Shayna Cohen helps spruce up the mangroves in Tampa, Florida.

A Florida-based program aimed at reconnecting Jewish people to the ocean and empowering them to help keep the sea clean is attracting attention from communities around the United States and even in Israel.

On Rosh Hashanah, Jews throw bread in the water to symbolically cleanse themselves of their sins. 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, who serves as the Hillel rabbi at Eckerd College in Florida.

As Rosenthal explained to JNS: “It applies a modern context to an ancient practice. In addition, it is intended to raise awareness about one of the greatest existential threats to our planet, the ongoing destruction of the ocean.”

Every year, approximately 6 million tons of human-made trash pollute the water.

“Reverse Tashlich” started as a small program at the Suncoast Hillel at Eckerd College in Tampa Bay, Florida. Three years ago, about a dozen students went to their local waterfront and cleaned nearly 100 pounds of trash.

The program then expanded under the leadership of Shayna Cohen, director of Tikkun HaYam, and last year’s first annual event included nine locations and 307 participants. Some 650 pounds of trash were collected from Miami, Tampa Bay and Washington, D.C.

The next event is scheduled for Oct. 6; groups in cities across America expressed interest in participating. Cohen's team is also hosting a grant competition for people who collect the most trash, as a way to incentivize locals to do “some really hearty cleanups.”

“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 Cohen. “As Jews, we are required to care for the environment, but there is a stark lack of environmentalism when it comes to the ocean … a lack of awareness in the Jewish community for marine conversation. Tikkun HaYam is just a way to bring the topic of the ocean into the conversation.”

Ahead of October’s event, individuals or team leaders can register on the “Reverse Tashlich” website their location, which is added to the public page so people can join. Participants then coordinate meetups, and Cohen provides coaching, guide books and online seminars to help organize things ahead of the event. Sign-up is open to everyone.

“We want anybody to feel empowered to make a difference in the ocean,” said Cohen.

‘We live on a blue planet’

According to Rosenthal, many mitzvot apply to the environment, such as Bal Tashchit, the prohibition against needless and unnecessary waste and destruction. He discusses “Water Torah” in great length on the Tikkun HaYam website, citing texts that describe “the deep Jewish connection to the sea and the profound spiritual nature of water” and how the Torah calls upon Jews to care for the ocean. 

Rosenthal said, “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. The ocean makes up 71% of the planet. It produces more oxygen than all of the rainforests and trees in the world combined.

“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 — everything is made up mostly of water. The human body is 70% water. Our blood and our tears are about the same salinity as the sea. Water is the source of life. If the ocean dies, we die. I can’t think of a more tikkun olam effort than that.”

Cohen believes that because humans live on land, many times the issues of the ocean are “out of sight, out of mind.”

But 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.” JN