There are many ways to connect to Judaism, but for Josh Keller and fellow members of Scubi Jew, that connection is found deep under the ocean. The student group helps restore the marine environment and shares the beauty — and buoyancy — with people who have disabilities.
Keller, a Highlands resident attending Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla., is president of the club, which puts a new spin on the concept of tikkun olam, repairing the world; Scubi Jew focuses on tikkun hayam, repairing of the seas.
“We are bringing in Jewish values to being eco-conscious,” said Keller in a phone interview with NJJN. Keller is a junior and marine sciences major, minoring in computer science. “I get to combine scuba diving with social responsibility, which is a wonderful thing.”
Group members are certified scuba divers and use their skills to restore coral reefs, clean up debris on the beach and in the ocean, raise awareness of endangered marine life, and give people with disabilities the freedom of movement underwater that they can’t experience on land.
Having grown up along the Jersey Shore and graduated from the Marine Academy of Science and Technology — part of the Monmouth County vocational school system — Keller has always been around the water.
However, it wasn’t until he got to Eckerd and met Rabbi Ed Rosenthal, who serves as both Hillel director and Scubi Jew spiritual advisor, that he became certified in scuba diving.
Of the 117 Jewish students now at Eckerd, 52 are certified scuba divers and all are members of Scubi Jew, although some are more active than others, Rosenthal told NJJN in a phone interview.
“I started Scubi Jew because I love the ocean and wanted to raise awareness among Jews,” Rosenthal said of the organization he began seven years ago.
It is among the largest on-campus clubs in an 1,800-student college where marine science is the most popular major, according to Rosenthal.
“There are a lot of Jewish environmental organizations, but none pay much attention to our marine environment, and the fact is, it is the most threatened part of our environment,” said Rosenthal. “The idea is to reach our Jewish marine science students, and have them see the relationship between Judaism and the ocean.”
Rosenthal noted “we are the only Hillel in the world that owns a boat,” named Ally’s Way and donated by the parents of a Scubi Jew killed in a hiking accident in New Zealand. The boat is used for its dive program through which the group has adopted a reef in Tampa Bay, cleaning it of trash.
Keller said Scubi Jew works with the Coral Restoration Foundation in Key Largo, which operates offshore nurseries for threatened coral species.
The number of times the group makes the 315-mile trip to Key Largo depends on funding. Rosenthal said it has ranged from twice a year to twice a semester and one year, thanks to a grant, to monthly.
“We take coral fragments and plant them on these PVC pipe trees they have anchored to the ground,” said Keller. “We keep them clean on these trees and when they grow large enough we epoxy them to the reef and let them grow. It could be on a rocky outcropping where there is not as much coral as we would like, and we create a whole new ecosystem there.”
The group also does its Dive Against Debris in Key Largo removing trash from the bottom of the ocean. Describing it as “an underwater beach clean-up,” Keller said the student divers scoop up everything from regular garbage to old fishing lines and anchors.
The club facilitates buoyancy and empathy training with the Diveheart Foundation, so members can bring people with physical disabilities, such as blindness, cerebral palsy, and various types of paralysis, underwater. Some who are unable to stand on land can even place both feet down on the ocean floor and stand on their own, Keller explained.
“When we take them down it’s therapeutic,” said Keller, who has accrued 54 hours of training. “It’s a weightless environment, so they can do things they never could on land. Some can’t even put on their own wetsuit on the boat, but get them underwater and they can fly around like superheroes. When you take them down to a certain depth the brain releases serotonin, which is useful for pain management. Being in that weightless environment is really good for them.”
Rosenthal said that promoting manatee and shark awareness are among the group’s other initiatives. On a trip to the Bahamas Scubi Jew not only cleaned beaches and the ocean, but also focused on tzaar baalei chayim, the Torah prohibition against causing needless suffering to animals, and the prohibition against senseless destruction and waste, tying both to shark finning.
“About 100 million sharks are killed every year in the cruelest and most barbaric way for shark fin soup,” said Rosenthal. “People don’t realize 95 percent of sharks have been removed from the sea. When you destroy the top predator in the sea, you destroy the whole ecosystem.”
The students went diving with the sharks learning, said Rosenthal, “what gentle, graceful, and majestic” creatures they are.
The group also travels to the Crystal River, about an hour from the college, “the only place where you can go swimming with an endangered species,” he said, in this case manatees, which recently were upgraded from endangered to threatened.
Rosenthal said, “When you get up close to something that is threatened with extinction and touch it and look it in the eye, your awareness changes and you will do whatever you can to save it from extinction.”
Keller has a history of involvement in Jewish groups. He grew up in Congregation B’nai Israel in Rumson, where he was membership and programming director and copresident of its United Synagogue Youth chapter. At Eckerd he is the Scubi Jew representative on the Hillel student board. His mother, Amy Keller, is director of security initiatives for the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey, and his father, Scott, works in the marine industry.
Eckerd’s Scubi Jew club helped launch chapters at the University of Miami, Florida Atlantic University, and the University of Central Florida.
Rosenthal has started reaching out to other colleges about opening chapters, including Rutgers University.
“We must get the Jewish community involved,” Rosenthal said. “Josh has been an incredible president about raising awareness.”