In her second year
as a newly ordained rabbi and working out of Calgary, Alberta,
in Canada, Jamie Korngold underwent a transformation when
she made a trip to the bottom of the Grand Canyon to perform
a baby naming and conversion ceremony. Suddenly, she realized
that at its core Judaism was a religion that was bound up
with nature and that seeks to honor the natural world.
"All the Jewish metaphors were drawn
from nature," says Korngold nearly two years after the
event, a sense of wonder still filling her voice. The participants
vowed to recommit themselves to Judaism and Korngold says
she found her calling. "I realized that this was the
work I really wanted to do: I can create this really powerful
experience and not be rushing from a baby naming to a funeral
to a wedding." No longer would her services and ceremonies
be a matter of going through the traditional motions within
the conventional settings of synagogue or home. Instead, she
would focus on conducting Jewish rituals in natural surroundings
and take her time to make the participants aware of these
Those who were with her at the Grand
Canyon ceremony dubbed her the "Adventure Rabbi,"
and the name stuck. Three months later, Korngold resigned
her position in Calgary, moved to Boulder, Colorado, and began
cultivating a community of mostly non-affiliated congregants
Korngold still officiates at baby namings,
funerals and weddings. But instead of sheparding her flock
from within the confines of a synagogue, she maintains contact
via e-mail newsletters and through nature hikes and retreats,
in which she says she has the chance to create a powerful,
transformative experience that can rededicate people to Judaism.
With a tallis around her neck and a guitar
cradled to her chest, Korngold leads the group in Jewish prayer
and song. In the course of a thirty-minute service, she tells
the predominately twenty- and thirty-something crowd about
Jewish blessings relating to nature–to thunder and lightning,
flower-filled meadows, and star-filled skies–and, after
a meditative Amidah (the central prayer of the Jewish service,
repeated three times a day by traditional Jews) session, leads
an interactive discussion.
"The goal of Adventure Rabbi is
to invite those people to an experience which says ‘you
know what you’re feeling; that’s actually Jewish.
Let me give you a Jewish framework for what you’re already
experiencing. And let me give you a Jewish lens for being
present in the outdoors, for appreciating the outdoors or
connecting with the outdoors.’
"That’s why I think it resonates
with people so well," she adds. "It’s validating
what they already know intuitively."
If synagogue affiliation has decreased
in the past 30 years it’s not necessarily because Jews
have rejected Judaism, says Korngold, but because Jews don’t
recognize that how much of what is already a part of them,
such as environmentalism or love of nature, is at the heart
of Judaism as well.
"Most of the people I interface
with, who no longer have a connection with Judaism, really
didn’t have much of a connection to start with,"
explains Korngold, "and so the theologies that they have
are really primitive: God’s up in the sky, judges us
and writes everything down in a big book."
Bridging the gap people’s intellectual
understanding of the world and their child-like understanding
of theology, which they find spiritually unfulfilling, requires
time and dedication; it also requires partnering up with the
Jewish organizations in Boulder. "It’s about community,"
says Barbara Gould, outreach coordinator for Har HaShem, a
Reform congregation that’s invited Korngold to work
with its twenty- and thirty-year-old members.
Gould says the community’s biggest
challenge is to work against a distrust of organized religion.
"And so it’s really our job to reach out to people
and not expect that people are going to come and find us,"
Gould says. "Our job is to address that distrust of institutions."
Ninety percent of the Jewish population
in Boulder remains unaffiliated, estimates Gould, although
she’s quick to point out that the number of Jews in
Boulder has grown in the 25 years since she’s lived
in the community–as has the number of those who choose
"Why have people fallen away?"
asks Kathryn Bernheimer, managing coordinator of the Jewish
Renewal Community of Boulder, a movement that seeks to makes
use of practices such as meditation, chanting and music, as
well as traditional Kabbalistic and Hasidic sources. "One
of the answers is they haven’t fallen away; they haven’t
affiliated with synagogue life but they’re doing it
in ways that are not recognized as Jewish," says Bernheimer.
She is referring to the sorts of spiritual outlets many unaffiliated
Jews have found, such as social activism, an outdoorsy lifestyle
or meditation. "Why not recognize that and honor it and
give them a door back into the home of Judaism?" she
For Jonathan Bein, founder and vice president
of the four-year-old Orthodox Kehilath Aish Kodesh, it’s
about doing whatever you can to bring in more Jews. "You
don’t need to change that person and you don’t
ask that person to be different," Bein says. It takes
compromise, he explains. So instead of having women sit in
the back behind the men, they sit side-by-side, separated
by a transparent divider.
The key to Jewish life in Colorado, Bein
says, is spirituality. "Your zaide’s Orthodoxy
is not going to cut it. Boulder is one of the most educated
cities and it has such a strong intellectual and humanistic
thread running through it that a lot of what has become rote
and stale is not going to appeal to this mentality. This is
not a marketing ploy." So, if the need to rediscover
spirituality in Judaism means that a sense of community become
more important than traditional observance, then the individual
is free to make that decision. "It’s hard being
an observant Jew in Boulder," notes Bein, "because
there’s not many of us and by and large it’s a
For all of its diversity and open-mindedness,
Boulder is still a frontier, agrees Josh Zapin, an Adventure
Rabbi adherent who grew up in attending the Conservative movement’s
Solomon Schechter day schools in Brooklyn but has largely
rejected a more observant lifestyle. "I believe in the
star trek version of the world of the future which is this
kind of utopia where you hold onto traditions and value but
they really are that–traditions that don’t hold
much value in modern society," Zapin says.
It’s more about community, says
Zapin, of the chance to hike and exchange information with
like-minded individuals. It’s also about connecting
with nature in a Jewish context, something that Zapin says
he finds to be a very "spiritually-moving" experience.
"To me, that’s very religious," says Korngold.
"To me, that’s what it’s all about: If I
feel my connection to God when I’m standing on top of
a mountain, how do I create that same feeling when I go back
down the mountain?"
It’s not easy, concedes Korngold,
because Judaism and spirituality take a lot of work. "But
the payoff is tremendous," she exclaims and the idea
is simply to open the door and point out how Judaism can be
relevant. "Maybe through this they’ll come back
to a synagogue," adds Korngold.