The Spirit Moves Her

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

Back at Vail as a student rabbi, Jamie became famous for managing to work skiing into every sermon. She also started building her talks around insights from other athletic and wilderness pursuits as well. In 1998 she finished the hundred-mile-long Leadville 100 Trail Race, an accomplishment that later made its way into a sermon about the need for love to get people through trying times.

Admittedly, it was an unusual way to describe getting close to God. But she also couldn't help but notice that the number of young congregants grew while she was in Vail.

She was ordained as a Reform rabbi in June 1999, and with several offers in front of her, she decided to move back to the West. She became the spiritual leader of B'nai Tikvah, in Calgary, Alberta. It was while working there that the idea of Adventure Rabbi hit her.

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

"I got a call from a couple of friends who at the time were teaching at Williams College," she recalls. "They'd just adopted a baby from Romania. They'd both been rangers in the Grand Canyon for a while, and they wanted a Jewish naming ceremony done at the base of the Grand Canyon. And we had this amazing experience that was really transformative for everyone. When we talked about spirituality, though, the students said that while they had no connection in a synagogue, they found spirituality in the canyons."

To Jamie, whose rabbinical thesis was "Jewish Attitudes About Nature," it made perfect sense: "That's when it occurred to me that the experience they felt at the canyon could be recast as a Jewish ceremony," she says. "I mean, it's huge Judaism!"

Adventure Rabbi was born in November 2001, a month after Jamie left Calgary and, hungry for the Rocky Mountains, moved back to Colorado. Word of her work has spread from person to person, as well as on her Web site and through her newsletter. Even though she fills in occasionally as a congregational rabbi for sick or vacationing colleagues and drives to Grand Junction once a month to minister to Western Slope Jews, she says she has no desire to shepherd her own congregation full-time.

"The demands are too high; the hours are too long," she says. Besides, she adds, "I love what I'm doing. Sometimes I just giggle, I'm so happy that I get to do this."

In the past year, she has organized spiritually themed trips to Moab and the Boundary Waters of Minnesota. She also performs Jewish passage ceremonies: baby namings, bas and bar mitzvahs, divorces, funerals.

Wedding ceremonies in which couples seek to inject their wilderness and athletic interests and still be considered Jewish are popular. Because this is Colorado, many want to get married in a Jewish ceremony on top of a ski hill. The rabbi says she was just contacted by a couple who want to hold a service on a mountaintop in Washington. Another couple expressed interest in having a kayak-based ceremony. "Generally, they're just happy to find a rabbi who can keep up," she says.

Even those who can't necessarily realize their dream ceremony of rappelling down El Capitan or spelunking deep inside Montana caves appreciate the spirit of what the Adventure Rabbi represents. "I have many people who would like to get married canoeing down a river or climbing a mountain," Jamie says. "But they can't, because their guests can't do it, so they end up in a back yard or a hotel. Yet they still want the sentiment expressed."

Indeed, she acknowledges that staying holy and healthy can be a challenge. "I think the way our religion is set up, we often have to make a choice between a sweaty ethic and a religious lifestyle," she says. "For instance, on our Sabbath, you're not supposed to exert yourself. You can walk, but you can't break into a jog and start sweating. You could ride your bike, but if your bike breaks down, you couldn't fix it."

The problem is particularly vexing with kids: "When there is a conflict between religion and soccer, soccer always wins. I ask the kids, 'Are you going to be a soccer player when you grow up? No. Are you going to be a Jew? Yes.' But," she sighs, "it totally doesn't work."

Even the Adventure Rabbi struggles with finding a balance. "I would love to go to services every morning," she says. "I used to, but I don't anymore. I go to the gym every morning. Generally, when I go to the gym, it's not a religious experience.

"But," she adds, "it could be."

For most people who have shown up this Saturday morning, the Shabbat hike is, well, a religious experience. The autumn day is exceptional; the Flatirons have never looked better. On the way up, there are brief (and unrelated) discussions of geology and repentance. In a quiet spot off the trail, just beneath the Flatirons, Jamie stops and begins her service.

After a short sermon about Jonah, which focuses on the potential for change, it's time to begin praying. "Which direction is east?" she wonders. Several people note the position of the sun, and, taking into account the time of day and season, everyone more or less agrees on a direction and faces generally eastward.

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