Sea change

Jewish environmental group recommends ‘reverse tashlich’ to release sins, clean shores

Repair the Sea has dozens of communities signed up for cleanup projects near oceans, seas and rivers this year, from the U.S. to New Zealand and Ukraine

Every year, during the High Holy Days, Jews gather at rivers, oceans or other bodies of water for a ritual that gives physical form to the act of repentance: throwing sins (traditionally, bread crumbs or pieces as iniquity proxies) into the water and watching them wash away. This is tashlich, a ritual that comes with liturgical texts and rich symbolism that makes an emotional impact, but also pollutes the marine environment. 

The leaders of Repair the Sea, a global organization that envisions a clean ocean with abundant marine life through a Jewish lens, have proposed a “reverse tashlich” — a beach cleanup to remove human “sins” from the water. For those who want the symbolic gesture of tossing something away, Repair the Sea suggests using pebbles or shells from the beachfront.

“We tell people, don’t use bread, it’s not the natural food of the fish or the birds,” Rabbi Ed Rosenthal, founder and CEO of Repair the Sea (also known as Tikkun HaYam in Hebrew) told eJewishPhilanthropy, adding that the bread expands in their stomachs, causing health problems. “So we tell people to use pebbles, use shells. It’s actually much better anyway, because it has a nice effect when it splashes, which the bread doesn’t do; you can really feel like you’re getting rid of your sin.” 

“Pollution is a current and persistent issue, over time plastic waste doesn’t biodegrade like natural materials, it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. So any plastic that has made its way into a river or the ocean is persisting, and can smother ecosystems, choke aquatic life and make its way up the food chain,” Repair the Sea’s engagement and expansion director, Shayna Cohen, said. “Doing a reverse tashlich in 2023 ensures that we lift the burden of pollution off of animals and ecosystems a little, giving them a greater chance of a healthy existence and us a greater chance for a healthy planet.”

Rosenthal added that our treatment of water and the ocean are part of the annual slate of our sins that we atone for during the High Holy Days every year, violating mitzvot such as bal tashchit [being wasteful of resources], tza’ar ba’alei chayim [making sure animals don’t suffer] and others. The rabbi also turned to Psalms: in 95:5, it says “the sea is God’s” and in 115:16, “but the land was given to humans,” and, Rosenthal said, “we treat [the land] like a garbage dump.” 

“If anybody did to their synagogue what we do to the ocean, it would be on the national news. So we really want to raise that consciousness that the sea is God’s and we need to treat it as such.”

The first reverse tashlich was held in Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla., in 2016; in 2018 the program expanded, with 10 cleanup locations on the East Coast of the U.S., most of them in Florida and designated as post-hurricane cleanup. 

The initiative is growing, said Cohen: 289 communities have officially registered to participate in 22 countries on 6 continents — 27 communities registered in California and another 27 in New York, and 39 across Florida. New Zealand has nine communities registered, and — “despite being in the midst of a war,” Cohen said — six Ukrainian Hillels have committed to join this initiative to repair their local environment. 

The communities range from synagogues, Jewish community centers and youth organizations. Participants hail from across the Jewish denominational spectrum and beyond (some participants are not Jewish), and range in age from 5 to 92. Repair the Sea is currently funded by Maurice A. & Thelma P. Rothman Foundation and Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation in Florida; and Pennsylvania’s Joseph Alexander Foundation.

Registered organizations receive a Tikkun HaYam guide to waterfront cleanup, marketing and Jewish educational material and access to seminars and roundtable discussions. 

In the past, communities in Los Angeles cleaned a local beach; Portland, Ore. cleaned a homeless camp on a floodplain; and Simferopol, Crimea, cleaned a city park because they didn’t have access to a body of water. This year, a small group in Bezden, Serbia, is cleaning a Jewish cemetery, and a dive shop in Palau, in the island chain of Oceania, is doing an underwater cleanup.

“On our planet, the most unifying force is water,” Rosenthal said. “If you take an eyedropper of water, you drop one drop in the ocean, the one drop becomes the entire ocean because you can’t separate it. Our bodies are 70% water, the planet is 70% water, every living organism, animals, plants and humans are mostly water. And so we do a meditation on this dynamic, connecting the unity of all things with the unity of God to the unity of the water. So it’s very, very spiritual,” he said, adding that ocean restoration impacts everyone worldwide. 

While environmental conversations usually center on climate change and carbon emissions, and focus on the health of the Earth, Rosenthal says we should be focused on preserving and improving the sea’s ecosystem and marine life, both from an environmental and from a Jewish perspective. 

“It is a simple fact: If the ocean dies… we all die. Humans cannot survive on a planet with a dead ocean. We see our work of promoting ocean restoration as fulfilling the mitzvah of safek sakanat nefashot, addressing an issue which is an imminent threat to life,” the rabbi added.

Beyond reverse tashlich, Tikkun HaYam also works to get faith-based organizations to abandon use of single-use plastics in favor of fully compostable single-use products, getting a donor to cover the cost difference.

Cohen said Tikkun HaYam’s work is not just about initiatives but is “more as a movement, a change in how people interact with 1) their Judaism and then 2) with the water world,” Cohen said. “There’s a whole wave of influence that we’re trying to create with this program and everyone that we have the opportunity to reach.”