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Off the Beaten Trail,
Adventurers Seek Out a Rocky Mountain Chai
By Lisa Keys
December 27, 2002
The year was 1996, and Rabbi Mike Comins, newly ordained at Jerusalem’s Hebrew Union College, 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, leading Jewish groups on hiking and kayaking trips across the mountains of the West.
Until it was hit hard by a slump after September 11, adventure travel – with treks to Nepal and dog sledding in Greenland – 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 mini-boom industry.
In Colorado, for example, Rabbi Jamie Korngold, the “chief spiritual officer” of The Adventure Rabbi, 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, which is affiliated with his Reconstructionist synagogue.
“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.
Said Comins, who is also the rabbi at the Jackson Hole Chaverim in Wyoming: “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. 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.”
Goldstein said corporate America understands the power of wilderness experiences, taking workers and managers on “team-building” treks in order to foster cooperation and build self-confidence. “All of those things we need in Judaism,” Goldstein said. “Some of it is self-evident: When you face a challenge and you surmount it, it’s a growing experience. If it’s framed in a Jewish way, it certainly enhances and enriches your Jewish identity and binds participants to Jewish tradition.”
The confluence of adventure seekers and spiritual seekers was practically inevitable, said Rabbi Comins. “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.”