On our Shabbat hike, we felt a different connection with God, a deeper connection that allowed us to experience God as our ancestors did. In the wilderness, without walls, without man-made things, it seemed easier to feel God’s presence. Just our group, walking together on a hike, praying, singing, worshipping.
– Brett Barnes
At Congregation Or Ami, we try to relive again and again our people’s ancient wilderness experience. There, in the midst of nowhere, our Biblical ancestor Jacob connected with the Source of All Life, exclaiming Achen yesh Adonai bamakom hazeh vanochi lo yadati – Wow, God was in this place and I did not know it (Gen. 28:16). Jacob taught us that God (and Jewish spirituality) could be experienced in every place.
That is why we regularly venture beyond our sanctuary walls to celebrate Shabbat and Holy Days in the natural sanctuaries of the California wilds. Annually, we trek to the Pacific Ocean at Paradise Cove in Malibu for a post-Rosh Hashanah ritual (and picnic) known as Tashlich at the Beach. We celebrate Sukkot outside around a campfire under the stars. On Tu B’shvat, we tend the trees in our Mitzvah Grove in Malibu Creek State Park. Passover in April is celebrated with reenactments of the Exodus climbing in the Santa Monica Mountains to receive Torah like Moses did. Our Backyard Shabbat services in the summer attract friends new and old to neighbors’ backyards.
Walking as a community on gentle slopes offered beautiful segues in the Shabbat service, as lessons about the natural beauty surrounding us weaved in and among our prayers. The golden plant life wrapped around us was not indigenous, we learned, but has blossomed where its seeds were scattered by the winds and the birds. This struck me as a beautiful metaphor for the Jewish people, and particularly our congregation in Southern California, where many of us are not natives of the area. Our Jewish community continues to unfold and blossom as we grow roots and stretch out to places that may seem unfamiliar, but then become a part of who we are. In turn, we help to define and bring beauty to those new corners.
– Karin Dosanjh Zucker
The Congregation seems to love these Shabbat hikes, the perfect spiritual journey for a once wandering people. Mirroring Shabbat experiences hiking with campers at the URJ Camp Newman, we led our congregation to return to the outdoors, seeking the holiness in the grandeur of God’s creation.
With the canopy of oak trees as our temple, the setting sun and soon rising moon as our Eternal light, the birds chirping harmoniously and adding to our prayers, we gathered together. Pausing occasionally on our hike, we sang our gratitude for all of our blessings, offered prayers of healing for the ones we love, and remembered our loved ones who have passed. We can’t get much closer to G-d than this!!!!
– Debbi Echt-Moxness
Our Shabbat Hikes mark another return to the earliest Jewish spiritual journey. Wandering in the wilderness, our Israelite ancestors experienced the Holy One’s presence in the clouds, in the movement of the sea, and after crossing the Red Sea, in the thunder and lightning at Mount Sinai. We only moved our worship indoors – into the mishkan (moveable tabernacle) – after our sense of aloneness became overwhelming once Moses disappeared up the top of the mountain. Soon thereafter, God said, Asu li mikdash v’shachanti bitocham – Make a sanctuary for Me, and I shall dwell among them (Ex. 25:8). So our ancestors moved indoors because we needed it; not because God preferred it, and surely not because four walls and a room of their own would necessarily bring us any closer to Holiness.
At the end of a hectic week, I appreciated being able to “exhale” a bit through song and prayer amongst friends and nature. Walking under the oak trees, talking to friends, and singing and praying with Rabbi Paul Kipnes and Cantor Doug Cotler, reminded all of us who hiked together that feeling God does not require walls.
When we return to the outdoors, we encounter the Ein Sof (“There is no end”), that Jewish mystical conception of the Holy One as being everywhere and in everything. Hiking in the hills, fields and mountains around us, we renew our sense of wonder. When we stand there in silence, we grasp the breathtaking beauty of existence. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “to become aware of the ineffable is to part company with words…the tangent to the curve of human experience lies beyond the limits of language.”
The spiritual feeling created – by the Cantor’s uplifting music and the Rabbi’s spiritual teachings, at sunset in a most beautiful outdoor park setting in the company of fellow congregants and good friends while chanting prayers – was beyond words. As our Jewish tradition reminds us, G-d is around us, and I sensed this Presence and felt grateful for every day.
– Scott Cooper
After the silence, we seek words to express the inexpressible. Old and young, whole families and single people, individuals with their dogs on a leash spoke as one, repeating ancient blessings, including one for seeing the wonders of nature – mountains and fields and the sky in its purity. Using the Daily Blessings app (created by the Central Conference of American Rabbis), we gave voice to the uplift in our hearts: Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech haolam, oseh maasei v’reisheet – We praise You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the universe, Who makes the works of creation.
Another relaxing walk, a kiddush of grape juice and challah at the trailhead, and a light oneg of rugeleh and sprinkle cookies, we return to our cars, and back to our homes. We feel renewed and refreshed.
They say that exercise is good for the soul. I think Shabbat in the wilderness is good for the soul too and if you can add in a hike, well – even better! To worship in an environment where you can hear the birds, feel the light breeze and see the beauty of the oak trees… I cannot think of a better way to end the week and begin a new one.
– Marcy Cameron
Learn how to lead your own synagogue Shabbat hike.
View Rabbi Kipnes’ Shabbat Video Message: On Shabbat Hikes