If you are looking for a place where you are just as likely to go ocean kayaking and rock climbing as you are to daven Shacharit (morning prayers) and learn brachot (blessings), then the Shalom Nature Center (SNC) is probably the place for you.
Since its inception in 1998, SNC has been introducing Jewish students across the United States to a part of their religion they didn't even know existed: environmental spirituality.
The center is part of the Shalom Institute, an umbrella organization in Malibu that encompasses other Jewish environmental programs, such as Camp JCA Shalom and the Shalom Adventure Center. In 2000, the center received a $552,000 grant from the Jewish Community Foundation to launch the College Campus Initiative.
The aim of the initiative is to engage unaffiliated college students in Jewish life through programs that meet their interests, such as social action and environmentalism. To that end, SNC has been creating a variety of on-campus programs and off-campus adventure trips. The trips run the gamut from natural beauty nights, during which students make their own lip balm, to white-water rafting in Utah.
"Our goal is to take Jews out in nature and to enable them to have these transforming experiences." said Josh Lake, 30, SNC's director. "It appeals to people, because many people can't grasp a lot of concepts in the Torah, but they can absorb nature.
"Judaism relies tremendously on a natural environment, and the Torah describes how people can live in a natural setting. The outdoors is a phenomenal venue for education, because that is where life takes place, outdoors, under the sky," he said.
On the adventure trips, students learn, among other things, how to erect tents, make matchless fires, find medicinal plants, canoe and climb rocks. They are briefed on environmental matters such as the water cycle and the food chain, but SNC applies a Jewish sensibility to everything that is taught.
"These are fun experiences," Lake said, "but with a bit of a debrief, people can understand that this is God's world, and by having these fun activities, you are experiencing God's creation that is talked about in 'Bereshit' [Genesis]."
Tally Wolf, 23, SNC program director, said the center's programs attract students from all denominations of Judaism and from all cultural sects, be it Persian, Russian, Israeli or American.
"We really have a unique niche, because no one else is providing Jewish nature activities for college students in this way," he said. "We provide them with a spiritual experience in the outdoors, and a lot of the kids who have come on our programs have gone on to become environmental educators, and they come back to work with us."
Wolf said that many of the students do not make time in their lives for these types of activities. "It's hard to show them that this is an investment; that to free yourself from the city and enrich your soul is better than simply cramming things into your mind. It is hard to compete with the other things that are going on in their lives."
The center provides an advisory service that assists Jewish organizations in the United States to plan camping and adventure trips. It also operates the Shalom Tevah program, a camping project that caters to grade-school students.
Michelle Rothstein, an 11-year-old student at the Pressman Academy, recently participated in a five-day program at the center, during which she went on a five-mile hike and learned to how to make campfires.
"It was really cool to learn how all this nature and stuff could connect to our religion," she said. "It helped us bond better."