Many of us traveled to lakes and ponds to perform the tashlich ritual last week. We stood by the water’s edge and cast hunks of bread into the liquid expanse, waiting for nature’s response of dainty ripples and hungry, descending birds.
Performed on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the custom serves as a symbolic casting away of sin, and its positioning beside a body of water brims with various spiritual meanings. One explanation posits that it is to remind us of God’s omnipotence and mercy: God might have chosen to flood the dry land this year, but, in keeping with His promise following Noah’s flood, did not. This explanation might invite unsavory contemporary associations; for example, the recent flooding in South Asia and the American South. One can hardly make a case for “heavenly restraint” in times like these.
Take the opportunity in the upcoming month to reflect on matters both spiritual and political, but don’t think on too cosmic a scale and overlook those things happening in your own backyard.
I think of the water shutoff emergency happening right now in Detroit. You probably are aware of the tragic poisoning of water in Flint, which is very connected to the shutoffs in Detroit, as a consequence of emergency management instituted by the state. Some history: In the wake of Detroit’s 2013 declaration of bankruptcy and during emergency management, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department initiated a water shutoff campaign against residents who could not afford to pay their water bills. Since 2014, more than 100,000 homes have lost access to water services, a number that is predicted to rise in 2017. The time for the Jewish community to act is now.
The situation bears grave medical consequences. Researchers from the Henry Ford Health System’s Global Health Initiative and Division of Infectious Disease, in partnership with We the People of Detroit Community Research Collective, have recently declared a public health crisis after finding “significant connection between Detroit government-imposed water shutoffs and water-related illnesses experienced by a sample of Henry Ford Hospital patients.” The illnesses include skin and soft tissue infections, as well as water-borne bacterial infections. Children, pregnant women and disabled people are among those affected when the city shuts off water with impunity.
There is no economic justification for the events in Detroit. In fact, residents are paying retail prices for their water as the city sells the utility at wholesale rates to suburban water authorities. Though Detroit residents buckle under a disproportionate burden that suburban-dwellers can hardly fathom, we cannot pretend that their issue is not ours, too. We all know that a more robust, economically sound Detroit means the same for its suburbs — and the inverse also holds true.
I’m active in a local group called Detroit Jews for Justice that is building a Jewish base to take action on this issue in solidarity with Detroit community partners. We invite you to take a first step by attending a Jewish community forum on the health impact of our regional water crisis, featuring activists and public health experts. The forum will be in partnership with Temple Kol Ami, who will host the event on the evening of Oct. 23. Register today at detroitjewsforjustice.org/events.
As I begin my junior year at Yale University, I regret being far away from home, limited in my capacity to help. This Rosh Hashanah, as I looked out at the lake only a rock’s skip from campus, I remembered that water exists for life, for all people. Home was on my mind.
Talia Schechet is a graduate of Akiva Hebrew Day School (now Farber Hebrew Day School) and the Frankel Jewish Academy. She studies English literature and energy studies at Yale University.