It’s a bright March Saturday at Copper Mountain in central Colorado. For 41-year-old Jamie Korngold, a ski bum turned Reform rabbi, the day offers perfect conditions for spring skiing—and for prayer. After spending the morning on the slopes, the group she is leading stops and stands in the snow halfway down the mountain for a brief, not-so-traditional Sabbath service, mixing prayers with appreciation for the blessings of nature: sun on snow, sailing clouds, the mountain itself. Why not repair to the lodge—or a synagogue? “There are certain spiritual lessons we can only learn outside,” says Korngold.
Because of Korngold, thousands of Jews—many having drifted from the confines of synagogues—have come to find that for them, communing with nature is, quite literally, a religious experience. In 2001, inspired while performing a baby-naming ceremony at the base of the Grand Canyon, Korngold founded Adventure Rabbi: Synagogue Without Walls (adventurerabbi.com). Run on a shoestring from Korngold’s home office in Boulder, Adventure Rabbi offers Jewish services and learning atop mountains and in meadows, on snowshoeing expeditions, hikes, and camping retreats. (The Torah often comes along in a dry-bag.) The group has about 300 active participants—and draws 300,000 visitors to its website each month, which includes a social networking community that helps people outside Boulder organize Adventure Rabbi–style activities on their own. Korngold’s web-developer husband volunteers his time; they have a two-year-old daughter.
What’s the particular connection between Judaism and nature? The religion itself was born in a desert wilderness, its fundamental laws bestowed on a mountaintop, Korngold notes. Then there are its central practices. “Judaism teaches us the importance of slowing down and cultivating awareness of what we see around us,” says Korngold. Traditionally, Jews recite blessings for everyday moments—walking, eating, seeing falling snow—and observe the Sabbath by performing no work at all. “It’s a day on which we should not create, so that we can appreciate what’s been created,” Korngold says.
Of course, it’s not only Jews who can encounter a higher power outdoors. “You sit quietly at an overlook or beside a Ponderosa pine, and it’s easy to experience a connection to something greater than yourself,” says Korngold, who is the author of the forthcoming God in the Wilderness: Rediscovering the Spirituality of the Great Outdoors with the Adventure Rabbi (Random House, $11.95). “Out there we can no longer fool ourselves—ultimately, it’s not we who control the world.” However, it is we who must “till it and tend it,” as in the book of Genesis, she says: “When we recognize that the outdoors is a place of spiritual awakening, we know we have to take care of it.”
Story by Lynn Harris. This article originally appeared in Plenty in August 2007. It was moved to MNN.com in April 2009.