How to channel your inner Noah

floodingMy sneakers are almost dry.

Last week, during the epic “king tide” — a confluence of Sukkot and the full moon — I stood on a south Florida street as the waters came slowly rushing in, ultimately coming up to my mid-calf.

Someone asked me if I would part the waters.

I replied: “That was Moses. You have the wrong guy.”

Before a year ago, I never gave a second thought to the issue of Sea Level Rise (SLR). I moved to a neighborhood in Hollywood, Florida – fifty feet from the Inter-coastal Waterway. I read about the pending crisis on Miami Beach.

I read about how, if left unchecked, Sea Level Rise would condemn not only Miami Beach, and the Florida Keys, but entire neighborhoods in southeastern Florida.

Those houses would be under water – and not in the real estate meaning of the term.

You cannot tell the Jewish story without water: crossing the Red Sea out of Egypt; crossing the Jordan River to get into the land of Israel; weeping “by the waters of Babylon” (Psalm 137). Jews have been merchants and traders, and you need bodies of water to make that happen.

That is why some of the oldest Jewish communities in North America are on the water; they were merchant communities.

And those communities are at risk: Savannah, Charleston, Newport.

Consider how many Jewish communities are within ten miles or less of a major coast line – all of Florida, Norfolk, the Jersey shore, the north and south shores of Long Island, Brooklyn, Manhattan, coastal Westchester County, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts.

Throw in New Orleans, Houston, and the Pacific coast. If SLR affects lakes as well, that would include Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo…

The vast majority of American Jews live in those affected areas.

Consider this: by the end of this century, sea level rise could force 13.1 million Americans from their homes. This would become the largest galut – forced exile – in history.

Sea Level Rise disproportionately affects poor, low-lying neighborhoods.

We Jews have been there, done that.

Nowadays, the Jewish ghetto in Rome is a cool tourist destination. It wasn’t always that way. In the 1500s, the Pope forced the Jews to live in cramped quarters on the left bank of the Tiber River — the lowest point of the city; below sea level; and prone to constant flooding.

The Church had power; the Jews did not.

That is why our congregation, Temple Solel of Hollywood, Florida, has created two coalitions – the Higher Ground Initiative and Sea Level Rise Solutions. The Higher Ground Initiative has been recognized by the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.

The Higher Ground Initiative has called for the Sabbath of November 4-5, 2016 – the Sabbath when Jews read the story of Noah – to be Sea Level Rise Sabbath.

We are asking congregations to teach about SLR, its implications, its challenges, some of its creative solutions.

Why should Jews care?

Open up the Torah scroll — the first three portions, please.

First, Bereshit. God commands humanity: “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it…”

People are the stewards of God’s creation. The ancient sages imagine that God had made many previous worlds, but those did not work out. So, God said to humanity: “This is the last world that I am going to make. Take care of it!”

Second, Noach. You know the story. A famous comedian, whose reputation has become sullied, imagines God yelling: “Noah, how long can you tread water?”

In fact, some ancient sages say that Noah didn’t tread water. Rather, he saved his own family, and ignored the suffering of others.

Third, Lech Lecha. God told Abraham and Sarah to leave their homeland, and to make a new beginning.

That disruptive moment in their lives started Western religion. During a famine in Canaan, Abraham and Sarah venture south to Egypt. The story of Abraham is one of constant adaptation and resilience.

Perhaps we will be unable to stem the tides. But, like Abraham and Sarah, we might see this crisis as opportunity.

  • It might mean raising coastal roads to avoid rising waters.
  • It might mean creating waterparks that will accommodate the possibility of invading waters.
  • It might mean re-thinking how and where we live.

But, one thing is for sure.

The Noah option of avoidance of the looming issue will not work. We dare not be lulled into a false sense of security, thinking that the forecasts call for a crisis in fifty years – “and we will not be alive then, anyway!”

If the proverbial boat is Noah’s ark, we are all in this one together.

About the Author
Jeffrey K. Salkin is the rabbi of Temple Israel in West Palm Beach, Florida, and a frequent writer on Jewish and cultural matters. He also blogs frequently at Martini Judaism: for those who want to be shaken and stirred, published by Religion News Service.
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