New York City’s German/Jewish Newspaper
The Greening Of Judaism:
The Adventure Rabbi
By Eric Marx
In her second year as a newly ordained rabbi and working out of Calgary, Alberta, in Canada, Jamie Korngold underwent a transformation when she made a trip to the bottom of the Grand Canyon to perform a baby naming and conversion ceremony. Suddenly, she realized that at its core Judaism was a religion that was bound up with nature and that seeks to honor the natural world.
“All the Jewish metaphors were drawn from nature,” says Korngold nearly two years after the event, a sense of wonder still filling her voice. The participants vowed to recommit themselves to Judaism and Korngold says she found her calling. “I realized that this was the work I really wanted to do: I can create this really powerful experience and not be rushing from a baby naming to a funeral to a wedding.” No longer would her services and ceremonies be a matter of going through the traditional motions within the conventional settings of synagogue or home. Instead, she would focus on conducting Jewish rituals in natural surroundings and take her time to make the participants aware of these surroundings.
Those who were with her at the Grand Canyon ceremony dubbed her the “Adventure Rabbi,” and the name stuck. Three months later, Korngold resigned her position in Calgary, moved to Boulder, Colorado, and began cultivating a community of mostly non-affiliated congregants
Korngold still officiates at baby namings, funerals and weddings. But instead of sheparding her flock from within the confines of a synagogue, she maintains contact via e-mail newsletters and through nature hikes and retreats, in which she says she has the chance to create a powerful, transformative experience that can rededicate people to Judaism.
With a tallis around her neck and a guitar cradled to her chest, Korngold leads the group in Jewish prayer and song. In the course of a thirty-minute service, she tells the predominately twenty- and thirty-something crowd about Jewish blessings relating to nature–to thunder and lightning, flower-filled meadows, and star-filled skies–and, after a meditative Amidah (the central prayer of the Jewish service, repeated three times a day by traditional Jews) session, leads an interactive discussion.
“The goal of Adventure Rabbi is to invite those people to an experience which says ‘you know what you’re feeling; that’s actually Jewish. Let me give you a Jewish framework for what you’re already experiencing. And let me give you a Jewish lens for being present in the outdoors, for appreciating the outdoors or connecting with the outdoors.’
“That’s why I think it resonates with people so well,” she adds. “It’s validating what they already know intuitively.”
If synagogue affiliation has decreased in the past 30 years it’s not necessarily because Jews have rejected Judaism, says Korngold, but because Jews don’t recognize that how much of what is already a part of them, such as environmentalism or love of nature, is at the heart of Judaism as well.
“Most of the people I interface with, who no longer have a connection with Judaism, really didn’t have much of a connection to start with,” explains Korngold, “and so the theologies that they have are really primitive: God’s up in the sky, judges us and writes everything down in a big book.”
Bridging the gap people’s intellectual understanding of the world and their child-like understanding of theology, which they find spiritually unfulfilling, requires time and dedication; it also requires partnering up with the Jewish organizations in Boulder. “It’s about community,” says Barbara Gould, outreach coordinator for Har HaShem, a Reform congregation that’s invited Korngold to work with its twenty- and thirty-year-old members.
Gould says the community’s biggest challenge is to work against a distrust of organized religion. “And so it’s really our job to reach out to people and not expect that people are going to come and find us,” Gould says. “Our job is to address that distrust of institutions.”
Ninety percent of the Jewish population in Boulder remains unaffiliated, estimates Gould, although she’s quick to point out that the number of Jews in Boulder has grown in the 25 years since she’s lived in the community–as has the number of those who choose to affiliate.
“Why have people fallen away?” asks Kathryn Bernheimer, managing coordinator of the Jewish Renewal Community of Boulder, a movement that seeks to makes use of practices such as meditation, chanting and music, as well as traditional Kabbalistic and Hasidic sources. “One of the answers is they haven’t fallen away; they haven’t affiliated with synagogue life but they’re doing it in ways that are not recognized as Jewish,” says Bernheimer. She is referring to the sorts of spiritual outlets many unaffiliated Jews have found, such as social activism, an outdoorsy lifestyle or meditation. “Why not recognize that and honor it and give them a door back into the home of Judaism?” she asks.
For Jonathan Bein, founder and vice president of the four-year-old Orthodox Kehilath Aish Kodesh, it’s about doing whatever you can to bring in more Jews. “You don’t need to change that person and you don’t ask that person to be different,” Bein says. It takes compromise, he explains. So instead of having women sit in the back behind the men, they sit side-by-side, separated by a transparent divider.
The key to Jewish life in Colorado, Bein says, is spirituality. “Your zaide’s Orthodoxy is not going to cut it. Boulder is one of the most educated cities and it has such a strong intellectual and humanistic thread running through it that a lot of what has become rote and stale is not going to appeal to this mentality. This is not a marketing ploy.” So, if the need to rediscover spirituality in Judaism means that a sense of community become more important than traditional observance, then the individual is free to make that decision. “It’s hard being an observant Jew in Boulder,” notes Bein, “because there’s not many of us and by and large it’s a secular culture.”
For all of its diversity and open-mindedness, Boulder is still a frontier, agrees Josh Zapin, an Adventure Rabbi adherent who grew up in attending the Conservative movement’s Solomon Schechter day schools in Brooklyn but has largely rejected a more observant lifestyle. “I believe in the star trek version of the world of the future which is this kind of utopia where you hold onto traditions and value but they really are that–traditions that don’t hold much value in modern society,” Zapin says.
It’s more about community, says Zapin, of the chance to hike and exchange information with like-minded individuals. It’s also about connecting with nature in a Jewish context, something that Zapin says he finds to be a very “spiritually-moving” experience. “To me, that’s very religious,” says Korngold. “To me, that’s what it’s all about: If I feel my connection to God when I’m standing on top of a mountain, how do I create that same feeling when I go back down the mountain?”
It’s not easy, concedes Korngold, because Judaism and spirituality take a lot of work. “But the payoff is tremendous,” she exclaims and the idea is simply to open the door and point out how Judaism can be relevant. “Maybe through this they’ll come back to a synagogue,” adds Korngold.