URBAN GARDNER | JULY 5, 2011
Rabbi in the Wilderness
By Ralph Gardner Jr.
I was mildly apprehensive Saturday
morning as I embarked on a walk in the woods with a
rabbi. The cause of my concern wasn't poison ivy, to
which I seem to become more susceptible and allergic
with each passing summer, or that she'd criticize me
for not being a better Jew because Passover is the only
Jewish holiday I celebrate. No, I was afraid I wasn't
going to be able to keep up.
Credit: Bill Swersey
Jamie Korngold, leading the Chatham Synagogue
in a nature hike at the Schor Conservation Area.
Jamie Korngold isn't just any
rabbi, she's the "Adventure Rabbi." I neglected
to ask whether she gave herself that title or if someone
else did, and if there are other adventure rabbis, and
if so how many. But self-anointed or not she's earned
the moniker both for her athleticism and her mission
to use the outdoors to help Jews connect with their
spirituality. "Let the Wilderness Awaken Your Judaism"
announces a flier she gives out, inviting one and all
to join the rabbi at a Rosh
Hashana retreat in Winter Park, Colo. ("9,000
feet closer to God"), a Yom Kippur stroll in Boulder
where she lives most of the year and leads a 300-member
congregation (mostly outdoors), and Shabbat hikes on
several summer weekends; even "Shabbat on Skis."
Rabbi Korngold was on the East
Coast vacationing at a friend's farm with her daughters
Ori and Sadie, visiting her parents, and leading the
upstate Chatham Synagogue in a nature hike and Saturday
morning services at the Schor Conservation Area—233
acres of forest, pond, a picnic area in Columbia County,
and hopefully God's presence.
I'd been invited by Bruce Shenker,
a member of the congregation and a serious runner. A
weekend doesn't go by that Bruce isn't testing his limits
by entering some race or climbing some mountain buried
in snow for the fleeting pleasure of telemark skiing
down it. So I feared this was going to be one more exercise
in heart-attack-flirting, cardiovascular extremism.
Fortunately, the majority of the
congregation seemed not nearly as fit as Bruce or the
rabbi. Also, she was carrying Ori on her back, so it
was unlikely she was going to break into a run while
leading Shabbat services.
The rabbi instructed us to form
a circle and introduce ourselves—there seemed
far more psychoanalysts than in the general population—then
led us into the woods. "For many people their most
spiritual moments are outdoors," she explained,
adding that she's simply going where her congregants
are. "They're out here hiking and skiing. Instead
of fighting it, why don't we use the spirituality people
experience outdoors as a springboard for the Jewish
I could relate to that and to something
else the rabbi, the author of two books—"God
in the Wilderness; Rediscovering the Spirituality of
the Great Outdoors with the Adventure Rabbi"
and "The God
Upgrade; Finding Your 21st-Century Spirituality in Judaism's
5,000-Year-Old Tradition"—said at our
first stop, a crossroads in the woods. "The most
important thing in spirituality is stopping and noticing."
I'm always amazed that when I go
bird-watching I rarely spot any birds—at least
at first. It's not until I acclimate myself to the woods,
get in sync with the rhythms of the forest, which requires
a series of steps—among them stopping, listening,
seeing, and obviously turning one's smartphone to "quiet,"
that the forest starts to unfold. I like to think of
the time I spend in the forest as my synagogue, and
it was nice to get some reinforcement from an actual
I'm not sure what came first—Rabbi
Korngold's spirituality or her love of the outdoors,
though they often go hand in hand—but her relationship
to nature, at least when she was younger, seemed to
burn far more calories than mine. "I was an ultramarathon
runner," she explained. "And I was the fourth-ranked
telemark mogul skier in America."
The news mightily impressed Bruce,
probably as much as the rabbi's religious training.
Telemark skiing—a hybrid of cross-country and
downhill—is challenging enough on groomed trails.
Racing moguls is borderline suicidal. "Don't ask
me how my knees are," the rabbi warned.
Apparently even more impressive
was her finish in the Leadville Trail 100 Ultramarathon,
an annual Colorado race where the competitors run 100
miles, climb to over 12,000 feet, and half fail to finish.
The rabbi completed the course several years back in
just under the 30-hour limit. "And she went to
the hospital because she was so dehydrated," her
father, Robert Korngold, a teacher who was along on
our hike, reported.
The altitude wasn't an issue on
our walk and the sky was cloudless. "Where does
God dwell?" the rabbi asked, citing a question
in a favorite Martin Buber story, as we emerged from
the woods by the side of the Schor Conservation Area's
pond. "God dwells where you let God in. I can't
tell you what God is. You have to wrestle with that
yourself. But I can tell you God dwells where you let
Our final stop was a shelter overlooking
the pond where the rabbi handed out blue prayer books
and led the congregation in services. She also addressed
the challenge faced by weekenders, of which there seemed
more than a few in attendance: If we equate nature with
spirituality what are we supposed to do the rest of
the week? Does God also exist on the "A" train
or rushing to a business meeting along Sixth Avenue?
Rabbi Korngold cited the humble biblical thorn bush.
"No place is devoid of the divine presence,"
she said, "not even a thorn bush."
She returned to her admonition
to take the time to orient oneself in nature, prayer
a good way of doing so. "I think of blessings as
speed bumps," she said. "They help me slow
down. I say my blessings very quickly. But I say them."
article appeared 7/5/2011 in the Wall Street Journal