Adventure Rabbi: Synagogue without Walls
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Adventure Rabbi in the News:

July 13, 2004
Rocky Mountain Chai
Hiking in the desert for the High Holidays? This isn't your parent's brand of Judaism. Meet Rabbi Jamie Korngold.

By Michael Schwartz July 6, 2004

Rabbi Jamie Korngold performing a mountaintop wedding.

What do mountain biking, hiking in the desert and the Jewish High Holidays have in common? If you join "Adventure Rabbi: A Synagogue Without Walls" this Rosh Hashanah in Grand Junction, Colorado, you're sure to find out.

This might not sound like the kind of Judaism you grew up with, but according to Rabbi Jamie Korngold, the founder of Adventure Rabbi, since ancient times Jews have gone to the wilderness to meet God. "Before there were synagogues, even before the giving of the Torah," says Korngold, "when Jews wanted to talk to God they climbed mountains, sought out high places, wandered in the desert, or sat by rivers."

"A lot of rabbis wonder where their congregants are on Saturday morning," continues Korngold. "I don't wonder. I know, because I'm out there with them -- skiing, hiking and biking. I've had some of my most profound spiritual moments on mountains."

She pauses, a peaceful yet passionate look in her eye that just the mention of the experience seems to spark. "Everyone is really busy and time is at a premium. For a lot of Coloradoans, if the choice on the weekend is between being indoors to 'do Jewish' or climbing or hiking, Judaism will lose out almost every time."

The solution to the conundrum? To Korngold it seems simple: "I take the spiritual experience people are already having in the wilderness and show then how it is Jewish," she says. "70% of the Jews in America are not affiliated with congregations. My goal is to re-open the door to Judaism in a way that really speaks to them and is relevant to our outdoor lifestyle."

From leading services on skis and snowboards on top of Copper Ski Resort, to backpacking and chanting Torah at the base of the Grand Canyon in the spring, perhaps Rabbi Korngold has found the answer to the common complaint that services seem to be meaningless and irrelevant. "Our High Holiday services -- hiking, biking, and praying in the canyon country of western Colorado -- is a great example of how we use the power of the wilderness experience to awaken our Judaism," says Korngold.

For Rosh Hashanah, the Adventure Rabbi team has teamed up with a small Reform congregation in Grand Junction Colorado. Congregants enjoy the usual series of High Holiday services, but in addition, Adventure Rabbi guides offer hiking, mountain biking, and camping before and after services to magnify the awe-inspiring splendor of the day.

Says Adventure Rabbi participant Alan Greenberg: "I used to be a once-a-year Jew. I'd go through the High Holiday services just because I felt like I had to. I spent the service counting pages until it would be over. I wouldn't come back to synagogue until the next year when I would guilt myself into going."

His wife Catherine Greener (who he met through Adventure Rabbi) chimes in: "With Adventure Rabbi I found a way to relate to Judaism that is meaningful and relevant. The shema prayer takes on so much meaning when you say it while climbing a 14,000 foot peak with a bunch of people working together step by step."

Perhaps the Adventure Rabbi model is not so surprising after all. According to Jewish tradition, the wilderness was where God gave the Jews the Ten Commandments and the Torah, and was where a ragtag group of slaves was transformed into the nation of Israel. Concepts such as our modern court system, the ethical treatment of animals and a weekly day of rest, stem from this time of wandering in the desert.

And now, with Korngold leading the pack, the descendants of these ancients are returning to the wilderness once again to find meaning. (But not for too long -- unlike Moses who didn't stop to ask for directions and wandered for 40 years in the desert, Adventure Rabbi's wilderness trips range from a single afternoon hike to multi-day backpacking trips).

Is the Adventure Rabbi concept working? Well, if you consider 40 people hiking through the woods on Shabbat, eagerly discussing the Torah portion of the week, then we guess it's working just fine.

Michael Schwartz writes on Arts and Entertainment for Jewsweek Magazine.

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