The Adventure Rabbi
— Alex Miller
 

She’s blonde. She’s a former Outward Bound guide who tears up the hill on her tele boards. And yeah, she’s your rabbi.

Forget any preconceived notions about what a rabbi should look or act like: Jamie Korngold is to Judaism what Elvis was to music. Let the traditional synagogues and their rabbis serve what she says are the 30 percent of American Jews affiliated with a congregation; she’s interested in the 70 percent looking for something different.

To that end, Rabbi Korngold meets people up at Copper Mountain on weekends during the ski season. She celebrates the Sabbath with them by skiing, then meeting for a brief Shabbat service around lunchtime. She marries people on tops of mountains and at the bottoms of canyons. As far as she’s concerned, it makes perfect sense.

“Judaism was created in the wilderness,” Korngold says. “We wandered the desert for 40 years, climbed the mountain to get the word of God – this was long before the synagogue came into being. We have thousands of years of history meeting God this way, and there’s ample text and prayers that speak of that.”

 
Adventure Rabbi performs wedding atop of Copper Bowl,
Copper Mountain, CO
Now based out of Boulder, Rabbi Korngold, 39, grew up in the New York City suburb of Edgemont in Westchester County and found her way west in the early ‘90s. While it’s becoming more common, she says, for women to be ordained as rabbis (the practice goes back about 30 years), she was only the seventh in Canada, where she was living when she got ordained.

In the past few years, she says, the schools that train rabbis have seen the female student body jump to nearly half, so expect to see more women rabbis in the future. They may not all be on tele skis, though.

Korngold started “The Adventure Rabbi: Synagogue Without Walls” about three years ago in response to what she saw as an obvious need.

 
Korngold started “The Adventure Rabbi: Synagogue Without Walls” about three years ago in response to what she saw as an obvious need.

“People are maxed-out with their time, and if they have to choose between going indoors to the synagogue or going skiing, indoors will lose every time,” she says. “So I say, ‘OK, you’re skiing on Saturday, the Sabbath – or you’re hiking – I’ll join you out there.’”

It’s not uncommon, Korngold says, for people to see and feel a great deal of spirituality by being out in the natural world. The Adventure Rabbi simply taps into that and extends it in the direction of Judaism.

“The response has been huge,” she says. “People feel it touches them on a very deep level, and for many, it’s sort of like coming home.”

Korngold says many Jews are taught prayers as children, but they don’t seem to contain much meaning for them.

“Then they move to a place like Colorado, and they say ‘these canyons are my religion,’” she says. “But there’s still something missing, and I say let’s put these two things together.”

By combining that latent Judaism with enthusiasm for the outdoors, a whole new experience comes to light.

“It sits so beautifully for these people,” Korngold says. “There’s the emotional attachment of religion and history with a sense of spirituality they’ve created when they’re out in the woods. For a lot of people, it’s a relief because they realize Judaism can work for them – especially younger people.”

The Adventure Rabbi has several components to it, Korngold says. The first is the kind of free community outreach work seen at Copper Mountain. Saturdays during the ski season, anywhere from 30 to 60 people will join the rabbi near Solitude Station for a 12:30 p.m. Shabbat service. Another 15-30 will ski with her for all or part of the day.

The second element consists of private trips, which can mean contracting with Adventure Rabbi for anything from bar mitzvah excursions into the woods to retreats. The third is doing “life-cycle” events, such as mountain-top weddings, baby namings and the like. Finally, there are subscription trips, such as a women-only trek into the Grand Canyon. An important part of such a trip, Korngold says, is a teaching element.

“In Judaism, most of the religious studies stop when you turn 13,” she says. “They don’t get into the more difficult God concepts, and so they think Judaism is just about this interventionist God who helps out on a daily basis.”

That kind of God, Korngold says, doesn’t always make sense to adults, who may have a hard time reconciling such a God with all the bad things that can happen in life.

“So they throw out Judaism at that point, which is unfortunate because there are a myriad God concepts in Judaism that don’t include that interventionist God,” she says.

Whether it’s on skis, a raft trip or a walk in the woods, Korngold has ample opportunity to teach about these myriad concepts of God.

“I show people that they don’t have to drop Judaism, that it offers them a greater range of God concepts than they’ve imagined,” she says. “Being in the wilderness can be the ticket back to finding something so much greater than themselves.”

Korngold’s husband, former Copper Mountain ski patroller Jeff Finkelstein, leads trips with her. The couple also has a 6-month-old baby girl, Sadie, who’s already traveling under the moniker of “The Adventure Baby.”

Working within the non-traditional, low-commitment model of a “synagogue without walls,” Rabbi Korngold has created a relatively new paradigm for how Jews can experience their faith, and the response has been highly enthusiastic, she says.

“So many people think it’s only this antiquated religion that’s not relevant to them,” she says. “What I show is that it is relevant, that you don’t have to change your lifestyle to do religion.”

Check out the Adventure Rabbi at adventurerabbi.org.

 

Rabbi Korngold's Pack:

  • Backpacking Torah: in a dry bag (“It’s a paper version, so not as big a deal if it gets wet.”)
  • Martin backpacking guitar
  • Tallis (prayer shawl)
  • Prayer books for passing out
  • Chocolate (“because learning should always be sweet”)
  • Camelbak
  • Hat, gloves
  • Mountain Hardwear raincoat
  • Sunglasses, sunscreen
  • First-aid kit