An urban river is a symbol of so many things.
It moves from place to place, from up to downstream, so it’s about motion. As it flows, it goes through a range of different microenvironments, so it’s about change. It ripples past business and manufacturing plants and parking lots and houses, so it’s about history and architecture. It keeps moving, so it’s about hope. It heads for the open sea, so it’s about ambition.
It streams through banks loaded with detritus, carelessly discarded trash, undesirable junk, once-loved relics of better times, so it’s about human laziness, careless, and the ability to cause harm.
It’s open to human efforts to clean, to correct, to fix, so it’s about tikkun olam, the attempt to repair the world. The Jewish understanding that we recognize that we can’t reverse everything, but we can try, and we can make a difference.
On a recent Sunday, members of four Bergen County Conservative synagogues met at the boat basin at Memorial Park in Fair Lawn to help clean a stretch of the bank along the Passaic River. The effort was led by Tyler Tierney, the outreach coordinator for Hackensack Riverkeeper.
That meeting, like the river itself, was layered.
On the most basic level, the 45 people who worked together make a physical difference. “We ended up collecting 19 full 55-gallon bags of trash, that weighed in at 575 ponds,” Diane Haft of Temple Beth Sholom in Fair Lawn said.
On the next level, the members of the four communities — Beth Sholom; the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Congregation B’nai Israel; the Jewish Community Center of Paramus/Congregation Beth Tikvah; and Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center of Ridgewood — have come together as the Bergen County Synagogue Alliance. Since the cleanup, the Glen Rock Jewish Center has joined the alliance, and its goal, to have its members meet each other and consider what other activities they can share, has begun to be explored.
And on yet another level, the cleanup acts as an introduction to the Riverkeeper organization. Part of its goal is to introduce people to the local rivers, to the pollution that clogs them and endangers them, and to the beauty that still exists within them. The larger part of its goal is to raise the awareness that helps it gather the funds it needs to pursue the litigation that stops some of the pollution and mitigates the effects of the harm that’s already been done.
So the seemingly straightforward day had many goals.
“We were coming together to work to continue to have a thriving Conservative community in Bergen County,” Ms. Haft, who is her synagogue’s social action chair and also its first vice president, said. “And it was wonderful. It got people from different shuls to talk to each other, and also to help the environment.”
Participants paired off, she said, “and everybody got gloves and a picker, so you don’t have to bend down every time and make yourself dizzy by going up and down every 30 seconds. We just walked along the river basin on the park side, facing it, to pick up debris.” The objects they hauled in included a tire and a wheelbarrow, she added.
And yes, she said, it made a difference.
Debbie Zeiler and Roz Gerard are co-chairs of the Paramus JCC’s community affairs committee. Ms. Zeiler, who lives in Paramus, was at the riverbank. “The committee does something every month, but this activity brought out different people than the ones who normally come out for shul activities,” she said. “It was very nice. Everyone was really friendly, and we met people from other shuls.
“And it looked so much better when we were done. Every little bit helps. If everyone does just a little tiny bit, we can make the whole world a better, cleaner place.”
It was a good way to meet people from other shuls, she added, because “there is a lot of interaction. If you’re inside packaging something, you don’t do as much talking. It was nice to have the opportunity to really talk and mingle.”
Mr. Tierney, the Riverkeeper representative, has a clear, unmistakable passion for local rivers. He’s young and has been at the organization for less than a year, but the group “was started 25 years ago by Captain Bill Sheehan. His objective was to have eyes on the water, so he could spot when anybody was doing something wrong,” he said.
Now, Mr. Sheehan is the group’s executive director.
“We both grew up in waterfront towns — him in Secaucus, me in Bayonne,” Mr. Tierney said. “We both grew up fishing.” They also both grew up, a few decades apart, noticing the pollution that was stealing some of the beauty of the rivers they loved.
Riverkeeper always has river-lovers on staff who “have eyes on the water,” as Mr. Tierney put it. Also, it always has an attorney on staff, who is up to date on regulations surrounding the Clean Water Act, so legal action could be taken swiftly.
The Riverkeeper offers many educational programs, both for adults and children, often in partnership with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. Mr. Tierney’s programs give people the chance to clean up the river as they learn about the “importance of recycling and of proper trash disposal,” he said.
But the romance of the river goes far beyond those prosaic goals.
“Both the Passaic and the Hackensack rivers open up onto Newark Bay estuary,” he said. “If you are on a boat near Kearny Point, you can see it; that is the confluence. The Passaic is an interesting river. It flows north for a while, and then, just near Paterson Falls, it starts to head back south. At the very end, it opens up into Newark Bay.” The Hackensack also opens into Newark Bay, “maybe 500 yards away.”
The 80-mile-long Passaic River starts in Mendham, in Morris County, near the Great Swamp, where it a major presence. The Rockaway, Whippany, and Pompton rivers all flow into it as it meanders between Morris and Essex Counties before it goes to Passaic and Bergen, and then back to Essex. It’s a notoriously dirty river, especially the section in Newark’s Ironbound. The Hackensack River, much shorter at 45 miles, begins at Lake Lucille, near New City in Rockland County, and drains the Meadowlands before it, too, flows into Newark Bay. It’s also quite dirty for long stretches.
Do they look the same? Not if you know them intimately, Mr. Tierney said. “I know landmarks. Would they look different in their natural state? Probably not. If you spun me in a circle and dropped me off, I wouldn’t know. But they’re both very urban, so you can tell them apart by the urban landmarks.”
And despite their reputations, and despite their history, “they both very alive. There’s a lot going on in both of them. A lot of wildlife.”
Right after the synagogue group left, when he was able to concentrate on birds, “I saw a palm warbler and yellow-rumped warblers, and a male and female wood duck,” Mr. Tierney said. “I didn’t see any osprey that died, but I did see red-bellied woodpeckers.
“Because most of our work is in the Hackensack, I’m not sure what’s in the Passaic, but in the Hackensack, especially in the Meadowlands, there is a good solid population of striped bass, which is New Jersey’s beloved fish. There’s white perch and bluegill perch.
“Some of these fish are saltwater fish, some need brackish water, and some are freshwater fish. They all meet here. It’s a fascinating river. Urban wildlife is fascinating.”
(Readers are reminded that although the striped bass may be considered the state’s most beloved fish, they are not to be eaten because of high toxic concentrations.)
What about land animals? “There are more and more possums and raccoons and groundhogs,” he said. “There is an overabundance of deer. There are foxes and minks.” Minks? “Yes. Minks are native here,” he said.
There are surprises in these rivers. “There are concentrated pockets of natural environments, and they are just so alive,” Mr. Tierney said. “There’s less room for them to sprawl then there used to be, but at the same time the water is cleaner than it used to me, so the river is more productive.”
To learn more about Hackensack Riverkeeper, go to hackensackriverkeeper.org; there are other googleable Riverkeeper groups in the state. And then there’s the big one, Riverkeeper, that’s charged with keeping the Hudson clean. It’s at riverkeeper.org.