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Rabbi draws on natural inspiration

Framed by a bright blue sky and with the shimmering ripples of Creve Coeur Lake reflecting in her mirrored sunglasses as she unshoulders a guitar case, Jamie Korngold doesn’t really cut the figure of a traditional rabbi.

But that’s OK since some of her teachings have a flavor as free-wheeling and non-traditional as the setting.

“Books are great but there are some things you have to come out here to understand,” she told a group of more than two dozen participants from Congregation Shaare Emeth as they stood attentively in the nearby sand.

If that’s true, Korngold, a noted spiritual thinker and author of “God in the Wilderness” has spent the last decade developing plenty of Jewish understanding. Based in Boulder, Colo., her Adventure Rabbi program specializes in helping participants to develop their Judaic identity through connection to nature with outdoorsy activities such as hiking or skiing. The initiative, which now has a satellite location in Lake Tahoe, Calif., offers monthly services and three retreats a year that draw participants from some 20 states.

The rabbi was in town last weekend for a Shaare Emeth program entitled “God, Wilderness, Doubt and Faith.” Made possible by the Deutsch Scholar-in-Residence Fund, the agenda included not just Saturday afternoon’s two-hour 

picnic and hike at Creve Coeur Lake but also a series of meals, discussions and learning opportunities stretching from Friday night through Sunday morning. 

Ronnie Brockman, the synagogue’s program director, said Shaare Emeth first learned of Korngold through Rabbi Jim Bennett.

“Our Deutsch lecture always looks for innovative and non-traditional programs and he knew of Jamie and thought it would be a great idea,” she said. “Our congregation totally agrees.”

For Korngold, the idea of combining Judaism and the environment came naturally. Both were twin passions of the rabbi, a suburban New York native who enjoyed the outdoors so much that during her freshman year at Cornell University, she pitched a tent in the backyard of her dorm and slept outside.

The real epiphany however didn’t come until 2001 when she was asked to officiate at a baby naming ceremony at the base of Arizona’s famed Grand Canyon.

“There were a lot of people on this trip who were Jewish but had kind of tossed out their Judaism like an old faded sweater that didn’t fit any more,” she recalled in an interview with the Jewish Light. “They didn’t think it could bring any meaning to their lives.”

Yet Korngold said that a week spent discussing Jewish thought in the natural setting seemed to reawaken the group’s dormant spiritual impulses.

“They said, ‘wait a minute, I didn’t know Judaism could be like that,’” she said. “We came out of the canyon and were all transformed by the experience.”

It was an occurrence that spoke to longstanding questions for Korngold, then a congregational rabbi, who noticed that many of her peers weren’t at services on Shabbat but rather out skiing and hiking. She noted that only some 30 to 40 percent of Jews are affiliated with a synagogue. She wanted a way to reach the rest. Today, she trains rabbis in doing just that by using the outdoors as a conduit for inspiration.

“At some point in the training, someone will always say, ‘well, this is easy, you live in the Rockies,’” she said. “It’s breathtaking here. I live in New Jersey or Iowa or wherever.”

That’s not a problem however, said Korngold. 

“Part of the challenge in our society is recalibrating our awe meters,” she explained. “I talked about this in ‘God in the Wilderness.’ Wherever you live, there are amazing, wonderful, beautiful things happening. Sometimes we fail to notice them.”

It’s a point that’s been reinforced to her as well. She tests out many of the exercises she recommends in N.Y.’s Central Park, perhaps the most famous plot of urban green space in the world.

“My editor used to say to me, ‘Rabbi, anything in your book can’t just work in the Rocky Mountains,’” Korngold said. “‘If it doesn’t work in New York then it can’t be in the book.’”

She said the very act of walking through a scenic area can get conversation flowing.

“People love the sense of community they get from being out in the wilderness and really depending on and needing each other,” she said. “They have the ability to think and speak deeply about the ideas that we present in a relaxed, easygoing manner. It’s very easy to talk about things when you are hiking, much easier than sitting around a table somehow.”

Korngold believes that even after the fact, the effects of communing with nature don’t end.

“They tell me that when they go back to their synagogues, the Adventure Rabbi experience comes with them,” she said. “After you’ve prayed the Sh’ma on top of a mountain and you have this peak moment, the next time you pray the Sh’ma, it has echoes of that experience that come with it.”

Sometimes, the rabbi’s teachings can be not just non-traditional but somewhat counterintuitive. In one instance, she advises readers to stop trying to get the most out of every day.

“One of my readers thought that was a typo,” she said. “She thought it was supposed to be ‘Stop! Try to get the most out of every day.’ but it’s not. We shouldn’t get the most out of every day. You should have some days where you sit around and you are a sloth. That’s important, too.”

Korngold points out that the very nature of Shabbat is a day of rest. 

This Saturday afternoon, falling just before Earth Day, rest was certainly on the agenda. The Shaare Emeth hikers were able to experience a unique new look at a park they know well, taking in not just a lengthy walk but periodic stops for teachings and even a brief service in a sun-dappled forest clearing beneath a canopy of maples. After songs and prayers mixed with the sounds of birds and rustling leaves, the group set back for their picnic area.

Stefany Brot, a University City resident, was impressed by the experience.

“I heard Rabbi Korngold talk at the Jewish Book Fair and for the first time I felt there was someone who had a lot of the same questions about God and being a Jew that I’ve had my whole life,” said Brot as she examined yellow wildflowers along the trail. “I loved her stressing connectedness in the book. I’m impressed with nature but I rarely take the time to feel that way.”

Simon Koski also enjoyed the relaxing forest service.

“I’ve always liked to be close to nature,” said Koski, who lives in Olivette. “I’ve always felt comfortable and safe in these settings in the woods. To bring my religious beliefs into that setting just heightens it more.”

The Weissmans, a Chesterfield couple, found the service thought provoking. 

“It’s a very different experience, wondrous and beautiful being among the incredible green of the leaves,” said Sharon Weissman. “It’s also good to be with the Shaare Emeth community in a different setting.”

Her husband, Alan, an avid fisherman who enjoys the outdoors, said he’d been to the lake many times but never like this.

“I’ve hiked. I’ve biked,” he said. “But I’m always getting somewhere, not just being somewhere.”