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Deep Sea Judaism

In a different kind of Taglit-Birthright trip, a group of young American Jews passionate about scuba diving came to Israel to learn about the country and about Jewish values -- from deep underwater • The result: A wave of connection.

Sigal Arbitman

Taglit-Birthright participants go diving

Photo credit: Yehuda Ben-Yatah

Anyone who was in Eilat two weeks ago may have seen them -- a large group of enthusiastic young people in wet suits, dripping water and carrying around heavy diving equipment.

The young people were there for a special Taglit-Birthright trip. Birthright, of course, is the organization that sends young people to Israel on free 10-day trips to explore the country and their Jewish identity. Birthright theme trips are a recent development, and this particular group spent much of their time in Israel underwater, accompanied by soldiers from the Israeli Navy and by students.

The group went diving in the northern grottoes of Rosh Hanikra and off the coast of Caesarea, toured Safed and Jerusalem, and swam in the Dead Sea. Their trip ended with a three-day marathon of eight dives in the Gulf of Eilat's most beautiful spots.

I met them at the diving club on the morning of their second day in Eilat. Their equipment was spread out in the yard, and they were split into smaller teams, which took turns traveling to the dive site, diving, and coming back to the club to rest and get ready for the next dive.

The man behind this dream trip is Ed Rosenthal, known as Rabbi Ed. Rosenthal is an adviser to students at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, where 10 members of the group study. He is the founder of Scubi Jew, a diving club with a Jewish twist. Along with holding certification classes for diving students, Rosenthal also works for maritime conservation, environmental awareness, coral reef rehabilitation and clean beaches.

Rosenthal came to Israel with his students and has accompanied them on dives. He always has a smile on his face, but in Eilat he looks euphoric, as befits a man living his dream.

Rosenthal has developed an interesting concept combining the principles of diving and love of nature and the sea with Torah study and Jewish values. He was the one who came up with the idea of a Birthright trip for divers, in which young Jews could connect to the Jewish world through the water. He recruited the participants himself.

"As part of my work at the college, I thought about how to combine the students' love for diving and the water with Jewish values," he says. "Then I came up with the idea of Scubi Jew. I founded the diving club and invited everyone, Jewish and non-Jewish students, to participate. The purpose of the group is to help students see the world of the water that they love through more Jewish eyes."

Q: What is the connection between diving and Judaism?

"They are connected through the concept of 'tikkun hayam,' which is like 'tikkun olam' [the Jewish concept of 'fixing the world'], but not exactly. I do not call myself an environmental activist because it's trendy or cool. I am an environmental activist because I am a Jew, and the Torah tells me that I have an obligation to protect our environment," he says.

"A story in the Midrash says that after God created the world, he took Adam, showed him all the beauty in it and told him, 'I created all this for you on condition that you protect it.' That is the basis for ecological Judaism: our responsibility as Jews toward the environment, and in my case, toward the oceans.

"Also, water has a great deal of significance in Judaism. The Kabbalah describes four worlds of consciousness, each one connected to a basic element of nature: earth, air, fire and water. The question is asked: Which element represents God? The answer is water. We forget that water covers 71 percent of the planet. Every organism is made up of mostly water. Our own bodies are made of 70 percent water. There is no more beautiful way to connect to the idea of the divine."

'Diving in the land of my ancestors'

"For 93% of the students on this Birthright trip, this is their first time in Israel," says Ofira Bino, who runs the foundation that coordinates the specialty Birthright trips.

"This means that the specific diving program was the trigger that succeeded in getting them here.

"It was a crazy program to develop, because everything was very expensive and complicated. But the moment I met these young people, just 17 hours after they landed, and saw the bonding that had taken place among them that stemmed from the common passion they all shared, I realized how powerful it was. This is a special group of wonderful people who are connecting to Israel in the deepest way possible -- through the water."

Josh, 18, from Florida, sits on the sidelines, looking at the goings-on with an expression of yearning. He woke up that morning with a cold that clogged his sinuses, making diving too difficult.

"It's not so bad," he tells me. "I plan on feeling better by noon."

Josh has gone diving in some of the most beautiful places on earth, including Hawaii, but is enjoying Eilat.

"Each diving site is interesting and magical for me in its own way, especially Eilat," he says. "For me, it is an amazing experience to dive in the land of my ancestors. Now I am connecting more deeply to Ed's principles of fixing the oceans. Being Jewish means caring about the planet, and much of the planet is water. In my opinion, there is not enough awareness of our maritime environment, and Ed's program is trying to change that."

Shahar, the guide, stands by and listens. Although he has guided more than 50 Birthright trips, he realizes that this group is special.

"These are people who love their hobby," he says. "Look at them: They are happy that they have an opportunity to do what they love in the country with which they feel a special connection. This is a strong connecting factor, beyond the fact that they are all from the United States or that we are all Jews."

Q: Do you talk about politics with them?

"We talk with them mostly about the terminology of the conflict so that they will understand the concepts better when they listen to or read the news back home, and of course they will be able to explain Israel better to themselves and people around them," he says.

Kylie, 23, joins the conversation. A native of San Diego, she says she is "a real fish, and it is like I was born in the water."

Kylie was just 11 when she got her diver's license. Since then, she has gone diving in the Philippines, Hawaii, and even Italy.

"I thought of going on a regular Birthright trip at first," she says. "Then I found out about the Birthright trip for divers, and I knew that was what I needed in life."

Q: It means that much to you?

"Absolutely," she says.

"For me, it is an amazing experience, and I am grateful for every moment. Last year I learned a lot about Judaism, and I think about it a lot. Suddenly I discovered an exciting world of values that I connect to very deeply, and that combines very well with my love of the sea and of diving.

"I am a big fan of combining diving with learning. I think it is a wonderful way to learn about the culture, environment and nature of a place. That is what is happening here, on this trip, and it is amazing."

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