Gabe Goldman wanted to believe in miracles, wanted to believe in the power of prayer, wanted to believe that God had spoken to prophets. But Goldman, an Orthodox Jew, felt burned out on Judaism. He would perform the rituals with perfect technique, but no heart. A change, he thought, was in order.
At the time, a little more than a decade ago, Goldman held a prestigious job as curriculum director of the Bureau of Jewish Education in Cleveland. He earned $70,000 annually, enough to own a comfortable home and provide for his wife and four children.
With his wife's blessing, Goldman dealt with his personal crisis by resigning his position, with no other job lined up or even a clear game plan. A hiking and canoeing aficionado, Goldman wanted somehow to combine his love of nature with a rebirth of his love for Judaism. Along the way, he would lose his house to foreclosure and discover a mystical grandfather figure whom he followed, like a disciple, through the wilderness.
Today, the 54-year-old Goldman directs outdoor Jewish education at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley. In the newly created position, the former yeshiva student and published author helps other Jews deepen their appreciation of ecology, their religion and themselves. Goldman has taught Brandeis campers to weave a palm-branch sukkah, to light the Havdalah candle by rubbing sticks together and to fashion Shabbat candles from plaster castes of animal tracks.
The world outdoors, however, isn't simply something to admire, enjoy and appreciate in Goldman's view. The tall trees, colorful flowers and sun-baked hills all reflect God's finest handiwork. According to Jewish tradition, flora and fauna are so sacred that Jews could learn all the Torah's lessons simply by opening their hearts to the plants and flowers.
"There is one doorway to spirituality that remains open 24 hours a day, every day of the year," said Goldman, a muscular 5-feet-8, 170-pounds. "This is the doorway of nature, the most ancient of all spiritual doorways."
For Brandeis, the hiring of Goldman is recognition of Judaism's connection to nature and also an attempt to take advantage of the institute's 3,000 acres of open space, executive director Gary Brennglass said. Goldman moved to Southern California in May with his wife and 17-year-old son -- his other children are grown.
"Gabe is a brilliant teacher with a national reputation," Brennglass said. "He's an engaging personality who can relate to our youngest campers in our day camp and to our oldest participants in our elder hostel. We're lucky to have him."
Goldman has planted fruits and vegetables with college students in the organic garden and led first-graders on egg hunts in the camp's chicken coops. Future projects include Rosh Chodesh hikes the first Sunday of each month and Sunday programs in the gardens for Brandeis alumni and families.
Goldman is perhaps most in his element when he leads Saturday morning Shabbat hikes around Brandeis' grounds, which feature dramatic vistas of 12 rugged peaks. On a recent outing, Goldman led a dozen adults near colorful peacocks and through fields of yellow flowers. Goldman asked participants to close their eyes and reflect on the magnificence surrounding them. Nature's complexity, interconnectedness and beauty are so divine, Goldman said, that they helped convince the great Jewish patriarch Abraham of God's existence.
The spiritual bliss that Goldman can reach today contrasts sharply with the despair that led him to give up his comfortable life in Cleveland years ago. Not even his own religious erudition could put his spiritual unease to rest: He had penned his dissertation, at the University of Connecticut, on the teaching principles enunciated in the Torah and Talmud.
He eventually lost his house and saw his salary plummet to below $20,000 annually. But pursuing his quest for meaning, he said, saved him from a life of quiet desperation.
Within a year of walking away from his respectable career, he began studying native American culture and survival skills with a Maine wilderness guide named Ray Reitze Jr. Reitze, whom Goldman affectionately calls "Grandfather," taught him to see and experience the connection between nature and spirituality.
Among other things, Goldman learned to shed anger by hollowing out his ego. He also discovered the ability to transcend the limitations of time and space by entering a dimension of spirituality. On a 1995 canoeing trip with Grandfather, for instance, Goldman put a bird's feather on his chest, fell asleep and then felt himself flying above the island where they camped. Another time, he "visited" a friend's apartment in another city and described, in detail, her dining room and her home's décor without ever having stepped a foot in it.
In time, Goldman began organizing retreats for Jewish groups in the Allegheny National Forest and elsewhere. In 1997, the New Jersey YMHA Camp hired him to bring Jewish nature programming to its six camps.
Four years later, Goldman founded the Jewish Environmental and Nature Education Institute, a 4-year-old Pennsylvania-based nonprofit organization that has conducted hikes and other programs for more than 30,000 Jews nationwide. The institute distributes his book, "Guide for the Spiritually Perplexed: A Jewish Meditation Primer." (The book also can be obtained at www.outdoorjewishadventures.com.) Goldman hopes eventually to relocate the institute to Southern California.
At Brandeis, Goldman is entirely in his element when he works with small numbers of students, mentoring them in Jewish text and survival skills.
"I was incredibly moved by Gabe Goldman," said Lisa Cooper, who recently went on a Goldman-led Shabbat hike with her husband. "He had an incredible ability to bring a sense of spirituality and God to nature and make it personal. You were outside but you felt totally present with Shabbat and the morning prayers."
But nature, Goldman added, doesn't exist simply for our enjoyment or to prove the Creator's existence. Halachic law requires the Jewish people to become stewards of the land and to protect the natural resources and animal life that God gifted to humanity. To live in harmony with God's creatures is to live in harmony with oneself and with Judaism.
Sharon Pearl first met Goldman at a camp in 1999 and found herself captivated by his teachings. Pearl, now a Jewish meditation teacher-in-training under Goldman's supervision, credits him with changing her life.
"Through his teachings, I learned that there was a whole world beyond what I could see and hear, that God really exists," Pearl said. "I leaned to trust myself and that I don't have to listen to the voice of self-doubt that holds me back from living my life to its fullest."
Goldman said he feels like he's living his life to its fullest at Brandeis. Surrounded by breathtaking beauty, a supportive staff and campers hungry for his wisdom, Goldman said he has found a place he plans to call home for a long while.
"Brandeis-Bardin is unique. I haven't found anything like it in the U.S.," he said. "I couldn't be happier."