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With a newer twist, a Rosh Hashana tradition aims to ‘repair the sea’

On the heels of this week’s Jewish new year, groups around the world will celebrate with an environmental theme.
Shayna Cohen and Sara Ingber participate in a Reverse Tashlich in 2019 in Tampa. The tradition started in 2016 with five Eckerd College students and has since expanded to more than 1,000 participants across the world.
Shayna Cohen and Sara Ingber participate in a Reverse Tashlich in 2019 in Tampa. The tradition started in 2016 with five Eckerd College students and has since expanded to more than 1,000 participants across the world. [ Courtesy of Ed Rosenthal ]
Published Sep. 8

About five years ago, Rabbi Ed Rosenthal, director of Suncoast Hillels, was speaking to a group of Eckerd College students about the meaning of Tashlich, a ceremony performed during Rosh Hashana, the first of the Jewish High Holy Days.

The ceremony traditionally includes tossing bread crumbs or pebbles into a body of water to symbolically cast off the previous year’s sins. It also begins a time of prayer, reflection and forgiveness before Yom Kippur, which takes place Sept. 15 this year.

A student made the comment to Rosenthal that “there was already more than enough human sin in the water.” He asked Rosenthal why they didn’t take some out instead.

Rosenthal thought about it. He was familiar with the relationship between the environment and faith. He first started the “Scubi Jew” group at Emory University and later brought it to Eckerd as a way of getting otherwise uninterested college students engaged in their faith. The group focuses on the marine environment, taking scuba diving excursions, adopting a reef and doing cleanups.

He brought the idea to other Hillel groups, and when people found the name “Scubi Jew” to be cute, he changed the name to “Tikkun HaYam,” or “repair the sea.”

“It forced me to delve deeper into our tradition,” he said. “Every religion — Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, makes no difference — has a faith-based conservation effort. Every religion sees the world as coming from the divine in one way or another.”

After that conversation in 2016, Rosenthal and five Eckerd students did their first “reverse Tashlich,” picking up trash and debris from the water. The next year 10 students joined, and the following year Rosenthal opened it to other Hillels and interested groups.

This year, more than 1,000 people across 161 Hillels, synagogues and groups of friends on six continents and in 16 countries, ranging from Argentina to Azerbaijan, will participate in a global “Reverse Tashlich.” The event will take place this Sunday on the heels of Rosh Hashana, which ended at nightfall Wednesday.

Those interested in participating can register here.

Sarina Ergas, who will be leading a cleanup in Tampa’s Reed Park this year as a member of the Congregation Beth Am board, said her daughter will also be leading a cleanup in Maine.

Ergas said she remembers observing Tashlich since she was a kid. When she first heard of the “reverse Tashlich,” Ergas, who is also an environmental engineering professor at the University of South Florida, was particularly excited.

She said Judaism grew from agrarian roots, with holidays celebrating harvest and the natural world.

“I think that’s something that really connects us to our ancestors that were much more in tune with the earth and the rhythms of the earth than maybe we are today with the lives that we live,” Ergas said.

“I think Tashlich is the one holiday we have that really focuses on the water. It’s connecting us to the water and the importance of the water in our lives. ... One of the things we do in religion is when we have something holy, we make it more beautiful in some way.”