Water is the source of all life. From the purifying waters of the mikvah ritual bath to the great flood and Noah, to the wells of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to annual prayers for rain in Israel, water is a theme central to Judaism.
“Without it we die. Yet we treat it like a garbage dump,” says Rabbi Ed Rosenthal, CEO and founder of Tikkun HaYam (Repair the Sea). “The sea is God’s and we are pillaging it. The ocean as we know it is dying. There will be more plastic by 2048 than fish.”
World Water Day in Israel will start with a splash into the northern end of the Dead Sea on March 22, where the Dead Sea Revival Project will launch the maiden voyage of its eco-educational boat excursions, designed to raise awareness of the shrinking sea and the ecosystems it supports.
“Today, 98% of the natural coastline of the northern Dead Sea is inaccessible due to over 7,000 sinkholes,” says Noam Bedein, founder of the Dead Sea Revival Project. “The only way to truly explore the Dead Sea and experience its wonders is by boat. I have been privileged to do this for the past seven years and capture the changing landscape. Now I can offer this experience to the general public and continue accompanying, researching and documenting the Dead Sea’s disappearance to share with the world.”
The Dead Sea Boat, which holds 14 passengers and the captain, will stop at three beaches, some only accessible by water, and will operate Sunday to Friday. Guests can enjoy all the facilities of Neve Midbar Beach before and after their tour.
A former war photographer, Bedein was introduced to activism while using his photos of the city of Sderot to tell stories about the rockets coming from the Gaza Strip. But as a lover of wildlife and nature, his fascination with the Dead Sea began with time-lapse photography of the lake.
“As the water receded, I saw and photographed new salt formations cropping up where they never had been visible before,” he explains. Indeed, he points out that the map of the Dead Sea is constantly changing as the sea level drops 4 feet each year.
Prior to the 1950s, the Dead Sea maintained a balance between its freshwater inflow and the rate of evaporation, keeping water levels stable.
After Israel built the Degania Gate dam in 1953, to collect water from the Sea of Galilee for the National Water Carrier project, the Jordan River’s yearly flow of clean water was reduced by around 40 billion gallons per year.
In the 1960s, Israel constructed a massive pumping station on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. This station diverted water from the upper Jordan River, the primary source of the Dead Sea, into a pipeline that distributes water across the nation.
The situation worsened in the 1970s when Jordan and Syria began diverting the waters of the Yarmouk River, the major tributary of the lower Jordan River.
A geopolitical issue
Gidon Bromberg, the Israel director of EcoPeace Middle East, says water is a geopolitical issue. He will speak on several panels at the U.N. 2023 Water Conference in New York this week, discussing trans-body water issues, the opportunities for civil society through water creation, and EcoPeace efforts to rehabilitate the Jordan River, which is polluted with treated sewage from Israel and untreated sewage from Jordan.
EcoPeace works from three offices, in Tel Aviv, Ramallah and Amman.
“Water issues have been held hostage,” explains Bromberg. “And it must stop. Politics get into everything. With Oslo, water became a final-status issue. It was a zero-sum game. With Israel as a world leader in treating and desalinizing water, we have created a Green Blue Deal for the Mideast.”
The Green Blue Deal urges action in four areas: Jordanian-Palestinian-Israeli cooperation to improve adaptive capacities on water and renewable energy security by creating an exchange system; advancing Israeli-Palestinian natural water reallocations and water management; rehabilitating the Jordan River through investments in region-wide climate-smart initiatives; and promoting public awareness and education programs, particularly directed towards youth, on resilience diplomacy in the water and climate fields as a means of conflict resolution and peace-building.
All parties agree that the Dead Sea needs a major intervention.
“We are dealing with the driest region in the entire world,” Bedein says. “Even though Israel is advanced in water management and technology, the Dead Sea’s needs exceed the capacity of all the desalination plants in Israel, which equals 750 million cubic meters of water [annually]. Six hundred Olympic-sized pools are drying up every day.”
According to Bedein, 25% of the Dead Sea industry, in both Israel and Jordan, is pumping water from the northern basin, which is currently 480 meters deep, to shallow pools that are cut off from the actual lake and are only 2-9 meters deep but serve the hotels on both sides.
After the Abraham Accords were signed in 2020, Bedein formed an NGO to increase flow, build awareness and create regional collaboration. He has met with conservation leaders in the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and they shared cultural ideas on conservation and are exploring new solutions to help restore the sea.
EcoPeace’s Dead Sea plans involve trying to convince the Israeli government that any company granted the mineral concession be required to replace or pay for more water to be released down the Jordan River, as the mineral companies are accelerating the evaporation of the water in the southern part of the sea.
As part of his initiative, Bedein’s time-lapse photography will be shown on board the Dead Sea Boat and will offer photo opportunities for tourists to document themselves while monitoring changes in the lake landscape each year. A Photo Arts exhibit is scheduled for Earth Day, April 22, at the Cultural Center in the nearby city of Arad.
On the other side of the proverbial pond, in St. Petersburg, Florida, Rabbi and scuba diver Ed Rosenthal has his own plans to save the world’s water.
“Water never disappears it just changes,” teaches Rosenthal. “It is timeless. Water transcends time and space and can’t be carbon-dated.”
The mission of his nonprofit, Repair the Sea, is to share the spiritual wonders of water and the sea from a Jewish perspective, promote interfaith harmony and cooperation, and raise awareness and encourage action against threats to aquatic environments.
Rosenthal worked for Hillel International for 23 years, where he went from being a campus rabbi to executive director and eventually became regional director for Tampa Bay.
He grew up in the landlocked city of St. Louis, and developed a passion for the ocean through childhood exposure to shows such as “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.” At the age of 16, he expressed interest in learning to scuba dive. His mother responded, “If God meant for humans to be underwater, he would have given us gills.”
It wasn’t until his first year of rabbinical studies, when he went on a hiking trip in Sinai, that he finally had the opportunity to snorkel, at Sharm el-Sheikh.
“I remember standing on the shore of the Red Sea and I was just in awe,” he recalls. “I put my face in the water and saw colors of fish shimmering in the light. I was hooked.”
As a Hillel rabbi wondering how to attract his Jewish students to the synagogue and Jewish learning, Rosenthal created a scuba club called Scubi Jew, for students to learn scuba diving and Torah. What began as an attraction tool at Emory University in Atlanta, and later at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, ended up as a popular vehicle for teaching Jewish students about both ocean conservation and Torah. They carried out waterfront cleanups and the students started coming to Shabbat dinners. He called it “Water Torah.”
“I started Scubi Jew simply as a creative way to engage Jewish students who wouldn’t normally come to Hillel. Over the years it turned into the most spiritually fulfilling program I’ve ever done,” he says.
On the campus of Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, which was already a beach school, students were already enthusiastic about the oceans, so Scubi Jew wasn’t going to be an effective engagement tool. The rabbi took a deep dive into Kabbalah.
“I had to find the interface between their Jewish culture and the ocean,” Rosenthal says. “I began to create educational material based on the Kabbalah. My mind was blown by the depth. It all starts with water. Water preceded everything. Nowhere in the Torah does it say God created water. Without it, we die. It recycles itself. If we live as Jews and observe mitzvoth—our reward is water. Water, the only substance that can exist in three forms—ice, gas and liquid—is the most unifying source on the planet. Water is an instrument of peace.”
Six years ago, the rabbi taught his students about Tashlich, the Rosh Hashanah practice of going to a moving body of water, saying a special prayer and tossing breadcrumbs into the water to symbolize relinquishing sins and negativity in our lives. One of his students objected, saying, “There is already more than enough sin in the water. Why don’t we take some out?” And the Reverse Tashlich program was born.
“The program went viral,” kvells Rosenthal. “Last year we had 245 teams participating in 12 countries, including Israel, on six continents. It took an ordinary water cleanup event and made it holy.”
He pointed out that Israel is one of the worst countries in the world for single-use plastic per capita. According to a report by the Environmental Protection Ministry in 2021, Israel has become a significant user of single-use plastics, with consumption more than doubling between 2009 and 2019.
An average Israeli uses 7.5 kilograms (16.5 pounds) of single-use plastic per year, five times the European figure, the report revealed.
“This goes against Tzar Baalei Hayim (the prohibition in Jewish law against causing pain to animals) and Baal Tashchit (the prohibition against needless waste)—both sins. A whale recently washed up in Hawaii with its stomach filled with plastic. When Jews get involved in issues, problems get solved. It is our job to protect this precious resource,” says Rosenthal.
According to Ocean Conservancy, an environmental advocacy group based in Washington, 11 million metric tons of plastics enter the oceans each year, adding to the estimated 200 million metric tons that already circulate through the marine environment.
And as Rosenthal points out, plastic is a petroleum product filled with toxic chemicals. To combat this, he went into partnership with VerTerra Dinnerware, a company that makes compostable cutlery. Repair the Sea found a donor that created discounts for 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations, to bring the price down on biodegradable single-use cutlery.
Repair the Sea also created the “Plant a Coral” in Israel program, modeled after the JNF’s Plant a Tree program, which plants coral in Eilat.
Additionally, the organization created a line of Judaica made from recyclable plastic including yad pointers for Torah reading, charity boxes, kiddush cups and mezuzot.
Rosenthal said that Israel’s water has its own special challenges.
“Everybody recognizes that the Dead Sea is an ecological disaster,” the rabbi says. “The Mediterranean is polluted, overfished and in terrible condition, but there are a lot of people in Israel raising awareness to help. The Mediterranean bluefin tuna are being fished to near extinction. The Red Sea is spectacular but there is degradation of the coral. People don’t realize it takes coral hundreds of years to grow just a couple of inches.”
“I do what I do because the environment tends to be low on the collective Jewish agenda,” says Rosenthal. “Water is not even on the radar. It’s all for the benefit of humanity, but I do what I do l’shma [for its own sake]. If the ocean dies, we all die. And the sea is God’s.