Some friends and I decided to celebrate Rosh Chodesh Adar at the Dead Sea. While laying on the sand in the women’s beach, we noticed observant school girls starting to file in. Soon, the already busy shore was bustling with pre-teens enjoying a special holiday tiyul. Most of them just looked at the water, some went in still dressed in their shoes and stockings and long skirts. A few of them wandered over to us – as entranced by our one-piece bathing suits and exposed shoulders and thighs as we were by their rather unorthodox swimming attire. The girls were excited to try out their English on some actual Anglos. After a few minutes of small talk about where everyone was from, and wasn’t it such nice weather, their teacher pulled them away.
I put my head down and was drifting off when I heard someone shouting my name. One of my friends was excitedly brandishing two fists full of plastic bags and empty Bamba packages. I’m easily aggravated by litter, organizing clean ups once a month in my neighborhood in Jerusalem, and picking up plastic cups and other debris I see when I’m walking around, so it’s nothing new for them to tease me with garbage.
But this was different. This was garbage carelessly thrown into the Dead Sea by observant students with garbage bins not 10 meters away from them, and their teachers are standing right there, completely unconcerned by their actions. I couldn’t understand these teachers – didn’t they care that their students were throwing garbage in one of the most famous bodies of water in the world?
I’ve been around this country and have seen Israelis of various ages, genders, and religious observance tossing garbage on the ground, so I know everyone participates in this behavior. Still, there is something about seeing these actions done by observant Jews that I find to be especially distressing – haven’t we been desperately praying to G-d for the past 2,000 to be able to return to Eretz Yisrael? Now that we are allowed back they show their gratitude by throwing garbage on the ground?
I’m aware it isn’t realistic to expect that every observant Jew should be motivated to keep the environment in Israel clean as part of their overall desire to serve G-d. However, as an observant Jew myself, I think it is completely reasonable to expect that everyone have the decency to refrain from throwing garbage on the ground, especially when it isn’t difficult to put it in a trash bin. But, if the teachers don’t have the derech eretz to find this behavior abhorrent, how can we expect anything more from their students?
I do think there is the potential to change this environmental apathy. Israel previously launched a program to increase environmental awareness, with extremely successful results. Wildflowers are a fixture of the Israeli landscape, but not long after the birth of the State, they were being picked to the point that their populations were threatened. In the 1960s, the Ministry of Agriculture worked with the environmental advocacy group the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, to inform Israelis about the new law that made picking wildflowers illegal. A special emphasis was made to educate kindergartners, who in turn would correct their parents if they began to bend down and pluck a flower. Having your 5 year old remind you not to do something illegal seemed to be an effective method of prevention, as the campaign worked and wildflowers can be found in abundance all over Israel.
So we see, that when something becomes a priority for Israel, they are able to successfully disseminate information to the people, as well as motivate them to comply. With this in mind, I think the time has come to launch a new campaign reminding people not to litter with a special emphasis put on educating students. My Hebrew isn’t good enough yet to think of the Israeli equivalent of ‘Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute’, but I’m open to suggestions. With the right outreach and education, I am confident that in a few years we have the potential to see students reminding their teachers not to litter.
This article was also published in the Times of Israel.
Samantha Hulkower, former Jewish Girl of the Week, is on sabbatical from DC in Israel. Her blog, Derech Eretz Israel, discusses environmental issues in Israel. Like her page on facebook to stay in the know. Comments and ideas for topics you’d like to see Samantha research are welcomed!