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The Spirit Moves Her

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

"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!

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.

After a quick detour to Washington state, she relocated to Snowbird, Utah, to fill a gaping spiritual hole that had been gnawing at her -- more big powder days. She took several jobs -- sushi chef, EMT -- that all had one thing in common: firm evening hours so that she could ski all day.

The next stop was Japan, where she went to teach English for a summer to earn enough money for a ski pass for the upcoming winter. At least that was the plan. Soon after arriving, though, she found a guitar in someone's garbage. "Space is at a premium in Japan, so they can't buy more stuff; they just buy better stuff," she explains. "Foreigner dumpster- diving trips are great."

One night, she and some friends wanted to go out on the town but realized they were broke. So Jamie volunteered to play her guitar on a street corner for a few minutes and collect some pocket change. After a half-hour, she had collected enough to buy herself and all her friends drinks and dinner.

Suddenly, teaching English seemed a colossal waste of time. She stopped by a few karaoke bars, figured out what English-language songs the Japanese liked to hear (mostly Beatles) and began stationing herself on corners. On good nights, she took home as much as $400. The success inspired her to flirt briefly with an exciting new career.

"I thought I was really good," she says. "I was going to come back here and be a rock star. But then I figured out they were only giving me so much money because I was a blonde."

In 1991, after nearly a decade of looking for kicks, Jamie finally settled on a career: massage therapist. She packed up her belongings and moved to Boulder, which had a great massage school, as well as superb ski-area access. She graduated the next year and moved to Vail, where, thanks to flexible hours and the high demand for muscle relaxation, she began settling into a satisfying life of deep-tissue treatments and awesome Rocky Mountain pow.

Although she hadn't always attended synagogue regularly, Jamie remained connected to Judaism. Once settled in Vail, she began attending lay services. It was an inexperienced congregation, and soon she was helping to lead the services.

Occasionally, it was by the seat of the pants. She had friends back East leaving the melodies of chants and songs on her answering machine so she could lead the Vail Jews on Saturdays. But Jamie turned out to be a popular spiritual leader; after a while, some members of the congregation approached her and asked her to consider attending rabbinical school.

By then, the massage business had grown stale, anyway. Though a good massage was, technically, helping people, Jamie had already begun looking for something more satisfying than performing a skilled rubdown. In short, her father says, "There were two roads she could go on: chiropractic or rabbinic."

She applied to Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. After a few uncomfortable moments -- "One person on the interview committee didn't know what, exactly, a massage therapist did," she recalls -- she was admitted.

The school lasted five grueling years. For relaxation, Jamie began running -- up to one hundred miles at a time. The hobby served to bolster her confidence: "I'd always been good in school, but now I was with the cream of the crop," she says. "I needed to do something that made me feel good about myself."

But she also found that during long training runs, she often slipped into a meditative state that was pretty close to what many people felt while praying. "There was a peacefulness I was able to achieve, moving my body through the woods on a path," she says. "I focus on my breathing, and one of the manifestations of God in the Torah is breath. There's a connection in our teaching between life and soul and breath and God. So, in a way, we are focusing on the divine. Breath is the way we are animated by God."

It began dawning on her that important lines could be drawn between God and sweat and the outdoors. This, she thought, would be particularly true for Jewish young adults who had been very active in their childhood synagogues but had wandered away from the religion after their bas or bar mitzvahs.

 

"When we seek the ultimate prayer experience, many characteristics are the same: connection to eternity, connection to that which is greater than ourselves," she says. "Yet prayer is very foreign to many people I work with. I ask them if they pray, and they say, 'Yeah, I pray that season tickets will go on sale soon and I'll get one.' So then I say, 'Tell me what you feel when you powder ski.'

"The concept of prayer is dialoguing with something greater than ourselves -- whatever belief that is -- Adonai, or chi, or whatever. For those of us who are big powder skiers, there is an emotional sensation that is the same as prayer and connecting to a higher power. There are people off to the side of you, so there's a connection to others. You're not fighting the mountain; you're going down the fall line, taking whatever it gives you. Not thinking about work or what the Broncos did the week before. Just being in the moment. There's a sense of eternity in that, of peace and connection."

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.

"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.

"In place of tefillah" -- prayer -- "I invite you to go off to a space of your own and just pray or meditate," she suggests. "If you happen to notice something nice in your surroundings that you can share with us, that'd be great. You don't have to, though," she adds. "It's no biggie."

"I noticed my breathing changes when I come out here," one woman reports when everyone has returned. "It slows down."

"I noticed a small pine tree growing out of a tiny crack in a rock," a man adds. "I figure, if it can grow there, I can make some changes in my life."

Jamie points out the complexly textured forest floor. "This is the carpet we live on," she says. "It reminds me that we're often looking for the big moments in life, when the truly important things are the small ones."

"I like our synagogue," she says. "Although the seating is a little rough."

On the way down the mountain, the group spreads out, dividing into clusters of two and three hikers. Joanna Tessler is satisfied. "I love the Adventure Rabbi," she says. "She fills a void that a lot of Jews of my generation are looking to fill. I live in Denver, but it's not really a shlep up here. I didn't have to shower and put on lipstick this morning. I'm not a hard-core nature girl -- I'm from Miami -- but there's something so unpretentious and real about this. The combination of Jewish spirituality with mountains and scenery and this beautiful-smelling air -- it's a no-brainer."

"I believe in the Hillel model -- bringing Judaism to where the Jews are," Jamie says. "So, Judaism hasn't worked for you? Okay, come on an adventure with us and see if we can't get you interested in another type of Jew. It can be a spiritual adventure. But it can also be a physical adventure. If I can plant a seed -- 'Oh! Snowshoeing is Jewish?' -- that would be worth it."

Similar Shabbat services are held one Saturday a month in the winter, too, at Jamie's schussing synagogue, Copper Mountain. Generally, people gather after a morning of skiing on a mid-mountain deck around noon, and the rabbi holds a brief -- very brief -- service. "It's quick, so people shouldn't have to miss too many turns," she says.

The approach can work on the unlikeliest of believers. "I asked my father what his strongest God moment was," Jamie recalls. "Understand, this is a man who goes to shul every week. And he told me it was when he and my mother were up in Alaska, and they came over a ridge, and Denali was right there in front of them. ("It seemed so close I could touch it," Robert recalls.) I mean, here is a man raised in Forest Hills, going to synagogue in Queens and doesn't walk on uneven surfaces. And this was his most religious moment?"

 

It's definitely not for everyone. Many people, she admits, will always need a church or cathedral or synagogue to be spiritually inspired. But sometimes there is sun and snow and trees and blue sky and sweat, and that is God, too.

Molly Goldsmith is convinced. "Next year," she says, "I'm going to spend the holidays in the woods."


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