Tashlich, the Jewish ritual of metaphorically casting one’s sins into a body of water, is a key part of the High Holidays. A contemporary approach to the ritual uses an environmental lens – the “Reverse Tashlich” – in which participants remove litter from a body of water. For the second consecutive year, a Reverse Tashlich initiative is being promoted locally by the Mystic River Watershed Association.
“Instead of throwing away your sins, you’re picking up the sins of others,” said Karen Grossman, a former MWRA board member and the current president of the Friends of Spy Pond Park in Arlington. “That’s why it’s Reverse Tashlich.”
The MWRA is encouraging people to volunteer to clean up litter at multiple locations in the Mystic River watershed, including Mary O’Malley Park in Chelsea, the Alewife Reservation in Cambridge, Horn Pond in Woburn, and the Mystic Lakes in Winchester. They can volunteer at a time of their choice and take a photo of themselves with the litter they clean up to show their participation. The initiative runs through the end of Yom Kippur Sept. 16.
“This period of time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I felt, let’s not just [have] one single event during COVID especially,” Grossman said, but rather “whatever they could [do] during this period of time.”
Last year, four synagogues were involved in the event, all in watershed communities -– Temple Shir Tikva in Winchester, Temple Beth El in Belmont, Temple Isaiah in Lexington, and Temple B’nai Brith in Somerville. The Jewish Climate Action Network, a local environmental organization, also was involved. Grossman said she is trying to attract more synagogues this year in other parts of the watershed. Eighty-nine people had signed up when she spoke with the Jewish Journal Sept. 9, the first day of the initiative.
“There’s so much, even in the Bible, about the need to protect the Earth,” Grossman said. “We are part of the Earth. We must live in cooperation with our environment.”
Grossman said there is also a social justice component to the cleanup of the Mystic River watershed, as pollution from affluent communities along the upper portion has an impact on poorer, more urban communities along the lower part.
Grossman first learned about the national Reverse Tashlich program when she read an article about it in the Jewish Advocate. The article centered on its activities along the Florida shoreline. Grossman saw that it could be applicable in the Mystic River watershed as well.
As she explained, “most of the trash” in oceans “comes from inland, city streets. People throw trash that goes down storm drains into rivers and flows into the ocean.”
Patrick Herron, the executive director of the MWRA, had not heard of Tashlich when Grossman suggested a local Reverse Tashlich initiative. But he liked the idea.
“I’m incredibly grateful, both for the activity that ensued and also to learn a little bit about Jewish culture that I was not aware of,” said Herron, who is not Jewish.
The MWRA holds dozens of volunteer events during the year and about a half-dozen involve litter cleanup within the watershed, a 76-square-foot area that encompasses 22 communities and is home to wildlife such as eagles, herons, and hawks. Herron expressed particular concern about small pieces of plastic at the river’s edge – such as water bottles, bottle caps, and straws – as well as pieces of Styrofoam. Cleanup can be done from land or in a canoe. Herron voiced regret that the collected trash often ends up in a landfill, although in some cases it can be recycled.
“It takes time to change the direction of a ship,” Herron said. “It will take time to truly change how we manage our land and our litter. For the moment, we’re just at the beginning of the journey.”
Last year’s volunteer engagement was an “additional incentive to our partners and municipalities working with us on a trash-free Mystic River, with us and the US EPA, on solutions for what are the best investments to reduce the amount of litter making it to our waterways.”
Grossman said that the Reverse Tashlich initiative is applicable to other watersheds, including the Ipswich River watershed.
“It was my hope that the idea would spread throughout Massachusetts by the MRWA, providing an example of what other watershed associations could do,” she said, adding that she envisions a time when “each year, all over the country, there are people doing Reverse Tashlich, thinking more about their role in making the environment healthier – not just in your watershed, [but] all the way to the ocean.”
If you are interested in the MRWA Reverse Tashlich initiative, learn more at mysticriver.org/reverse-tashlich.