The Spirit Moves Her

Jamie Korngold, the Adventure Rabbi, seeks the sacred in God's outdoor gym.

 "God made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure."-- Eric Liddell, 1924 Olympic sprinter, as quoted in Chariots of Fire, 1981

Oy. Here it is, the Days of Awe, the most important time on the Jewish calendar -- a somber, introspective time when the faithful atone for their sins of the previous year. And Molly Goldsmith is, well, disappointed. Uninspired. Bored. "I had a lousy Rosh Hashanah," she says. "I dunno. Just no connection."

But today! Today is breathtaking! Glorious! A sky so blue it flirts with purple. Aspen leaves glimmer like vibrating doubloons. Air as sweet and crisp as the first bite of an autumn apple. Talk about a day of awe!

Saturday the rabbi worked out: Jamie Korngold, aka the Adventure Rabbi.
Saturday the rabbi worked out: Jamie Korngold, aka the Adventure Rabbi.

So, on this Saturday, the day before Yom Kippur, Molly has decided to ditch the synagogue and begin her search for God in the parking lot of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder. Leading the service -- as well as the upcoming hike up the Mesa trail to the Flatirons -- will be the Adventure Rabbi.

Jewish parents everywhere are confused.

"When I told my dad in Minnesota," Molly admits, "he was like, 'What do you mean the Adventure Rabbi? What do you mean you're going to a Shabbat service outside? On a hike?'"

"My father thought it was a superhero," adds Stephanie Gaswirth, a CU graduate student. "You know -- Adventure Rabbi to the rescue!"

Actually, her dad could be on to something. "There are a lot of people who can have a deeply religious experience in a congregation in a synagogue," says Jamie Korngold, aka the Adventure Rabbi. "But a lot of them can't. They just can't access their spirituality there. People who have climbed a mountain are having a spiritual experience already. I just provide a Jewish framework."

The connection between sweat and spirituality makes perfect sense to Alan Fliegelman, a gangly computer technician who has also shown up for the Shabbat hike. "Prayer is a way of putting the mind at rest," he says. "I think sports does that, too."

Also, it's nice if you can knock off both your workout and your weekly religious obligation at the same time. "This hike is something I'd probably have done anyway," he says. "And then to add a spiritual element to it is awesome."

Awe is an important reason that Korngold went searching for God in the wilderness in the first place. She cites Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the sources of spiritual support for her brand of athletic theology: "[He] talks about the way we access God is through awe," she says. "People have tried to capture this in organized religion with soaring cathedrals, dressing clergymen in robes and putting them on stages. But when you're standing on the edge of a mesa, that awe is easy. It's just there."

Besides, it's worth pointing out that the tradition is not without role models. Moses was a mountain-climbing pioneer. "And when Abraham wanted to speak with God, he climbed a mountain, went to a high place in a desert and sat beneath trees," Korngold notes. "There was no synagogue."

Finding a synagogue wasn't a problem for Korngold, who grew up in the Mercedes-Benz enclave of Scarsdale, just outside New York City. Her first spiritual guide, though, was anything but traditional. Rabbi Peter Rubenstein, now the head of one of New York City's largest congregations, arrived at the synagogue each day on his motorcycle. Also a serious athlete, he was the model for a bronze statue of a distance runner in downtown St. Louis.

The Korngold house, too, was a place that made Judaism seem interesting. Friday evening Shabbes dinners were a rule, and major holidays such as Passover were treated as a big deal. "We would always have 20 or 25 people," says Robert Korngold, Jamie's father. "Everybody would raconteur and listen to stories of what Pesach was like in the 1920s." (On the other hand, he adds Jewishly, maybe it wasn't all that good: "What you remember is always better than it was.")

"My parents are both educators, and they always supported whatever I wanted to do creatively," Jamie adds. That meant her religion, too. "I always knew that Judaism was malleable," she says.

That's lucky, because "Jamie always had an edge about her," Robert says. "She always went her own way." At the age of sixteen, she biked 4,000 miles across the country. After graduating from high school with high marks, she enrolled at Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York, but spent her first year in a special program sponsored by the Audubon Society, in which she traveled around the country learning about the environment, spending every night sleeping in a tent.

When she returned to Cornell, she led hikes and bike trips for an outdoor club. She worked as a guide for Outward Bound and spent a summer driving a taxi in a tiny town in Alaska. The men would come off the fishing boats and, thrilled to see a new face -- not to mention a young woman -- would spend hours just riding around in her cab and chatting. "I made good money," she says.

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