By Sam Friedman
Central Florida Hillel 

The story behind the Hillel under the sea photo


August 4, 2017

The "Scubi Jew" crew from Central Florida Hillel setting sail from Key largo.

A photo the Heritage ran last week of Hillel staff displaying their banner underwater was more than just a cool picture. These Hillel members are focused on "tikkun hayam"-repairing the seas-and are making a stand to "dive against debris."

For the sea is His, He made it-Psalms 95:5

Most people with a moderate amount of biblical knowledge can recite the opening line of the Torah without having to give it much thought:

In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. Genesis 1:1

But what comes next? 

Now the earth was astonishingly empty, and darkness was on the face of the deep, and the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the water. Genesis 1:2

If this is true, then before there were animals and humans, before there was a sun or moon or stars, even before G-d spoke light and all of creation into being, there was water. 

Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to travel with Central Florida Hillel's Director of Engagement Danielle McKinstry, and Director of Jewish Student Life Andrew Max to Key Largo for a five day "Scubi Jew" retreat and training with other Florida Hillel professionals that was organized by Suncoast Hillel's Excecutive Director Rabbi Ed Rosenthal. The retreat focused on tikkun hayam (repairing the seas), and included open water and "dive against debris" certifications for all participants, as well as intensive Jewish ecological learning. 

What we saw and what we learned was both awesome and worrisome. The ocean is majestic and overwhelming; it provides the earth with 70 percent of our oxygen, and covers 71 percent of its surface. 

Here in our own tiny corner of the planet in Florida, we are blessed with over 2,200 miles of tidal coastline and the third largest reef system in the world. We have 663 beaches, 11,000 miles of rivers and streams, 5,400 lakes, and 27 springs (more than any other state). And with every breath of the tide, those bodies of water are flowing into and out of each other. 

From an economic standpoint our waterways contribute nearly $562 billion to the Florida economy annually. They are also in great peril. 

The south Florida reef system for example, is all but dead. The fish are leaving and in their absence, the Jellyfish are swarming. Miles of beautiful coral are now bleached out and dying due to pollution, littering and dredging. During our final dive, we brought up yards of discarded fish line that we had to cut from now lifeless coral. We found countless hooks and lures, a snorkel, and more pieces of plastic than you can imagine. 

It was gross. It was shameful and a real threat to our very own lives. Our waterways deserve better than this and so do our children and hopeful generations to come.

And it's time we gave back.

Heritage ran this photo of Central Florida Hillel's Assistant Director Sam Friedman, Director of Engagement Danielle McKinstry, and Director of Jewish Student Life Andrew Max in last week's issue.

As Rabbi Rosenthal shared with us, "when the Jews get involved in a cause, meaningful change happens," and as a result of our experiences, we at Central Florida Hillel have decided to get involved. We will be kicking off the school year by hosting a reverse tashlich beach clean up the Sunday between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur (location details tbd). We will also be making a concerted effort to reduce our use of plastic, increase our recycling efforts, and offer more environmental learning opportunities for our students, including diving, snorkeling and experiencing the many wonderful aquatic opportunities available in central Florida so that they can learn to appreciate the precious resources that have been entrusted to us to preserve.

In Pirkei Avot we are taught that we are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from it (2:21). We owe it to the water, it was here before us, we owe it to ourselves, it sustains us, and we owe it to future generations to make a difference. So, as we say on Birthright, "Yalla! Let's go."

Special thanks to the Maurice P. and Thelma A. Rothman Family Foundation for sponsoring Scubi Jew training, the Keys JCC for hosting us, and to Rabbi Ed Rosenthal of the Hillels of the Florida Suncoast for inspiring us all to be better Hillel professionals, better stewards of the sea, and better Jews.


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