By Rabbi Vicki Tuckman
Rabbi and Director of Jewish Life, URJ Camp Harlam
I just had the privilege of traveling almost 12 hours from my suburban home in Princeton, N.J., to trek deep into the Rocky Mountains. I had been told that the last six miles of the journey would be on a narrow dirt road up the side of the mountain. I didn’t know that the dusty yellow school bus I was traveling in would have to halt, creep inch-by-inch in reverse, and perch itself precipitously on a ledge in order to allow a truck to squeeze by.
That is when I felt the full magnitude of agreeing to be a “Kivun” educator at an outdoor/adventure camp. I was hired by the URJ and Camp Ramah system to train staff members from across North America to learn how to incorporate Judaism and Jewish practice into various “specialty” areas at camp. I was hanging out with the “nature/teva/adventure” folks – but there were “Kivun” trainings at other URJ and Ramah camps – for those “specialty counselors” working in music, sports, arts, and waterfront. This was a pilot program – funded by the AVI CHAI Foundation – with the goal of providing Jewish texts and tools for this next generation of “experiential” Jewish educators.
It was almost 20 years ago to the day that, I too, embarked on my Jewish journey as a “nature Jew” – when I truly fell head over heels in love with Judaism. I was a wet-behind-the-ears “wannabe” Jewish educator who could tentatively traverse my way through the Tanach, yet I knew deep in my soul that I had encountered God on hiking trails and riding my mountain bike. For me – nature had always been a deeply spiritual place. As a child I biked on trails and played for hours in my treehouse and in the woods behind my house; as a teen I spent five weeks on an outdoor adventure trip hiking and camping with B’nai B’rith Beber Camp; in my early 20s I spent seven days with the environmental group “Shomrei Adamah” (founded by Ellen Bernstein, author of the book, “Let the Earth Teach You Torah”) canoeing across Maine while studying the Creation story.
However, it was only when other people named it for me that I was able to proudly label myself a “Nature Jew”. It was due to my teachers, Gabe Goldman and Ellen Bernstein in particular, and now people such as Rabbi Mike Commins, “Adventure Rabbi” Rabbi Jamie Korngold, and Josh Lake, that I embraced my profound connection to nature as deeply Jewish. My “nature teachers” taught me that worship of creation comes in all forms and behaviors. When I reach out and stroke the bark of a tree, take a picture of a picturesque mountain, breathe in the smell of pine needles on a forest floor, I am praising the very acts of Creation. When I walk intentionally in the woods and find rest and rejuvenation, I am paying honor to the age-old adage of Rabbi Nacham of Breslov to walk among the trees each and every day.
I am honored to plant the seeds for the next generation of Jews who love the outdoors. I so desperately want to teach them that being a “nature Jew” is a valid expression of Jewish identity and developing a relationship with the divine. Perhaps you, too, are one of these people. May you spend this summer – whether at the beach, in the mountains, in the desert, in your garden, even in a city admiring a tree outside your window – exploring how these natural places enhance your Jewish life and cause you to utter the oft repeated sentence from the Book of Genesis: “And it was good!”
A “post-script:” I encourage you to explore any and all of the Jewish educators mentioned above if you want to further explore this amazing topic of the connection between Judaism and nature. Please reach out to me if this is a topic that interests you. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org, though during summer I spend a lot less time at my computer and a lot more time in the woods and on stream hikes at my “summer home” URJ Camp Harlam. Next fall you can find me in the Princeton Institute Woods in New Jersey. You are more than welcome to join for a Teva Trek in the woods!
Rabbi Vicki Tuckman is the Rabbi and Director of Jewish Life at URJ Camp Harlam, one of the Reform Movement’s 13 overnight camps, in Kunkletown, PA. In addition, Rabbi Tuckman will begin serving as the spiritual leader for Temple Micah in Lawrenceville, N.J. in the next few months. She and her family are currently proud members of Har Sinai Congregation in Pennington, N.J.