A rabbi’s faith is driving ocean conservation

“We forget about marine animals, but debris is killing sea turtles and dolphins and whales and fish and sea birds,” said Rabbi Ed Rosenthal.

IsraelCast. Credit: Courtesy.
IsraelCast. Credit: Courtesy.

Rabbi Ed Rosenthal is a big believer in the power of water. The founder of Tikkun Hayam (“Repair the Sea”), Rosenthal works tirelessly to raise awareness and encourage action to address the many threats facing the oceanic environment.

For Rosenthal, caring for the environment comes from a deeply Jewish perspective. In a conversation with Jewish National Fund-USA’s IsraelCast host Steven Shalowitz, Rosenthal shared how his Jewish faith drives his environmentalism. “We’re commanded to be stewards of the planets,” he said. “We recognize that the planet was created by God, and the Torah commands us to be stewards of the planet. We have an obligation as Jews to preserve the environment, to preserve the natural world.”

Rabbi Ed Rosenthal. Credit: Mike Dunn Photography.

Rosenthal shared that too often, people don’t understand the importance water plays in the environment eschewing the typical “go green” narrative by saying that we should “go blue.”

“We live on a blue planet,” he notes. “Seventy percent of our planet is covered by water, and that’s just the ocean. Water is so ubiquitous that we take it for granted. But it’s very simple—if the ocean dies, we all die.”

Tikkun Hayam started from a single idea Rosenthal had during his time as a Hillel Rabbi. “I was looking for ways to engage students who wouldn’t normally come to Hillel, who didn’t want to come to Shabbat or do Jewish learning,” he told Shalowitz. “I’m an avid scuba diver, so I started a Jewish scuba club.”

The club, which was appropriately named “Scooby Jew,” expanded into teaching his students about the issues facing water. “I presented it as, ‘what is going on with the water, what’s happening to the ocean, the pollution, the debris, the dead zones created by agricultural runoff, there are so many issues,” Rosenthal told Shalowitz.

IsraelCast host Steven Shalowitz. Credit: Courtesy.

And with his rabbinical background, Rosenthal maintained a Jewish viewpoint throughout. “We would focus primarily on the Jewish prohibition against needless waste and destruction and present it as, ‘Look at what humanity is doing to the water.’ We’re destroying the ocean and killing the life within it.”

Scuba classes led to ocean cleanup projects with his students, which kept them engaged with both Judaism and the water. “It speaks to them,” he said.

Part of Tikkun Hayam is also educating people about marine wildlife. “We forget about marine animals, but debris is killing sea turtles and dolphins and whales and fish and sea birds,” he said. “So we send people information about the many threats facing our marine environment.”

Tikkun Hayam also has a program where you can plant coral in Israel, something he freely admits was an idea he got from JNF-USA’s tree-planting initiative. “I planted so many trees in my lifetime,” he says with a laugh. “But people don’t realize that coral is one of the most threatened species on the planet, and it’s essential for a healthy marine environment. It mitigates storm damage to coastal communities; coral reefs serve as the primary nurseries for 75% of marine life, but coral is dying so quickly.”

Yet despite the issues facing the ocean, Rosenthal is optimistic for the future. “I believe the best is yet to come,” he said. “The greatest success is that we’ve taken this aspect of our tradition to the broader Jewish community, and people are responding to it.”

View episodes of IsraelCast at: jnf.org/israelcast. To support water conservation in Israel, see: jnf.org/water.

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