There is a religious principle in Judaism called tikkun olam, which means “repair the world.” It teaches that it is a moral and religious obligation for Jews, as partners with God in creation, to repair the damage we humans have inflicted upon the world and make it a better place.
Jewish students at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg have taken their responsibility seriously in a way that is very appropriate for a school with a bayfront campus and whose largest major is marine science.
“Scubi Jew: Eckerd College Environmental Divers” is made up of students who are certified scuba divers and believe that it is not enough to just enjoy diving. Theirs is scuba diving with purpose. Sponsored under the auspices of Hillels of the Florida Suncoast, Scubi Jew is Eckerd Hillel’s most popular club, with more than 50 members.
Thanks to a gift from a donor and a substantial grant from Repair the World, Scubi Jew members will spend one weekend a month during this school year volunteering for the Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF) in Key Largo.
Though students do not have to be Jewish to belong to Scubi Jew, the restoration trips to Key Largo are for Jewish members only. Eight Scubi Jew members went on the first trip in November and five more trips are planned during the school year.
The CRF is an international non-profit organization founded by Ken Nedimyer, recently named a CNN Hero for his innovative work developing a system of easily installed nurseries for coral propagation (www.adoptacoral.org). The students care for and tend to the coral in the underwater nursery operated by the CRF, and then transplant coral from the nursery to the reefs.
“Coral are incredible, beautiful organisms, and the fact that they are disappearing breaks my heart,” said David Steren, a sophomore majoring in marine science. “Scubi Jew and CRF are providing me with the opportunity to be part of saving these beautiful and essential creatures, and as a marine science major I intend to dedicate my life to their preservation.”
He said the experience has been enhanced with the Scubi Jews. “As a Jewish group, our main focus is tikkun olam, and Scubi Jew is committed to saving the underwater world … one baby coral at a time,” Steren said.
“The students travel by van from St. Petersburg to Key Largo, where members of the Keys Jewish Community Center have welcomed them with open arms,” said Suncoast Hillel Executive Director Rabbi Ed Rosenthal. “They let the students sleep in the synagogue and use their kitchen, and the Methodist Church next door lets them use their showers.”
The students participate in Shabbat services with the Keys JCC congregation, learn about tikkun olam, particularly as it pertains to the marine environment, have a Havdalah service marking the end of Shabbat, and of course they work underwater to restore endangered coral.
“These weekends offer an engaging and enriching spiritual and educational experience for our students, not to mention the excitement and adventure of scuba diving,” said Rabbi Rosenthal.
“The fact that this is an ongoing program also ensures that the value of Tikkun Olam is deeply instilled in the students much more so than a single alternative spring break experience. Since they come back every month, they don’t just participate … they’re invested in repairing the seas and saving the coral,” he said.
Scubi Jew has just launched a new web blog entitled, “Tikkun HaYam – Repair The Seas” www.repairtheseas.org, which is intended “to raise awareness, in a Jewish context, about the wonders of, and threats to the oceans and waterways of the world,” according to Rabbi Ed Rosenthal.
In even simpler terms, the blog explains its goal:
“The saying is: ‘As go the Oceans, so goes the Planet.’
The Reality is: Our Oceans are dying!
The Fact is: When Jews take action, change takes place.”