BERKELEY, Calif. (JTA) – There were about two dozen people on Rabbi Mike Comins’ Torah Trek in Tilden Park here.
Most members and friends of Chochmat HaLev, a Jewish Renewal-style community, had hiked a lot. Many had prayed or meditated. Some had done both together.
But none, the hikers were to learn, had done it quite this Jewishly.
Comins, a compact man with sandy hair, suddenly took off down the trail at a rapid pace. The hikers set off behind him, chattering happily on this sunny Shabbat morning. They walked for five minutes, their conversations growing louder. But oddly, Comins said nothing.
Then he stopped. When the hikers caught up to him, Comins told them to walk for another five minutes, this time in complete silence.
What a simple exercise, but how powerful the impact. It’s amazing what one hears as the mind quiets down. The rustling of a tree branch. The crunch of a foot as it meets the earth. The pounding of one’s heart.
For Comins, that small, still space is where God can be encountered. And that’s where he and a handful of other Jewish spiritual leaders are trying to take those willing to follow, even for a few hours: into the wilderness, back where Judaism began and into themselves at the same time.
Comins, 51, now based in Los Angeles, does it by walking. He leads groups on Jewish spiritual hikes via Torah Trek Spiritual Wilderness Adventures, the company he founded in 2001.
His Reform colleague Rabbi Jamie Korngold, 42, in Boulder, Colo., created her Adventure Rabbi program that same year. She leads those hiking, skiing and biking their way back to Judaism.
Both rabbis have published books to help others do it on their own.
Comins’ book, “A Wild Faith,” came out last fall; Korngold’s “God in the Wilderness” appeared in April. The books, filled with biblical wisdom and practical exercises, are small enough to fit in a back pocket – while one is hiking, for example.
Their messages come across so well because they developed their rabbinates to answer their own needs.
Comins, ordained in 1996 by Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, was leading spiritual treks in Israel’s deserts but felt his own Judaism had become sterile.
“I’d become a spiritual wannabe,” he says. “I was taking people into the desert, but we did the same things we’d do in the city – we’d take out the text and study, we’d take out the siddur and daven.”
He moved back to Los Angeles, took a two-year spiritual sabbatical and developed what he describes as a personal relationship with God.
Just saying those words makes him chuckle. No, he’s not enamored of New Age thinking. It took him a while to convince himself that what he was experiencing was real and worth passing on.
Korngold, a skier, mountain climber and ultra-marathoner, says she was languishing in Calgary, Canada, after her 1999 ordination. Then she took a group of students to the Grand Canyon for a baby-naming ceremony for a daughter of one of the students. On the trip she realized her real gift lay in bringing Judaism to the unaffiliated through the sports she loved.
Comins’ walks are aimed at spiritual seekers. Some of his participants are disaffected Jews who like to hike. Others are Jewishly involved but want to deepen their spirituality by exploring the wilderness.
What makes his walks Jewish is not the encounter with nature –- that, he says, has a power beyond cultural context – but how he guides his groups to respond by saying Jewish blessings and reflecting on the teachings of rabbis who loved the outdoors, such as Nachman of Bratslav and Abraham Joshua Heschel.
“In the wilderness, it’s hard not to experience awe,” he says. “And as Heschel explained, the gateway to God is awe.”
Zann Jacobrown on a trek last fall near Seattle recalls Comins leading the group in the shacharit, the traditional morning prayer, then asking them to walk around and come back with their own morning prayers related to what they found.
Jacobrown brought that exercise and several others from the Torah Trek back to the religious school where she teaches, taking the children on a spiritual day at a nearby river. She says it was a big hit.
Thousands have taken part in Torah Treks and Korngold’s outdoor adventures. The rabbis receive calls from rabbinic students and leaders of Jewish organizations eager to learn how to become wilderness spiritual leaders. More than 1,000 people are registered on Korngold’s social network site.
Korngold’s adventures are more consciously aimed at outreach to young Jews who are marginally, if at all, involved in Jewish life. She runs holiday retreats in deserts and campgrounds, and in winter leads Shabbat services on top of a mountain with worshipers skiing down afterward.
“My dad goes to shul every single week, but my peers, if they have to choose between going skiing or going to synagogue, they’ll choose skiing every time,” says Korngold. “So I say, I’ll go with you, and we’ll make this a holy day and a Jewish day.”
Most of her participants are aged 25 to 45.
“We’re really hitting that demographic everyone’s trying to reach, and for 85 percent of them, this is the only Jewish thing they do,” Korngold says.
Boulder resident Rosalie Sheffield went on Korngold’s Passover retreat in April in a desert in Utah. She describes hiking to the top of a stone arch and standing with more than 50 others in a line, their hands on a Torah scroll stretched before them.
“That moment was so spiritual, looking down at the Torah, then up at the arch, seeing all those Jews standing together,” she says. “I think it’s perfectly fine and appropriate to find a connection to God outside the synagogue walls.”