Jewish Community Gone Wild
Why Rabbi Korngold leads her congregants into the woods and mountains to foster spirituality
Twelve years ago, Rabbi Jamie Korngold—environmentalist and outdoor enthusiast—created what’s been referred to as “a cutting-edge model of synagogue life for 21st century Judaism.” In an effort to put meaning back into Judaism for those who felt disconnected, Korngold created the Adventure Rabbi Program in Boulder, Colorado, which teaches age-old Jewish concepts in a modern world. She brings members on mountain hikes, skiing expeditions and campfire hangouts, taking breaks to discuss Jewish ethics, blessings, and values, in what she calls “the ultimate sanctuary.” One Friday night and one Saturday night a month, members attend services, and each Saturday, there is a Shabbat hike and/or a ski trip.
A large part of why you started your program is to attract Jews who are turned off by organized religion. Is there, generally speaking, a basic demographic and personality type of your members?
Our program attracts people who:
1. Seek an entrance to meaningful Jewish community.
2. Prioritize time for outdoor activity in their lives.
3. Are thoughtful, intelligent thinkers, willing to take a risk and try something new.
4. Don’t feel compelled to be in synagogue services or religious school classes weekly.
5. Are not convinced of the concept of a personal, interventionist God.
What led you to be an adventure rabbi, and was there a particular experience that made you feel this was the right path for you?
As a congregational rabbi, my experience was that most of my friends were out on Saturday skiing, biking, and hiking, rather than coming inside to the services I was leading. I began to wonder, “What if I took this Jewish thing outside, where many Jewish people already are, and used the spiritual experience many of us find so easily outdoors as a springboard for a Jewish experience? What if, instead of calling people up to the bimah for an aliyah on Saturday morning, we all made aliyah (i.e. went up) a mountain and had our service on the summit? How would that change our relationship to prayer and to each other? What kind of Jewish community would that build?”
Do you consider yourself an environmentalist?
Yes, I’m an environmentalist. Environmental considerations enter into the decisions I make in my daily life—what to eat, where to live, what to teach, what to buy and not buy, how to get to the places I am going, etc.
How do you believe the outdoors can help people reconnect with a lost faith?
I don’t pretend to speak to the concept of faith. Judaism is religion and a family more than it is a faith. A faith implies that the uniting factor of the group is a common belief and understanding (faith) about God. What binds Jews together is halacha, ritual, calendar, and family. Faith may have to do with it, but it often does not.
One of the quotes you’ve been known to read after taking members for a hike is by Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Awe rather than faith is the cardinal attitude of the religious Jew.” What is it about that quote that speaks to you?
Here we have the same concept. Faith is not the central point. To me this quotation reminds us that what we believe or don’t believe about God has very little to do with it. Awe, that place where words end, is the primal place of connection. As a Jewish professional, my goal is to reacquaint people with awe.
While you are hiking up a mountain, are you teaching lessons, engaging in discussion or being silent observers?
We’re more a group of physical hikers than contemplative meditators. We might be silent because we are hiking so hard that we can’t talk, but generally we enjoy the depth of connection that happens when we have time to speak on the trail with each other. Out there in the wild, you really need each other, for example to help one another up a rock face or down a steep incline. The very act of being outdoors together binds people in a unique and deep way.
What do naysayers tend to say about your programming, and what is your response?
I don’t really pay much attention to naysayers.
Tell us what you keep in your backpack during one of your Jewish hikes.
First aid kit
Rain coat and rain pants
Warm hat, gloves, and spare warm layer
My book filled with texts I plan to teach
Backpacking Torah in its portable ark
Cell phone with emergency numbers programmed in, such as search and rescue
Can you share with us one particularly profound moment you’ve experienced while leading a service on the slopes?
I was leading a service at Copper Mountain and, in the space of Yotzer Or (the morning prayer that gives thanks for creation), I asked everyone to look around and notice something they would not have noticed if we had not taken the time to look. After the service, Cassie Fishbein—the headmaster of a private preparatory high school in Columbus, Ohio—who was there with her family, came up to me and said, “My family and I have been skiing here all week and we have been skiing so hard that this was the first time that we slowed down enough to really look around.” She was so moved by the experience that Cassie and her two children Jacob and Sara ended up going through our distance learning Bar and Bat Mitzvah program studying with our rabbinic team by Skype and became bar and bat mitzvah with us in Rocky Mountain National Park.
About the Author
Rabbi Korngold is an ordained Reform rabbi and the founder and executive director of the Adventure Rabbi Program, with bases in Boulder, Colorado, and Lake Tahoe, California. She is the author of The God Upgrade: Finding Your 21st-Century Spirituality in Judaism’s 5,000-Year-Old Tradition (Jewish Lights, April 2011), which was named one of the ten best religious books of the year by Publisher’s Weekly, as well as the best-selling book God in the Wilderness (Doubleday, 2008), which is now in its third printing. She has also written six children’s books for Kar-Ben Publishing, including Sadie’s Sukkah Breakfast (2011), a Sydney Taylor Notable book, Sadie and the Big Mountain (2012), Sadie’s Almost Marvelous Menorah (2013), and Sadie’s Lag B’Omer Mystery (2014). A favorite of the media, she has been featured on Good Morning America, CBS, CNN, NPR, as well as in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Ski magazine.