March 20, 2003
Rocky Mountain Chai
The year was 1996, and Rabbi Mike Comins, newly ordained at Jerusalem's Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, had reached a crossroads. He had just completed his rabbinic thesis, was preparing to start his doctorate and, even though he was writing about God, "I felt like my soul had been choked off," he recalled.
So Comins -- having spent his childhood hiking in California's Sierra Nevada Mountains -- did what he always did: He loaded up his backpack and headed into the wilderness.
"It changed everything," he said. "All this theology was in my head, but it took walking in the desert, in the Sinai, for me to really feel God in my heart. I realized that I was closer to God in the wilderness than in words."
It wasn't long before Comins realized that he could share his other-worldly experience of Judaism. He opted out of his doctoral program and established a company that led trekkers on spiritual journeys through the mountains of the Sinai Desert. Two years ago, he brought this ethic to the United States by establishing TorahTrek (www.torahtrek.com), leading Jewish groups on hiking and kayaking trips across the mountains of the West.
Until it was hit hard by a slump after Sept. 11, adventure travel was among the fastest growing segments of the world travel industry.
Now TorahTrek has become one of many new companies looking to use wilderness as a tool to reinvigorate Judaism for those who feel disconnected to traditional Jewish life. Long a fixture at Jewish summer camps, back-to-nature Judaism for adults has become something of a miniboom industry.
Just over a year ago, outdoor enthusiast and New York-born Jerusalemite Yael Ukeles wanted to enroll in a mountaineering course at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), a leading provider of outdoor education. But there were two insurmountable difficulties: Ukeles keeps kosher and observes the Sabbath.
"I felt frustrated," she said. But something clicked. "I was excited, too. I thought, here's an opportunity to develop something that doesn't exist."
Ukeles established Teva Adventure (www.tevaadventure.org), which infuses wilderness training with kosher food, Sabbath observance and programs "exploring the connection between nature and Judaism." She plans to lead three adventure programs in Alaska this summer in conjunction with NOLS. "Most people associate Judaism in a city context: synagogues, JCCs, community-oriented things," she said. "This is a way to take it into an area that is maybe a little beyond people's comfort zone, allowing them to practice Judaism at a level that is exciting to them, in a different context."
"These kinds of programs are growing, are slowly seeping their way into mainstream Judaism for one reason: They work," said Rabbi Niles Goldstein, author of "God at the Edge: Searching for the Divine in Uncomfortable and Unexpected Places" (Crown, 2001), who also runs Jewish adventure programs.
In Colorado, for example, Rabbi Jamie Korngold, the "chief spiritual officer" of The Adventure Rabbi (www.adventurerabbi.com), leads seekers on trips that coincide with Jewish holidays and officiates at back-country bar mitzvah and wedding ceremonies.
In Vermont, Rabbi Howard Cohen, a former Outward Bound director, runs Burning Bush Adventures (www.sover.net/~bethelvt/bba.html), which is affiliated with his Reconstructionist synagogue.
"If you ask people where they experience God, at a synagogue or a national park, the majority will tell you in the mountains or by a stream," said Comins, who is also the rabbi at the Jackson Hole Chaverim in Wyoming. "If a person's peak spiritual experience is not connected to Judaism, there's a terrible disconnect and it does damage to our attempts to raise the next generation."
"A true respect for the environment can grow out of a personal connection built through meaningful outdoor experiences," Ukeles said. "To a certain extent, I feel the more intense the experience, the more intense the connection."
Part of the experience entails drawing on Jewish texts -- about nature, about challenge, about goals -- while participants prepare to scale a rock face or brave Class V rapids.
The confluence of adventure seekers and spiritual seekers was practically inevitable, Comins said. "Young people, over the past 20 years, are adventure-seeking types," he said. "In the general culture, and in Jewish culture, spirituality is on the rise. It's quite natural that they're coming together."
"There is a beautiful world out there," Ukeles said. "There are a lot of opportunities to connect to it."