Rabbis trek into wild spaces fosters sense of wonder

Rabbi James Greene did not decide to train as a Jewish wilderness guide because he grew up camping (he didn’t) or because he had no idea what to do if he encountered a bear in the woods (he did). The 32-year-old program director at Addison-Penzak Jewish Community Center in Los Gatos had a more ambitious motive for completing the two-year TorahTrek Guides Track program.

Rabbi James Greene at a wilderness skills program in 2012

“I believe in a deep place in my soul that this kind of work will transform the Jewish community, and in some ways, save it,” said Greene. “We have lost the core connection we had in our tradition, our spiritual practice that for thousands of years was deeply rooted in the earth. By going through the training program, I hope to help bring people back to that place.”

Guides Track is one of several programs offered through the TorahTrek Center for Jewish Wilderness Spirituality, founded by Rabbi Mike Comins, who lives in Los Angeles. The author of two books on Jewish wilderness spirituality, Comins also holds certification as an Israeli desert guide, has extensive training in meditation and leads wilderness walks and retreats.

Greene, who completed the training in August, is one of six from the Bay Area who have enrolled in the program. His experience is evident in the spiritual programming at the Los Gatos JCC, including hikes, rock climbing, camping trips and retreats for individuals and families “where you go out in the woods and talk to God,” Greene said. “Each year, I [plan to] lead about 10 wilderness programs, from daylong events to multiday backpacking trips.”

A morning hike at Big Basin State Park is set for Saturday, Jan. 11, while a daylong spiritual retreat at Año Nuevo is scheduled March 2. Future plans include overnight wilderness programs.

The Guides Track program has trained Jewish leaders to become spiritual educators at home in the natural world for five years. Participants do three solo retreats in the woods — the practice of hitbodedut, spending time alone for spiritual purposes — and complete academic studies, as well.

For Greene, the biggest challenge was the 72-hour solo retreat; the first took place in the mountains of New Mexico. “I learned I was afraid of being alone. That was difficult for me, because I thrive being around people and I grew up in the age of cellphones, the Internet, constant connectivity,” Greene said.

Being alone in the wild, Greene said, “allow[s] you to experience things you won’t normally see.” He quoted Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who wrote of “radical amazement” found in the small miracles of the day, and Martin Buber, who wrote that the I/Thou relationship between humans and God is most accessible in the wilderness.

“The Guides Track training provides honest-to-God examples of those concepts,” Greene said. “Wonder is waiting for you in the woods, an experience of God’s presence in the world. That changed a lot about me, about my spiritual practice, my theology. It also made me a better teacher, a better rabbi and a better parent.”

Guides Track participants earn certification as “teachers of Judaism and Jewish spirituality in nature,” but are not taught wilderness survival skills. To remedy that, on his own Greene has earned wilderness first-responder certification and trained with the Bay Area Wilderness Program to take children on backpacking trips.

“The Midrash says before the Israelites received Torah, they had to empty themselves like the wilderness. Going into wild spaces allows you to empty yourself of other concerns that overtake you on daily basis, allows you to live in primal space,” Greene said. “I remember waking on the fourth morning of the solo retreat. I remember I  put on my tallit and tefillin. And I remember praying in the woods, where the trees, the other beings in the forest, completed the minyan.”

For information on Rabbi James Greene’s nature and wilderness programming, visit www.svjcc.org/events.

For information on the TorahTrek program, visit www.torahtrek.org