NEWS STORY: With ancient ritual, prayers and pleas for a river’s healing

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c. 1998 Religion News Service

BEACON, N.Y. _ With prayers, dancing, and singing, culminating in the beating of willow branches on the river banks, Jewish worshippers gathered at the Hudson River to ask divine protection for the endangered river and demand that one of the manufacturers responsible for polluting its waters fulfill its

obligation to clean it.

Some 250 people came together at this picturesque town 80 miles north of New York City in what was an unusual if not unique Hoshanna Rabbah ceremony Sunday (Oct. 11) on the final day of Sukkot, the seven-day Jewish harvest festival.

What made the service unusual was that along with the prayers there were impassioned pleas to the General Electric Company to expand its efforts to clean areas of the river fouled by millions of pounds of toxic waste from its plants over a 30-year period.

By mixing religious tradition with a call for political action, organizers said they hoped to reinterpret this ancient harvest ritual, rekindling the age-old connection between religion and environment.”There is a crisis around the issues of the environment that Jewish people haven’t had to deal with since they were living in the ancient land,”said Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Philadelphia-based Shalom Center, which organized the event.

Organizers said the outdoor, activist-oriented Sukkot ceremony, one of several held at various sites this year in at least four other states, Britain and Canada, may be the first of its kind.”We realized this ceremony had fallen into disuse over the last hundred years, but we felt the festival spoke powerfully to American society, specifically the Hudson River and PCBs,”said Waskow.

Until the federal government banned the production of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in 1977, General Electric poured waste from two plants in upstate New York into the river. The factories used PCBs in the production of insulation for electric transformers until the chemical was determined to be a health hazard.

Left behind were toxic PCB dumps formed along 40 miles of river bottom that environmentalists say constitutes the nation’s largest PCB waste site. This year the Hudson, selected as an American Heritage River for its beauty and historical significance, also was listed by the nonprofit group American Rivers as one of the country’s most endangered rivers, largely because of the

PCB pollution.

GE said it has spent $150 million so far on the Hudson cleanup and will continue its efforts to”stop the flow of PCBs into the river,”company officials said.”We share the same goal of a clean river,”said David Warshaw, a spokesman for the Fairfield, Conn.-based company.”The river is getting better. It’s a spectacular recovery and GE has met its obligations under federal and state law.” Environmentalists who argue that containing the PCBs is not good enough are advocating a more costly plan to dredge the river, remove all the toxins, burn some at special incinerators and place the rest in landfills. GE opposes the idea, claiming it would create its own environmental hazards.

But environmentalists and religious activists maintain the company has fallen short of its corporate responsibility to repair the environmental damage it created.”GE has resisted the call from all levels of officials and environmental groups to clean up the PCBs it dumped. We want to add another voice to insist GE do that,”said Waskow.

Several participants described the ceremony as symbolic of what they viewed as a new spirit of environmental consciousness among Jewish people.”Jews used to live close to the earth so it makes sense to speak for the earth,”said worshipper Cassia Berman, of Woodstock, N.Y.”What GE has done to the river is unconscionable. My prayer is they wake up because they have destroyed life by their greed.” Among those participating in the ceremony was legendary folk singer and activist Pete Seeger, whose Hudson River environmental group, Clearwater, was holding one of its regular events nearby.

Seeger, who led the group in a chorus of a popular Hebrew folk song, said he welcomed a fresh voice in his decades-old campaign to save the Hudson.”Thirty-five years ago when we started Clearwater, we never dreamed (the river) could be cleaned,”said Seeger, surveying a small fleet of sailboats bobbing in the autumn breeze.”We were told it was an exercise in futility; once a sewer always a sewer.” In his final prayer, Waskow urged worshippers to adhere to the teaching of unity in the world and respect the interconnection of its parts.

His words may have signaled the end of the annual harvest ceremony, but not to the Jewish presence in the fight to heal the Hudson.

Worshippers were asked to raise the issue in their synagogues, write politicians and government officials and boycott GE products. Those who were GE shareholders or invested in mutual funds that own stock in the company were urged to make their feelings known at stockholders’ meetings.”I don’t see this ending on October 11th, only beginning,”Waskow said.


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