Rabbi Jamie Korngold, the Adventure Rabbi,
seeks the sacred in God's outdoor gym.
By Eric Dexheimer
"God made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure."--
Eric Liddell, 1924 Olympic sprinter, as quoted in Chariots of
|Saturday the rabbi worked
out: Jamie Korngold, aka the Adventure Rabbi.
Oy. Here it is, the Days of Awe, the most important time on the
Jewish calendar -- a
somber, introspective time when the faithful atone for their sins
of the previous year. And Mindy Goldsmith is, well, disappointed.
Uninspired. Bored. "I had a lousy Rosh Hashanah," she says. "I dunno.
Just no connection."
But today! Today is breathtaking! Glorious! A sky so blue it flirts
with purple. Aspen leaves glimmer like vibrating doubloons. Air
as sweet and crisp as the first bite of an autumn apple. Talk about
a day of awe!
So, on this Saturday, the day before Yom Kippur, Mindy has decided
to ditch the synagogue and begin her search for God in the parking
lot of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder.
Leading the service -- as well as the upcoming hike up the Mesa
trail to the Flatirons -- will be the Adventure Rabbi.
Jewish parents everywhere are confused.
"When I told my dad in Minnesota," Mindy admits, "he was like,
'What do you mean the Adventure Rabbi? What do you mean
you're going to a Shabbat service outside? On a hike?'"
"My father thought it was a superhero," adds Stephanie Gaswirth,
a CU graduate student. "You know -- Adventure Rabbi to the rescue!"
Actually, her dad could be on to something. "There are a lot of
people who can have a deeply religious experience in a congregation
in a synagogue," says Jamie Korngold, aka the Adventure Rabbi. "But
a lot of them can't. They just can't access their spirituality there.
People who have climbed a mountain are having a spiritual experience
already. I just provide a Jewish framework."
The connection between sweat and spirituality makes perfect sense
to Alan Fliegelman, a gangly computer technician who has also shown
up for the Shabbat hike. "Prayer is a way of putting the mind at
rest," he says. "I think sports does that, too."
Also, it's nice if you can knock off both your workout and your
weekly religious obligation at the same time. "This hike is something
I'd probably have done anyway," he says. "And then to add a spiritual
element to it is awesome."
Awe is an important reason that Korngold went searching for God
in the wilderness in the first place. She cites Abraham Joshua Heschel,
one of the sources of spiritual support for her brand of athletic
theology: "[He] talks about the way we access God is through awe,"
she says. "People have tried to capture this in organized religion
with soaring cathedrals, dressing clergymen in robes and putting
them on stages. But when you're standing on the edge of a mesa,
that awe is easy. It's just there."
Besides, it's worth pointing out that the tradition is not without
role models. Moses was a mountain-climbing pioneer. "And when Abraham
wanted to speak with God, he climbed a mountain, went to a high
place in a desert and sat beneath trees," Korngold notes. "There
was no synagogue."
Finding a synagogue wasn't a problem for Korngold, who grew up
in the Mercedes-Benz enclave of Scarsdale, just outside New York
City. Her first spiritual guide, though, was anything but traditional.
Rabbi Peter Rubenstein, now the head of one of New York City's largest
congregations, arrived at the synagogue each day on his motorcycle.
Also a serious athlete, he was the model for a bronze statue of
a distance runner in downtown St. Louis.
The Korngold house, too, was a place that made Judaism seem interesting.
Friday evening Shabbes dinners were a rule, and major holidays such
as Passover were treated as a big deal. "We would always have 20
or 25 people," says Robert Korngold, Jamie's father. "Everybody
would raconteur and listen to stories of what Pesach was like in
the 1920s." (On the other hand, he adds Jewishly, maybe it wasn't
all that good: "What you remember is always better than it was.")
"My parents are both educators, and they always supported whatever
I wanted to do creatively," Jamie adds. That meant her religion,
too. "I always knew that Judaism was malleable," she says.
That's lucky, because "Jamie always had an edge about her," Robert
says. "She always went her own way." At the age of sixteen, she
biked 4,000 miles across the country. After graduating from high
school with high marks, she enrolled at Cornell University, in Ithaca,
New York, but spent her first year in a special program sponsored
by the Audubon Society, in which she traveled around the country
learning about the environment, spending every night sleeping in
When she returned to Cornell, she led hikes and bike trips for
an outdoor club. She worked as a guide for Outward Bound and spent
a summer driving a taxi in a tiny town in Alaska. The men would
come off the fishing boats and, thrilled to see a new face -- not
to mention a young woman -- would spend hours just riding around
in her cab and chatting. "I made good money," she says.
After a quick detour to Washington state, she relocated to Snowbird,
Utah, to fill a gaping spiritual hole that had been gnawing at her
-- more big powder days. She took several jobs -- sushi chef, EMT
-- that all had one thing in common: firm evening hours so that
she could ski all day.
The next stop was Japan, where she went to teach English for a
summer to earn enough money for a ski pass for the upcoming winter.
At least that was the plan. Soon after arriving, though, she found
a guitar in someone's garbage. "Space is at a premium in Japan,
so they can't buy more stuff; they just buy better stuff," she explains.
"Foreigner dumpster- diving trips are great."
One night, she and some friends wanted to go out on the town but
realized they were broke. So Jamie volunteered to play her guitar
on a street corner for a few minutes and collect some pocket change.
After a half-hour, she had collected enough to buy herself and all
her friends drinks and dinner.
Suddenly, teaching English seemed a colossal waste of time. She
stopped by a few karaoke bars, figured out what English-language
songs the Japanese liked to hear (mostly Beatles) and began stationing
herself on corners. On good nights, she took home as much as $400.
The success inspired her to flirt briefly with an exciting new career.
"I thought I was really good," she says. "I was going to come back
here and be a rock star. But then I figured out they were only giving
me so much money because I was a blonde."
In 1991, after nearly a decade of looking for kicks, Jamie finally
settled on a career: massage therapist. She packed up her belongings
and moved to Boulder, which had a great massage school, as well
as superb ski-area access. She graduated the next year and moved
to Vail, where, thanks to flexible hours and the high demand for
muscle relaxation, she began settling into a satisfying life of
deep-tissue treatments and awesome Rocky Mountain pow.
Although she hadn't always attended synagogue regularly, Jamie
remained connected to Judaism. Once settled in Vail, she began attending
lay services. It was an inexperienced congregation, and soon she
was helping to lead the services.
Occasionally, it was by the seat of the pants. She had friends
back East leaving the melodies of chants and songs on her answering
machine so she could lead the Vail Jews on Saturdays. But Jamie
turned out to be a popular spiritual leader; after a while, some
members of the congregation approached her and asked her to consider
attending rabbinical school.
By then, the massage business had grown stale, anyway. Though a
good massage was, technically, helping people, Jamie had already
begun looking for something more satisfying than performing a skilled
rubdown. In short, her father says, "There were two roads she could
go on: chiropractic or rabbinic."
She applied to Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. After a few
uncomfortable moments -- "One person on the interview committee
didn't know what, exactly, a massage therapist did," she recalls
-- she was admitted.
The school lasted five grueling years. For relaxation, Jamie began
running -- up to one hundred miles at a time. The hobby served to
bolster her confidence: "I'd always been good in school, but now
I was with the cream of the crop," she says. "I needed to do something
that made me feel good about myself."
But she also found that during long training runs, she often slipped
into a meditative state that was pretty close to what many people
felt while praying. "There was a peacefulness I was able to achieve,
moving my body through the woods on a path," she says. "I focus
on my breathing, and one of the manifestations of God in the Torah
is breath. There's a connection in our teaching between life and
soul and breath and God. So, in a way, we are focusing on the divine.
Breath is the way we are animated by God."
It began dawning on her that important lines could be drawn between
God and sweat and the outdoors. This, she thought, would be particularly
true for Jewish young adults who had been very active in their childhood
synagogues but had wandered away from the religion after their bas
or bar mitzvahs.
"When we seek the ultimate prayer experience, many characteristics
are the same: connection to eternity, connection to that which is
greater than ourselves," she says. "Yet prayer is very foreign to
many people I work with. I ask them if they pray, and they say,
'Yeah, I pray that season tickets will go on sale soon and I'll
get one.' So then I say, 'Tell me what you feel when you powder
"The concept of prayer is dialoguing with something greater than
ourselves -- whatever belief that is -- Adonai, or chi, or whatever.
For those of us who are big powder skiers, there is an emotional
sensation that is the same as prayer and connecting to a higher
power. There are people off to the side of you, so there's a connection
to others. You're not fighting the mountain; you're going down the
fall line, taking whatever it gives you. Not thinking about work
or what the Broncos did the week before. Just being in the moment.
There's a sense of eternity in that, of peace and connection."
Back at Vail as a student rabbi, Jamie became famous for managing
to work skiing into every sermon. She also started building her
talks around insights from other athletic and wilderness pursuits
as well. In 1998 she finished the hundred-mile-long Leadville 100
Trail Race, an accomplishment that later made its way into a sermon
about the need for love to get people through trying times.
Admittedly, it was an unusual way to describe getting close to
God. But she also couldn't help but notice that the number of young
congregants grew while she was in Vail.
She was ordained as a Reform rabbi in June 1999, and with several
offers in front of her, she decided to move back to the West. She
became the spiritual leader of B'nai Tikvah, in Calgary, Alberta.
It was while working there that the idea of Adventure Rabbi hit
"I got a call from a couple of friends who at the time were teaching
at Williams College," she recalls. "They'd just adopted a baby from
Romania. They'd both been rangers in the Grand Canyon for a while,
and they wanted a Jewish naming ceremony done at the base of the
Grand Canyon. And we had this amazing experience that was really
transformative for everyone. When we talked about spirituality,
though, the students said that while they had no connection in a
synagogue, they found spirituality in the canyons."
To Jamie, whose rabbinical thesis was "Jewish Attitudes About Nature,"
it made perfect sense: "That's when it occurred to me that the experience
they felt at the canyon could be recast as a Jewish ceremony," she
says. "I mean, it's huge Judaism!"
Adventure Rabbi was born in November 2001, a month after Jamie
left Calgary and, hungry for the Rocky Mountains, moved back to
Colorado. Word of her work has spread from person to person, as
well as on her Web site and through her newsletter. Even though
she fills in occasionally as a congregational rabbi for sick or
vacationing colleagues and drives to Grand Junction once a month
to minister to Western Slope Jews, she says she has no desire to
shepherd her own congregation full-time.
"The demands are too high; the hours are too long," she says. Besides,
she adds, "I love what I'm doing. Sometimes I just giggle, I'm so
happy that I get to do this."
In the past year, she has organized spiritually themed trips to
Moab and the Boundary Waters of Minnesota. She also performs Jewish
passage ceremonies: baby namings, bas and bar mitzvahs, divorces,
Wedding ceremonies in which couples seek to inject their wilderness
and athletic interests and still be considered Jewish are popular.
Because this is Colorado, many want to get married in a Jewish ceremony
on top of a ski hill. The rabbi says she was just contacted by a
couple who want to hold a service on a mountaintop in Washington.
Another couple expressed interest in having a kayak-based ceremony.
"Generally, they're just happy to find a rabbi who can keep up,"
Even those who can't necessarily realize their dream ceremony of
rappelling down El Capitan or spelunking deep inside Montana caves
appreciate the spirit of what the Adventure Rabbi represents. "I
have many people who would like to get married canoeing down a river
or climbing a mountain," Jamie says. "But they can't, because their
guests can't do it, so they end up in a back yard or a hotel. Yet
they still want the sentiment expressed."
Indeed, she acknowledges that staying holy and healthy can be a
challenge. "I think the way our religion is set up, we often have
to make a choice between a sweaty ethic and a religious lifestyle,"
she says. "For instance, on our Sabbath, you're not supposed to
exert yourself. You can walk, but you can't break into a jog and
start sweating. You could ride your bike, but if your bike breaks
down, you couldn't fix it."
The problem is particularly vexing with kids: "When there is a
conflict between religion and soccer, soccer always wins. I ask
the kids, 'Are you going to be a soccer player when you grow up?
No. Are you going to be a Jew? Yes.' But," she sighs, "it totally
Even the Adventure Rabbi struggles with finding a balance. "I would
love to go to services every morning," she says. "I used to, but
I don't anymore. I go to the gym every morning. Generally, when
I go to the gym, it's not a religious experience.
"But," she adds, "it could be."
For most people who have shown up this Saturday morning, the Shabbat
hike is, well, a religious experience. The autumn day is exceptional;
the Flatirons have never looked better. On the way up, there are
brief (and unrelated) discussions of geology and repentance. In
a quiet spot off the trail, just beneath the Flatirons, Jamie stops
and begins her service.
After a short sermon about Jonah, which focuses on the potential
for change, it's time to begin praying. "Which direction is east?"
she wonders. Several people note the position of the sun, and, taking
into account the time of day and season, everyone more or less agrees
on a direction and faces generally eastward.
"In place of tefillah" -- prayer -- "I invite you to go
off to a space of your own and just pray or meditate," she suggests.
"If you happen to notice something nice in your surroundings that
you can share with us, that'd be great. You don't have to, though,"
she adds. "It's no biggie."
"I noticed my breathing changes when I come out here," one woman
reports when everyone has returned. "It slows down."
"I noticed a small pine tree growing out of a tiny crack in a rock,"
a man adds. "I figure, if it can grow there, I can make some changes
in my life."
Jamie points out the complexly textured forest floor. "This is
the carpet we live on," she says. "It reminds me that we're often
looking for the big moments in life, when the truly important things
are the small ones."
"I like our synagogue," she says. "Although the seating is a little
On the way down the mountain, the group spreads out, dividing into
clusters of two and three hikers. Joanna Tessler is satisfied. "I
love the Adventure Rabbi," she says. "She fills a void that a lot
of Jews of my generation are looking to fill. I live in Denver,
but it's not really a shlep up here. I didn't have to shower and
put on lipstick this morning. I'm not a hard-core nature girl --
I'm from Miami -- but there's something so unpretentious and real
about this. The combination of Jewish spirituality with mountains
and scenery and this beautiful-smelling air -- it's a no-brainer."
"I believe in the Hillel model -- bringing Judaism to where the
Jews are," Jamie says. "So, Judaism hasn't worked for you? Okay,
come on an adventure with us and see if we can't get you interested
in another type of Jew. It can be a spiritual adventure. But it
can also be a physical adventure. If I can plant a seed -- 'Oh!
Snowshoeing is Jewish?' -- that would be worth it."
Similar Shabbat services are held one Saturday a month in the winter,
too, at Jamie's schussing synagogue, Copper Mountain. Generally,
people gather after a morning of skiing on a mid-mountain deck around
noon, and the rabbi holds a brief -- very brief -- service. "It's
quick, so people shouldn't have to miss too many turns," she says.
The approach can work on the unlikeliest of believers. "I asked
my father what his strongest God moment was," Jamie recalls. "Understand,
this is a man who goes to shul every week. And he told me it was
when he and my mother were up in Alaska, and they came over a ridge,
and Denali was right there in front of them. ("It seemed so close
I could touch it," Robert recalls.) I mean, here is a man raised
in Forest Hills, going to synagogue in Queens and doesn't walk on
uneven surfaces. And this was his most religious moment?"
It's definitely not for everyone. Many people, she admits, will
always need a church or cathedral or synagogue to be spiritually
inspired. But sometimes there is sun and snow and trees and blue
sky and sweat, and that is God, too.
Mindy Goldsmith is convinced. "Next year," she says, "I'm going
to spend the holidays in the woods.