Looking for adventure with outdoor Jewish groups

Happy campers at breakfast time during a Jewish Outdoor Adventures' camping trip to Death Valley National Park over New Year's weekend 2009. (Mitra Kohanoff)

Happy campers at breakfast time during a Jewish Outdoor Adventures’ camping trip to Death Valley National Park over New Year’s weekend 2009. (Mitra Kohanoff)

DEATH VALLEY, Calif. (JTA) — Some 20 people lock arms, close their eyes and sway to the sounds of the Havdalah service. Yet this incarnation of the end-of-Sabbath ritual is anything but traditional: It’s taking place outside in 20-degree weather, the starry night pitch black save for a flaming firepit lighting up a campsite in Death Valley.

It’s even more meaningful since it follows three days of hiking, sleeping, cooking and eating outdoors as part of Jewish Outdoor Adventures New Year’s trip.

Jews outdoors? On adventures?

It’s a response that Lew Groner, co-president of Jewish Outdoor Adventures, is used to hearing when people learn about his Southern California group. The idea of Jews camping seems like an oxymoron, what with Jews being known as “People of the Book” — not “People of the Brush” or “Incredibly Hardy People Who Love Roughing It.”

But in reality, Jewish groups across the country — out West in California and Colorado, in Midwestern cities including Chicago, to Florida and New York on the East Coast — are increasingly planning outdoor events. As the Web site of Arizona Adventurers, which runs programs for Jewish singles and couples in the Valley of the Sun, puts it, Jews camp, bike, hike, ski and “have even been known to jump out of airplanes.”

For those who doubt it, Groner has his own quick retort: “My response is, ‘But we were the original campers in history! Jews camped in the desert for 40 years — no Gore-Tex and stoves.’

“Contrary to popular belief, Jews do camp,” says Groner, whose group hikes about once a month and goes camping a few times a year, with an upcoming President’s Weekend trip to Joshua Tree.

“When you look at the Torah, there’s a plethora of reference to mountains and nature, and a lot of the Jewish story happened in the outdoors — the Jewish people have a strong connection to the outdoors,” he says. With all the laws and prayers pertaining to the land, “Jews take the connection to the land very seriously.”

Of course, some Jewish adventure groups exist mostly for Jews to meet other Jews, without much Jewish content. For example, Jski in Southern California regularly rides up to Mammoth Mountain on Friday night for skiing on Saturday and Sunday.

“To be very honest, we do nothing religious,” says Howard Amster, leader of Jski, which has a mailing list of 330.

“If people want to do something religious, we wouldn’t prevent that,” he adds. “We have had a request that no one brings shellfish” for the group buffet on Saturday night.

Ultimately, though, the point is to have an alternative to other “hardcore” ski clubs so that one Jew can meet another Jew — who likes skiing.

“The best reason to go on a Jewish adventure trip is to meet a fit Jewish woman who is active like me,” says Dave, who preferred not to give his last name. “I don’t really care if they do Jewish activities or that they discuss Judaism. I don’t want Jewish stuff; I just want Jewish people.”

But when you have a bunch of Jews get together, “Jewish conversations” are bound to come up. Trudging up Arizona’s Piestewa Peak, a cactus-studded mountain in the midst of 80-degree Phoenix, people discuss the war in Gaza, which had yet to end.

“What do you think of the situation in Gaza?” asks Malvina Singer, a 50-something married woman who recently moved to Phoenix with her husband. “I don’t know too many people. I go hiking and I thought it would be neat to meet a Jewish community.”

On the Death Valley hikes to the Golden Canyon and Ubehebe Crater, discussions of Jewish traditions, rituals, Torah and politics — namely, Barack Obama’s attitude toward Israel — interspersed more frivolous conversations of movies, fashion, dating and the actual task of hiking, cooking and camping outside. (Some participants “glamped” — glamor camped — by sleeping nearby at a hotel.)

“Every once in a while you get a bunch of Jews in a room and you’re bound to get something Jewish,” jokes Lance Sugarman, leader of Mosaic Outdoor Clubs of America’s South Florida-Hollywood club.

Mosaic has nearly 900 members and 20 “clubs” in North America for Jewish outdoor events. Sugarman, who has belonged to Mosaic since 1993, says his chapter hikes, rock climbs, plays volleyball and racquetball, and also does events tied to Jewish holidays, such as Sukkot parties, “Hannukah Hoedowns” and Tu B’shevat seders.

“It gives me an opportunity to socialize with other Jews doing what I love to do,” says Marsha Zellner, an emergency room physician from Connecticut who is leading Mosaic’s trip to Yellowstone on Memorial Day. “Even though it’s not Jewish content, there’s still that cultural connection. It’s something that I can’t describe — it helps me become part of a larger whole.”

“People make lifelong friends,” says the president of Arizona Adventurers, Lionel Hummel, as he leads the hike that overlooks Phoenix.

Dozens of couples found each other through the group — including Hummel and his wife, who met through someone else he’d met on the hikes. For Hummel, it’s a family tradition — his own parents had met indirectly in the 1960s through the Snow Hawks, a Chicago ski club that was predominantly Jewish.

“In a way we don’t want people hitting on people on the hikes,” Hummel says. “We say this isn’t a place to come pick up a date, it’s a place to come and meet other Jews and explore interests.”

Not that it’s necessarily bad to be a Jewish matchmaking service. Steppin’ Out Adventures boasts 67 marriages over the past 15 years, says Robin Richman, the executive director, who was one of the original co-founders in 1993.

“We wanted to reach out to people who felt that they really weren’t part of the Jewish community because they had interests that weren’t typical with other Jewish groups,” she says.

People who preferred hiking to sitting, people who didn’t have Jewish friends.

“We were actually gearing toward the unaffiliated,” Richman says. “Our goal wasn’t to make them more Jewish, but to create an alternative community for Jewish people to feel like they belonged to a Jewish community.”

A number of Jewish outdoor groups actually stay away from the singles market. Some, like the Portland-based Josh Lake of Outdoor Jewish Adventures (not to be confused with Jewish Outdoor Adventures), says he changed his company’s focus from  singles trips because people were too last-minute for him; now he plans family and b’nai mitzvah outdoor adventures.

Others say they want it to be open to the whole community.

“Our constituency doesn’t like singles events because it feels like a meat market, and then you lose your community if you date someone,” says “Adventure Rabbi” Jamie Korngold of Colorado, who leads hiking and ski trips, and outdoor camping for Passover, and also trains guides for other groups.

For Korngold, Jewish content is exactly the point.

“Those of us who love wilderness excursions know that when we are open to spiritual experiences, hiking also exposes the layers of the soul. Perhaps this is why God chose to give us Torah in the wilderness to ensure that we were spiritually prepared to hear the teachings,” she wrote in her 2007 book, “God in the Wilderness: Rediscovering the Spirituality of the Great Outdoors with the Adventure Rabbi.”

“With each mile of distance from civilization, as packs seem to grow heavier and the footing more tenuous, we embark on an internal journey into the core of ourselves,” she continues. “The point is not just Jewish people being outside. It’s Jewish people doing Jewish stuff outside.”

At the top of Copper Mountain in December, Korngold discusses the meaning of Shabbat before skiers start down the mountain.

“It’s the intention of Shabbat to have a a day that’s different from the rest of the week — and how do I make something holy?” she says. “By drawing closer to community and to God. To me, a powerful way to do that is to be outside in the natural world. It’s a really powerful Shabbat experience.”

But some Jewish groups want more than creating a sense Jewish identity and connection.

“A lot of people on my trips — like to Africa and Peru — are touched by the interaction with the local people,” says Richman of her Steppin’ Out trips, where’s she’s arranged involvement with the local towns, such as donating soccer equipment to children in Africa or visiting orphanages. “People feel like they’re doing something good. It’s a sense of giving something back to the country while they are traveling — tikkun olam.”

One outdoor organization’s raison d’etre was just this. Hazon, which works to create a healthier and more sustainable Jewish community and world for everyone, offers Tu B’Shevat seders around the country, hosts bike rides in Israel and America that support various projects such as the environment or coexistence, and is about to organize the Jewish community in Manhattan to lobby in favor of bike lanes to reduce death rates.

“We live in a time where people want to make a difference in the world, but they have finite money and time,” says Hazon’s director, Niles Savage. “People get to have a great time, they meet other people and sometimes marry them — they really put themselves in a great environment and and they make a difference in the world.”

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