By Shana Medel
[First of a four-part series on the most unusual clubs at Hillel]
Mask, snorkel, fins – check.
The seas are calm this morning as Ellie Foden heads for the stern of Ally’s Way, a 34-foot SeaRay vessel owned by Eckerd College Hillel in St. Petersburg, Fla.
The 20-year-old plunges into the chilly water. As she descends, the air tank strapped to her back no longer feels heavy. Nothing beats the feeling of weightlessness Foden experiences in the ocean.
Beneath the surface of Tampa Bay, she and her classmates spend the day hauling up rope, anchors and fishing nets.
Foden and her scuba-trained peers from Eckerd College are members of Scubi Jew, a Hillel club that teaches marine conservation through a Jewish lens as part of its mission of Tikkun HaYam (repairing the seas). They participate in underwater and land-based excursions – removing entangled fishing gear from coral reefs, advocating for endangered species and collecting litter from mangrove forests.
No diving experience? Not a problem. Scubi Jew organizes and subsidizes diving certifications for members.
Rabbi Ed Rosenthal, founder of Scubi Jew and Hillel rabbi at Eckerd College, said he initially launched the group because it was a creative way to engage students. Over the years, Scubi Jew has derived spiritual meaning from the intersection of Judaism and water.
“An ethical part of our Jewish tradition is Bal Tashchit, meaning that we are forbidden to waste, or to destroy unnecessarily,” Rosenthal said. “Humans are destroying the ocean – it’s dying. Our students are taking action not only because it’s important, but also because they realize it aligns with our Jewish values. Repairing the sea is holy work.”
The self-identified “mad scuba diver” explores these Jewish values in his Water Torah curriculum. Students learn about Jewish concepts such as Tza’ar Ba’alei Chayim, the prohibition against causing pain to animals, by taking a hard look at real-life transgressions against the animal kingdom, such as shark finning and whaling.
Melissa Pielet, president of Scubi Jew and an environmental studies major, said she appreciates that the curriculum emphasizes Judaism as an ecocentric religion.
“I didn’t know how Judaism fit into my life,” Pielet, 21, said. “Now I do. We have to be stewards of the environment.”
Of the 116 Jewish students on campus, 40 of them are certified scuba divers, according to Eckerd College Hillel’s records. But participants don’t have to be Jewish; they just need to be scuba certified.
Foden, a student who doesn’t identify with a religion, serves as Scubi Jew’s communications director. She has participated in various activities with the club, including an Alternative Spring Break to the Florida Keys, where she helped the group collect 1,956 pieces of trash.
“I’ve developed such a deep respect for Judaism and its values, like Tikkun Olam and Bal Tashchit,” said Foden, a junior majoring in environmental studies. “Being able to be a part of this community and feeling welcomed with open arms has taught me about the connection people have with the ocean and the spirituality the ocean offers people.”
Eckerd College boasts almost 2,000 undergraduate students, and marine biology ranks as its second most popular major, according to U.S. News & World Report.
Another appeal for marine-focused students is that Eckerd College Hillel is the only Hillel that owns a boat. Ally’s Way was named after Allison “Ally” Willen, a former Eckerd College student who died in a 2015 hiking accident in New Zealand. She was 20-years-old.
An environmental activist, Willen was the type of Hillel student who would pick litter off the ground and recycle it. Her adventurous spirit and passion for the outdoors inspired her to become scuba certificated through Scubi Jew.
Her parents, Todd and Michelle Willen, honored their daughter’s love of the environment and Hillel by donating Ally’s Way to Scubi Jew in 2016.
Before the new boat could venture out to sea, an age-old nautical ceremony needed to be performed: a christening. Traditionally, it’s celebrated by smashing a champagne bottle on the ship’s bow and giving it a name. Legend says without a proper ceremony, a boat will be unlucky.
But welcoming a Jewish vessel with a christening just didn’t seem appropriate. Because a boat is referred to as a female, Eckerd College Hillel decided a Zeved HaBat, a Sephardic ceremony for naming a Jewish daughter, was a fitting way to celebrate Ally’s Way.
The boat has been a lure for participants, said Pielet, who has spent nearly every weekend in the water this semester.
The club’s most regular excursion is Dive Against Debris, a bi-weekly program on Ally’s Way to remove trash from the St. Petersburg Downtown Reef in Tampa Bay. Dives are cost free and rental gear is provided.
Students who are certified divers have also gathered strands of beads off the seafloor after the Gasparilla Pirate Festival, participated in underwater meditation and performed tandem dives with people with disabilities, partnering with the nonprofit organization Diveheart to train adaptive divers and buddies.
For some members, these experiences have made their resumes stand out from the competition.
“It’s one of the first things I talk about in job interviews,” Pielet said.
Her diving experience in low-visibility waters and facility with underwater cutting tools landed her an internship at The Florida Aquarium this summer.
Josh Keller, a marine biology major, will graduate next month. His involvement with Scubi Jew helped him secure a post-graduate internship in Key Largo, where he’ll become a master scuba diver trainer.
“I wanted to use my love of diving to bring people down into the underwater world and show them this beautiful, alien place that we’re killing,” Keller said. “Scubi Jew helped me realize that I wanted to use my degree for more of an educational career rather than a scientific one.”
The Hillel club’s popularity is spreading, even to landlubbers. It has launched chapters at University of Miami Hillel, Florida Atlantic University Hillel, University of South Florida Hillel, University of Tampa Hillel, University of Central Florida and Stetson University Hillel.
Shana Medel is a communications associate at Hillel International.