosenthal turned to Kabbalah, an ancient form of Jewish mysticism, to investigate the relationship between humans and the marine environment.
“Torah tells us how to practice Judaism; Kabbalah tells us why,” Rosenthal said. “Kabbalah teaches us that this world is merely an illusion… and so the question is asked, if everything in this world is a mere reflection of its true spiritual essence, what then is the reflection of what Kabbalah refers to as HaOhr, or ‘the Light’?”
Many would reply that ‘the Light’ refers to God. However, Sefir HaBahir, an ancient Kabbalistic text, explicitly defines it as “the life of water in this world.”
“To me, the image of God is reflected in the water. Every living being is mostly water. It’s the one thing that every human being, every animal, every plant shares in common,” Rosenthal said. “Isn’t that the nature of God?”
Whereas Psalm 115 states that “dry land was given to humans,” Psalm 95 explains that the sea belongs to God. Like God, Rosenthal said, water is omnipresent and merciful.
“You can put a human being on a mountaintop, on an island, in a forest, in a jungle, in the desert, in a city, and with the proper skills — just watch Naked and Afraid — a human can survive. Drop a human being in the middle of the ocean, and that person will be dead within hours, if not less,” he said. “The sea is not ours; it’s God’s. When we enter it, we only do so as visitors, and that’s really the basis of this program.”
Rosenthal believes that Jews are not sufficiently involved in protecting the ocean from overfishing and pollution, which he described as the first step in addressing climate change.
Josh Keller, Scubi Jew’s program coordinator, echoed this sentiment. According to Keller, speaking with Rosenthal made him decide to attend Eckerd.
“Most of the oxygen being produced is from tiny phytoplankton growing all over the world. When we heat up our oceans and acidify them through carbon dioxide mixing into the water, you’re killing structures that have been in place for millions and millions of years,” Keller said. “If the oceans fall apart, then the whole environment falls apart… This thing that is so foreign to us is also key to our survival.”
Indeed, if we do not treat the water with respect, Rosenthal said, we will die.
“I don’t want to protect the ocean for human benefit; I want to protect the ocean for its own sake, for its own innate spiritual essence,” he said. “But the reality is that when we treat it as it should be treated, then we will benefit from it.”
Keller emphasized this is a goal that we must all share.
“If you’re walking down the street and you pick up a piece of trash, you never know who else is watching you and might now walk down the street tomorrow and pick up a piece of trash. And that might inspire somebody else to do it,” he said. “Even the most minor actions can really make a difference.”
Although 100 companies are responsible for 70% of greenhouse gas emissions, Rosenthal argued that individuals can still have an impact.
“A rope is made up of individual threads, and when individual threads are bound together, they can lift anything,” he said. “Individuals can make a difference, but there has to be a direction, and that’s where I hope Tikkun HaYam, in the Jewish community, can make a difference to repair the sea.”
Click here to join Jewish communities around the world in removing human “sins” from the water on Sept. 12 as part of Tikkun HaYam’s annual event Reverse Tashlich.