A year after the BP spill, inspiration in an uphill battle

At Passover this year we mark the one-year anniversary of the BP oil spill disaster. We continue a hard struggle for freedom from the crippling grasp of the oil industry and work toward a more environmentally just future for our neighbors across the Gulf of Mexico and around the world.

The Passover story demands that we act as if we ourselves went forth from bondage, confronting the pharaohs and the injustices of our day with the knowledge that once we were slaves, and the understanding that we cannot be truly free unless we all are free.

Before last Passover, I had never been to the Gulf Coast. I didn’t know that south Louisiana loses a football field of wetlands every 40 minutes, that 90 percent of offshore energy development comes from the Gulf, or that the sometimes adversarial oil, fishing and recreation industries are the lifeblood of the region. I cared deeply about energy and the environment but knew little about the communities most impacted by our energy choices.

In the year since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing 11 men and dumping millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf, all this has changed. When we see such a threat to the health and safety of millions of people, we as Jews must speak truth to power and demand a change. And we have responded—for the last year, I’ve been privileged to work with interfaith advocates for justice from across the Gulf Coast and across the country to right the wrongs brought to light by this disaster through our After the Spill campaign.

We fight an uphill battle. Despite the influx of media, money and public attention to the gulf last April, we’ve yet to see Congress act to restore the Gulf, prevent future disasters or set our country on the path to a cleaner energy future. As a nation, we have stood by idly as the people of the Gulf continue to suffer and our entire country stands at risk of yet another catastrophe.

Despite the frustrations in Washington and the desperation of so many across the Gulf, I find hope and inspiration in the people I have met in this work. My own journey has taken me to south Louisiana, where I have seen houses on stilts to guard against frequent flooding, shrimping boats docked and lifeless, and toxic waste dumps overflowing with the debris of Hurricane Katrina continuing to threaten the air and water of nearby communities.

I have met some of those most impacted by our failed response to disaster. I know Daniel Nguyen and the community leaders of New Orleans East, who are fighting yet another toxic waste dump in their community, adding insult to injury after this predominately Vietnamese fishing community was devastated by the BP spill and blocked access to the claims process by language barriers. I’ve traveled down the bayou with Patty Whitney of Bayou Interfaith Shared Community Organizing, and heard her stories of generations of fishermen and rig workers in her family and community (the parishes of south Louisiana are truly family) left out of work by the spill even as they rebuild from four massive hurricanes in the past five years.

And I’ve met countless rabbis and ministers, and people of all faiths, speaking out against injustice and caring for those in need. We are brought together by a common humanity and ties of faith and hope—but also outrage and injustice—driving us to action.

Just last week I spent an unforgettable day in Washington with Louisiana residents Cherri Foytlin and Drew Landry. Cherri, mother of six and wife of a former oil worker, and Drew, a musician and craw fisherman, arrived in D.C. after walking—more than 1,200 miles—from their home in south Louisiana to our nation’s capital to raise awareness about the oil disaster and connect with other communities fighting environmental injustices.

I was deeply moved when Cherri and Drew recounted the people they met along their walk who are part of local, national and increasingly global movements for environmental justice and a more sustainable future. They spoke frequently of being driven by faith and the fundamental belief that we are all connected and that human life must be valued above corporate profits.

The Gulf is a singular place, but the struggle for a healthier future that balances economic needs with environmental sustainability is universal. From campaigns to regulate refineries in low-income neighborhoods in Detroit to the Ecuadorians resisting the energy companies destroying their homelands, we are all part of one fight, and by connecting with and supporting each other we can build a more sustainable and more just future—for the Gulf and for all global citizens.

As we remember the lives and livelihoods lost one year ago, and the generations enslaved in ages past, it is easy to become discouraged by all that we have not accomplished. But I hope and believe that we are on our way to building a future in which clean air and clean water are basic human rights, where no one is shackled by environmental injustice, and where all can participate in the building of a brighter future.

(Rachel Cohen is the sustainability program director for the Religious Action Center of the Reform movement.)

Israelis seek promised wave in Costa Rica

Zula is a delightful beachside restaurant where you can breathe in the salty air as Eyal Golan songs play in the background. It also advertises the best falafel in town, made with local garbanzo beans.

Only Zula, Israeli slang for “relaxation,” is not located in Tel Aviv. It’s off the dusty road of Santa Teresa, a trendy beach town near the southern tip of Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula.

For Israelis who have settled here over the past decade, life in this tropical destination is sweet and natural.

The town’s molasses “strip” — the road is paved with this eco-friendly sealant to keep down dust — is lined with more than two dozen Israeli-owned businesses, including hotels, hostels (for post-army trekkers), eateries (a pizzeria, a Tel Aviv-style cafe, a bakery) and bars, clothing boutiques and surf shops.

Santa Teresa is a paradise for Israeli surfers. Almost every day, an hour before sunset, surfers flock to its sands for what one Jewish American resident calls the “chosen wave” — the best surf break.

There are about 5,000 Jews living in Costa Rica, many of whom belong to Centro Israelita Sionista de Costa Rica, the main congregation and political body in the capital city of San Jose. According to Jaime-David Tishler, a former board member of the Jewish Museum in San Jose, the country’s longstanding Jewish community has few formal ties with its burgeoning Israeli community. Most Yordim (Israelis who leave Israel) raising families in Costa Rica home school their children or send them to international schools, keeping Hebrew culture alive in the home.

Avi Avraham, 42, of Bat Yam, owner of the Zula Restaurant and Zula Inn Aparthotel in Santa Teresa, came here eight years ago “for the waves.” He has since married a tica (slang for “local”) and is raising a 10-month-old daughter.

“I’m living the dream of many people,” he said.

Avraham counts roughly 120 Israeli residents in Santa Teresa, about 5 percent of the multinational surfing community, which consists mostly of Americans, Canadians, Argentinians, Brazilians, Italians, French and Swedes. Although their presence here is small, the Israelis are notable. As Amit Londner, a former Israeli surf champ who now runs Del Soul surf school, put it, “Israelis make a lot of noise.”

Mali and Avi Tal, originally from Moshav Ganot, came to Santa Teresa seeking the great surf and pura vida — the Costa Rican slogan “pure life.”

“There was nothing here. It was a natural jungle. Nothing, nothing, nothing,” said Tal, sunbathing poolside at Luz de Vida Surf Resort, the beachfront hotel she owns with her husband.

Story continues after the jump.

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Cabinas Las Orquideas – Izu’s Place
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Jabad Lubavitch de Costa Rica
20 Metros Al Norte
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Israel’s EcoOcean charts deep ‘green’ seas

Scientists once thought that most of our planet’s oxygen is produced in the heart of lush jungles and rainforests. Not so, says Michael Rosenfeld, program coordinator and scientist at EcoOcean — an Israeli nonprofit organization that built and funds a unique seafaring vessel that would make Jacques Cousteau proud.

“Seventy-five percent of the globe is covered by the ocean. Most of our oxygen is coming from plants in the sea and it is the main thing that is balancing our atmosphere,” Rosenfeld said.

EcoOcean provides free use of its ship and facilities to students and professors in environmental marine research. In the last few years since it began operating, EcoOcean has helped handfuls of marine-related projects get off the ground — including their own watchdog project to track and monitor marine pollution known as “hot spots” off the coast of Israel.

But international scientists have also used the organization’s boat, the Mediterranean Explorer, for studying uninhabited islands off the coast of Eritrea in Africa; in Turkey’s Black Sea to trace evidence of the great flood during the time of Noah; and to determine that the Roman city of Caesarea was, in part, destroyed by an ancient tsunami.

While some of the projects veer off course into areas that are not strictly environmental, the main thrust of EcoOcean is to offer its ship, equipped with wet and dry laboratories, to those fighting to improve the marine and coastal environment.

Government-owned vessels do exist for taking scientists out to sea, but they tend to be outdated, are difficult to book, and are extremely costly. But not as costly as the price of the environment and what could happen if we don’t take action.

These details concern Rosenfeld, who recently completed post-doctoral work in marine ecology at the Weizmann Institute of Science. Global warming is changing the face of the planet. It is not only making our summers unbearably hot, it is heating up our oceans, as well.

Even slight changes in the ocean’s water temperature, scientists fear, could render the balance catastrophically unstable. And we are already seeing how global warming is affecting coral, an early-warning indicator species.

“Damaging the sea is the same as a smoker intentionally ruining his lungs,” said Rosenfeld, a coral specialist, who chooses the projects EcoOcean will bring on board.

And when EcoOcean says “on board,” they mean literally. The state-of-the-art boat not only offers scientific lab equipment for collecting and analyzing deep-sea samples, but it also provides below-deck cabins that sleep 11, a modern kitchen, and a crew that loves to tell tall tales of the sea.

Most recently, American scientists from New York’s Columbia University, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution near Boston and Canadians from McMaster University have had the same impressions while collaborating with EcoOcean; Istanbul Technical University has also worked in the boat berthed on the Mediterranean Sea not far from Tel Aviv in Herzliya. Anyone studying the marine environment is welcome to apply.

Founded by scientists from Tel Aviv University together with Weil, a Swedish-born environmental philanthropist, the group was brainstorming and recognized a huge hole in marine science research in Israel and the Mediterranean region in general.

Weil, who immigrated to Israel in 2000, was raised to be an avid environmentalist. After moving to Israel, he soaked up environmental education at the Arava Institute in Israel before appealing to his family to see if funding for an environmental dreamboat could be built.

“I think about the environment every day,” Weil said. “And it is tough on me to see how slow the progress for change is in the world.”

Swedes are known for their love and respect for the environment. When challenged to reduce car emissions by 2020, Weil says the Swedes took on the challenge with shining colors: Today about 20 percent of their cars are environmentally friendly. He recognizes that Israelis often have greater threats to negotiate: “The biggest concern here is security, security, security. For some, an anti-missile system for protecting Israel’s borders is more important than drinking water,” he said.

But there are some advantages to being a marine scientist in Israel, Rosenfeld points out.

“All the scientists know each other and are in good contact. If you look per square meter, there is more research being done here in Israel on reefs than in other places in the world. Israel is small and our scientists work together.”

As part of its mandate, EcoOcean runs a land-based marine education center not far from Tel Aviv, and it also conducts its very own marine research that it plans to publish in a top-notch marine journal.

But don’t make the Greenpeace comparison please, Weil notes. “We don’t want to be known as activists. We are environmental educators, conducting real-world marine research that will spell out the situation in the Mediterranean Sea in black and white. Right now the most important project for us is that we finish our survey on the water quality in Israel. People don’t know how bad it is.”

Collaborating with Israel’s Ministry of the Environment, EcoOcean is offering at least two different settings for marine education at the elementary and high school levels. Recently, EcoOcean opened the visitor center Megalim (Discovering) where ecology, biology and marine environment education activities are conducted.

The classroom full of microscopes and aquariums does about 50 percent of its teaching from what the group collects at the beach. Or kids, ages 10 to 18, spend the day at the Alexander River to learn how pollution affects animals and the sea. “When they are studying with us for six to seven hours a day, these kids are amazed,” Weil said. “They do not behave like normal kids do, running around and shouting, but pay attention very carefully to what they are learning.”

The Weil family funded construction of the boat and supports ongoing research, but Weil hopes to secure external funding for EcoOcean in the future. However, jumping ship will never happen on his boat: “My goal is to run EcoOcean all my life, whether or not I am living in Israel,” he said. “It will always run as an information organization, and our long-range plan is for our scientists to become authorities on marine research and write papers under our organization’s name.”

It sounds like Israel’s environmental ship has finally come in.

Karin Kloosterman is a freelance writer for ISRAEL21c, a media organization focusing on 21st century Israel.

I’ll try it!

If you tell anyone I know that I was awake at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning, on purpose, they wouldn’t believe you. If you added that I didn’t immediately turn over
and go back to sleep, they would start laughing. If you told them that the reason I was awake at the crack of dawn on a weekend was to go camping, they might actually bust a gut.
Although this statement may seem more the result of a chocolate-induced hallucination, or simply a trip out of reality, the bottom line is that it’s all true.
I, Caroline, the lover of sleeping in, the guru of late nights, the “midnight is early” girl, saw Saturday before noon came around. How did I get into this predicament, one might ask? Was I possessed by an evil spirit? No. Was I pulling an all-nighter and just never went to bed? Not quite. The answer is that I was awake that early on a weekend because I had a boyfriend.
So now you’re wondering how those two things go hand in hand? Well, we had reached “that place,” the place all new relationships reach at one point or another, that spot where your mutual likes have reached an end, and you start hearing yourself say, “I’ll try that” to your significant other’s idea of fun.
We all know and have been at “that place,” where a die-hard sports fan might find himself or herself taping a game or favorite TV show so they can go to their significant other’s family gathering. A person who isn’t overly fond of the beach might start trudging through the sand because it’s their honey’s favorite place in the whole wide world. A picky eater might take small bites of unappealing foods without admitting their distaste.
This is when we are testing our own comfort zones. When the person we’re dating mentions the word “hiking” or “musical,” do we shudder, scream and run in the opposite direction? Or do we slowly push ourselves and try that something new.
When my boyfriend first mentioned camping, I won’t lie: I definitely hesitated. At first I found the suggestion more comical than anything else.
Me, camping? Are you serious?
Now I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. I happen to love nature. But I tend to enjoy taking pictures of nature more than, say, living in nature. I’d rather watch the National Geographic channel on the couch than sleep on the ground in the woods.
But after “I’ll try it” slipped out of my mouth, I soon found myself experiencing my first “true to life; sleep in a tent; live with nature; no hot water; cook your food; granola bar for breakfast; what’s that noise in the bushes … did you hear that, too?” camping trip.
The good news was that my boyfriend had picked a spot that was simply stunning. Our campsite was steps from the ocean, with a backdrop of bright green hills covered with yellow wildflowers. As we took in the sunset barefoot on the beach, I remember thinking, “If this is camping, I can deal with it.”
As the night went on, it seemed that I was not only tolerating camping, but, dare I say, actually enjoying it. The night sky was just amazing. I saw a sea of stars, and could even see them twinkling in different colors.
Although I was slightly sleep deprived by the end of the weekend, I had to agree with my boyfriend that camping can be a very relaxing experience. I had pushed outside of my comfort zone, falling asleep to the sounds of the ocean, the wind and the gazillion or so frogs living in the stream right behind the campsite. I can honestly say that I truly enjoyed myself.
The thing about reaching “I’ll try it” is that you are daring to imagine that things can work out for the best, and that you can add another activity to the list of common likes.
So will I go camping again? Sure. But if he thinks he’s ever going to get me to try and actually like hiking, he’s got another think coming.

The See Season

There is a remarkable place I go to, about once a year. It is a spot on the Oregon coast. And I mean, literally, a spot. When I stand on that spot,

I can see the whole world — all of it.

Straight ahead, I see the Pacific Ocean, waves rhythmically approaching and departing, humming a calming melody. Far in the distance, the ocean meets the horizon, and they melt together into a line of perfect milky blue beauty. I turn slightly to the left, and take in the dark, 10-story-high jagged rocks, partially eroded by centuries of contact with the water. They are lifeless on their peaks but play host to starfish and sea anemones at their feet.

Directly behind me, a neighborhood of houses. In one of them, many loved ones are collected — at this moment just waking up together, and discussing the swift recent departure of a flock of sea gulls and the possibility of locating crab shells on the beach. Behind the houses is a forest — a deep, damp, evergreen Oregon corridor — perched just above the sea line. And to my right — really, at my feet — I observe a small creek, originating from that perched forest, carrying its tiny stream from far away into the great, rushing ocean. Around the creek, and in it, are hundreds of smooth stones, created from years of weathering. The stones await the arrival of my young son, who will spend hours among them, touching them, moving them, tossing them back into the water.

From that spot I can see the whole world. I can see life and abandonment and flight. I see unspeakable beauty and I can see years of confrontation. I can see love, togetherness, petty arguments and laughter. I see things that never change and things that never stay the same. And I can see isolation and community, growth and stagnancy, big picture and tiny details.

And all from standing in one spot.

This week’s Torah portion starts with a potent word: re’eh — see. God says to the Israelites: You have the opportunity to experience the bounty of blessing, or to feel the burn of curse — it is up to you, dependent on your behavior. And God begins this speech with the word re’eh. God says: See. Open your eyes! Take a look. Israelites, re’eh: For a moment, stop moving. Stop walking, stop running, stop eluding, stop covering, stop blocking. Plant your feet firmly on the ground. Just see. Look around. Stand in place and use your sight. There are visions to behold. Pictures to take in. Details to note.

This command is not just for the Israelites wandering in the desert, but for us, too.

Sometimes this is the hardest of all the Torah’s commands — harder than keeping kosher, praying regularly, giving tzedakah, teaching our children and lighting Shabbat candles. It’s hard, because most of us don’t like standing in one place for too long. And when we do, we prefer to have our eyes closed.

But the Torah’s job is to challenge us toward kedusha, to encourage us to wrestle with human nature. See, the Torah says, because once you have really looked, you will comprehend both the blessings and the curses. You will understand the light and the darkness around you.

As the month of Elul — preceding the High Holidays — draws near, we enter a season of seeing. In the coming month, find a spot for yourself. Look at your ocean. Be baffled by the enormity, and its raw, impossible beauty. Note time’s erosion of some things and its fertilization of others. See, too, the small trickle feeding into the enormous sea. Consider each rock that is part of the stream. Observe the constancy of the evergreens of your life. And crane your neck to really look into your house. What is going on in there?

This month, find yourself the spot from which you can see your entire world. Re’eh — look — to begin the work of teshuvah.

Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer is founder and facilitator of Ozreinu, a spiritual support group for parents of special-needs children. She can be reached by e-mail at ozreinu@yahoo.com.