City Rabbi Goes Country

I put on my hiking boots and followed the Adventure Rabbi onto a trail through the wildflowers.   I expected a beautiful hike into one of Boulder’s canyons… but I didn’t realize that as I was taking in the Rocky Mountains, I’d also gain a new insight into my generation’s quest for meaningful Judaism.   

Rabbi Jamie Korngold is the Adventure Rabbi.  An avid skier and lover of the outdoors, she created the Adventure Rabbi program with her husband, Jeff Finkelstein – a mountain climber and expert skier with many years’ experience on ski patrol.  (There are Jews on ski patrol??  Who knew?)  The Adventure Rabbi Program:  A Synagogue Without Walls is a community for Jews who “like to do Jewish” outside.  They celebrate Shabbat and holidays skiing, hiking, camping and learning Jewish texts and values off the beaten track.  The Adventure Rabbi Program is a Jewish community without walls, in which the participants take seriously their responsibility to welcome new people, to learn about each other, to celebrate together, and to study Judaism.  It is a community that brings together all kinds of Jews– the in-married, the out-married and the non-married; men, women, kids; real athletes and some urban folks who don’t mind getting a little shmutzy.  This is a real Jewish community– the kind I would want to join! And most interestingly, it is a community where lots of folks who usually feel unwelcome in synagogues – single 25-45 year old women and men (hello??!! anybody seen these guys in a synagogue recently?) want to learn, share, participate, and help build a Jewish community.  

How on earth did an urban rabbi such as myself stumble upon these outdoor Jews?  Rabbi Korngold was invited to participate in S3K’s Emergent network – a group of innovative rabbis building unusual Jewish communities.

So, as I followed Jamie onto the trail through the wildflowers, we talked about Jewish prayer.  Judaism has done a lousy job over the years of creating a prayer language that feels accessible.  Think about it, our images of God from our liturgy are not images most of us can identify with:  Who is this God on high who took us out from slavery with an outstretched arm?…  And what does that even mean?  Now we’re faced with the reality that going to shul and sitting through services is not meaningful to many people either because they have no personal internal prayer life at all or because they do, but they’d rather be somewhere other than a synagogue to pray.  Synagogue membership is down.  Young people, in general, are not joining synagogues– especially not the unmarried ones– and very especially not the guys. BUT,  we so want community, we want to celebrate Shabbat together, we want to learn about Judaism, we want to build meaningful Jewish identities – and we crave the relationships both bein adam l’chavero – between people – and bein adam l’makom – between us and  God – that Jewish communities can help us build.  

What does this have to do with the Rocky Mountains?  I’ll tell you.  Here’s what Jamie and I talked about on our hike:  The wilderness allows people to use vocabulary that would feel cheesy, sappy or otherwise overly poetic anywhere else.  In nature, we’re allowed to use words of awe.  It’s the only place where that vocabulary is widely accepted and can be used by “in,” “out” and “non”-marrieds and by women AND men.  Exclamations of wonder and awe are easy to say and hear when standing next to a hanging glacier or a tiny purple wildflower growing up from the parched desert.  People get used to using vocabulary that expresses gratitude, awareness, searching when we’re surrounded by nature. And once those words enter our vocabulary and we feel safe using them…  they can be used in a Jewish context, too.  How easy it is to be thankful for beauty that we see, to raise questions about the inexplicable, to ask for help climbing over a huge boulder when we’ve all agreed that awe-language is appropriate.

And not only that. Once it’s ok to share the beauty, the questions, the scale of things, we realize that we’re a part of it – tiny in some ways, mighty in others – and all dependent on each other.  Walking up what seemed like a vertical wall of slickrock in Moab, I looked up to find a hand waiting to help me, before I ever had to ask.

Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman
Director, Congregational Engagement

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