Inspired By My Judaism, I'm Walking Across the U.S. with 90 Lbs. of Water
Throughout my childhood at my Reform Jewish congregation in New Jersey, I was always being taught the meaning of and how to practice tikkun olam, repairing the world, and gemilut hasadim, acts of love and kindness. I walked away with these values instilled in me – knowing that if someone is less fortunate, I shouldn’t selfishly think, “How can I dodge those mistakes?” but instead ask, “How can I help to make their life and other lives better?”
In high school, I found that tikkun olam and gemilut hasadim would be my life’s calling. Since then, those Jewish values have stuck with me everywhere life has taken me, from my childhood in New Jersey to time spent in New York City and West Virginia, from my undergraduate studies at the University of Delaware to studying abroad in Israel, and countless places in between.
How did I come to care so much about tikkun olam and gemilut hasadim? While working on a project for one of my high school classes, I Googled "water issues.” With one simple search, my life – and what I wanted to do with it – was changed.
I learned that even if someone is on the other side of the world, I can still help them. At that moment, I decided to dedicate myself to helping people gain access to this vital aspect of life: clean drinking water. Since then, I’ve helped various nonprofits raise funds to build wells in the Central African Republic and Tanzania. I spent a summer putting my Jewish principles to physical work by living in Tanzania to provide technical assistance to villages, helping to maintain their wells. While living in the United States, my career centered on water quality and quantity projects in Delaware and West Virginia.
This past year, I decided to take these Jewish values and run with them – quite literally. I walked a marathon a month while carrying 45 pounds of water to raise awareness about the struggle some people face just to obtain this life necessity.
On May 17th, I embarked on foot on a 3,215 mile journey across North America, beginning in New Jersey and ending approximately six months later in San Francisco, with an extended stop in Flint, MI, in between. Data shows that most people in Tanzania live nine miles from a water source, so the distance I’ll walk across the U.S. represents the cumulative distance a person in Tanzania walks to get water during the course of a year.
The donations I raise during my journey will go toward repairing broken wells and training communities about how to maintain wells in the Mara Region of Tanzania. At present, there are 307 broken wells in the area that all have good water quality; now, we need to fix those wells and teach residents how to sustain the structures’ quality.
The goals of having clean water accessible to all people in this region are gender equality, education, and health. It is typically women and children who are responsible for getting water in these areas of Africa – and so, by bringing clean and safe water to the region, women can instead spend time establishing new roles in their communities, and children will have the opportunity to attend school consistently. Clean water will also remove the threats of bacteria, viruses, and pathogens that are found in many of Tanzania’s current water sources, which often result in sickness and even death.
On my journey, I’m using a cart to pull 10 gallons (or 90lbs) of water for the journey to symbolize the long walks for water that women and children embark upon every day.
There are also parts of the United States with water insecurity issues, and my route was created to visit these areas. That’s why I’ll be stopping to volunteer with nonprofits in Flint, MI, to learn more about the water quality issues there – and why many people live in this country without clean drinking water.
My cross-country journey brings me many different emotions, but above all, I’m excited to bring awareness to a global issue I’m passionate about by, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once called it, “praying with my feet” – putting my Jewish values into action.
To follow James’ journey, please visit www.missioncleanwater.com. From there, you can gain access to his blog and social media pages, which are updated daily.
James Leitner, 24, is from Scotch Plains, N.J., where he attended Temple Sholom. He attended the University of Delaware for an undergraduate degree in environmental studies and environmental policy. In 2015, he traveled to California to work at Camp Mountain Chai teaching rock climbing, outdoor education, and Jewish values, and afterwards moved to West Virginia to pursue rock-climbing and work as a watershed technician.