Outdoor enlightenment: Adventure Rabbi leads Jews into the wilderness

The Adventure Rabbi knows that many American Jews do not feel what they think they should feel — or what they desperately want to feel — while sitting in synagogue, prayer book on lap, shawl over shoulders.

They want awe. Instead, they get boredom. Perhaps that’s why 70 percent of American Jews are unaffiliated with a synagogue.

And so the Adventure Rabbi — which is not an oxymoron, but a real woman named Jamie Korngold — takes her congregants outside, down rivers, up mountains, under canopies of trees, so they can be inside her sanctuary: Earth.

If you can’t get to Boulder, Colo., to visit with Rabbi Korngold, you can read her new book, “God in the Wilderness: Rediscovering the Spirituality of the Great Outdoors With the Adventure Rabbi,” which was published in April.

The book is only 144 pages, portable and intended for anyone who finds, or wants to find, splendor walking into a forest or skiing down a mountain, sans cell phone and day planner.

Yet Korngold doesn’t write as though she’s preaching to the North Face choir, suggesting that even the most techno-connected individuals can rewire their brains to think of the wilderness as not only beautiful, but also an incubator of spirituality. Without distractions, we can be more attuned to what’s around us, and within us.

“God in the Wilderness” is chock full of personal anecdotes and Bible stories. The tales create balance; never is Korngold’s tone too crunchy, nor too rigid.

The book is practical, but also poignant. It does not simply suggest we get outside, but that we should be more relaxed (keep the Sabbath) and patient (like Moses when he noticed the burning bush), and stop pressuring ourselves to be perfect (since even God once admitted making a big mistake — humanity — by flooding the planet).

If we do these things, then even the details can induce wonder. Korngold encourages readers to “recalibrate” their “awe meter until seeing the moon from your bedroom window is almost as spiritually powerful as seeing it from atop a peak in the Rocky Mountains.”

Korngold’s own story is interesting, and woven throughout the book. An ordained Reform rabbi, she started the Adventure Rabbi program in 2001 as a way to bring Jewish ritual, prayer and wisdom outside, and in doing so,

reconnect disenfranchised Jews to their tradition.

“Your life is already spiritual,” she tells people. “Let me show you how to make it Jewish.”

Korngold reminds readers that Judaism was not born in a synagogue lit by sun streaming through stained glass windows. Rather, before Moses received the 10 commandments, before he could chat with God, he trekked through the desert and hiked up a mountain.

“For thousands of years we have been taught to focus on the words that were given, rather than the place in which they were given,” Korngold writes. “The actual mountain, we are told, is unimportant. Why would religious leaders negate such an important factor of the Mount Sinai experience? … Is it possible that we lost a crucial part of the revelation when we left the mountain behind?”

Korngold’s is not a diluted Judaism. On her trips, she brings a “backpacking Torah” made out of paper instead of parchment that participants take turns carrying in a special waterproof backpack.

But in “God in the Wilderness,” Korngold makes the Torah and Talmud palatable, literary vegetables bathed in butter. She also cites passages and tales from the Midrash that support her point: Judaism has its roots in the natural world, and it’s time we return to them.

“God in the Wilderness: Rediscovering the Spirituality of the Great Outdoors With the Adventure Rabbi” by Rabbi Jamie Korngold (144 pages, Doubleday, $11.95)

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.