Greens launch environmental campaign on Tu B’Shevat


Two Jewish groups launched a joint initiative promoting environmentally friendly living on Tu B'Shevat, Jewish arbor day.

The Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) and Canfei Nesharim, a group emphasizing sustainable living in the Orthodox community, said Friday they would collaborate on a range of initiatives raising environmental awareness within the Jewish community.

The two groups said they hoped to achieve a 14 percent reduction in the Jewish community's greenhouse gas emissions by September 2014 through the distribution of a Jewish Energy Guide, a pamphlet with information about energy conservation. In addition, the groups said they would work toward signifcantly cutting down on the inefficiant use of energy and wasteful food-consmuption practices.

“Marrying action resources with implementation tools, this collaboration will reach across multiple denominational and organizational spectra of Jewish life,” they said in a statement.

The groups made the announcement on Tu Bishvat, a holiday often referred to as the Jewish new year for trees or Jewish earth day. Jewish communities in Israel and around the world mark the occasion by planting trees and eating seasonal produce.

Birds of a feather flock together in Hula Valley


Every winter, hundreds of millions of tourists (some of them no larger than a finger) defy travel warnings to visit the Holy Land. They don’t spend much money in Israel, and some stay for only a few hours. They visit the country’s “pubs” before flying off again.

They also don’t say much – at least that we can understand. But Israeli officials say the annual bird migration from Europe and Asia to Africa has the potential to bring many more tourists to Israel’s Hula Valley.

“In less than 500 kilometers (300 miles) we have more than 500 species of birds,” Jonathan Meirav, the organizer of the Hula Bird Festival told The Media Line. “In comparison, the whole United States and Canada together have barely 1,500 species. Per square mile we have the most birds of any place in the world, which is rarely cool.”

Israel is located along the Great Rift Valley, the migratory flyway for millions of birds. It is the shortest route from Asia and Europe to Africa. The egrets, swallows, storks, pelicans, cormorants, eagles, songbirds, cranes and other birds need to feed and rest before they cross the desert to Africa. The gray cranes mate for life and travel in families. At sunset, their cawing fills the air as they alight on Lake Hula after a long day of flying.

“Many of these birds, especially the cranes, fly in big flocks,” Israel Ornithological Center Director Dan Alon told The Media Line. “Cranes need to be together all the time and they need to talk about it. They talk about food, where was the best place to be during the day, and they do it in a place we call a ‘pub.’”

There may not be beer in these pubs, says Alon, but there are plenty of snacks.

“The birds come to eat some peanuts or corn and to drink before they go to sleep — it’s just like the way we use the pub,” Alon said.

The sight of thousands of birds in the darkening sky can be breathtaking, but some farmers in the Galilee were not as happy with the annual visitors. Alon and others decided to put food out in certain areas around the lake to encourage the birds to stop there, and leave farmers’ crops alone. So far it seems to be working.

The Hula Valley used to be a huge swamp, which bred malaria. Soon after the state’s creation in 1948, Israel decided to drain the swamp. But a few years ago, after it flooded, the Keren Kayemet LeIsrael – Jewish National Fund quasi-governmental non-profit organization that owns the site decided to leave it that way and develop ecotourism there.

The Hula Bird Festival, which coincides with the annual migration, aims to bring bird watchers from around the world to Israel.

David Bismuth, an avid birder from France, has all the latest equipment, including powerful binoculars, for viewing birds.

“We saw thousands of cranes, but also some eagles that are very rare in Europe like the Greater Spotted Eagle and a lot of pelicans and cormorants,” he told The Media Line. “I’ve only been here for two days and I’ve already seen so many birds.”

Hula Valley

Hula Valley

There are an estimated 100 million bird watchers around the world. Israeli tourism officials say that even a small slice of that market could boost Israel’s annual tourist rate well above the current figure of 3.5 million annually.

“We believe that at this time of year, this is the place for bird watchers to be,” Alon said. “We call on bird watchers from all over the world to join us for field trips to see this amazing phenomenon.”

The only transportation through the park is either by foot, golf carts or special wagons designed to get as close as possible to the birds. The best time to see them is sunrise and sunset.

Some visitors say they would never have come to Israel if it wasn’t for the birds. Tristan Reid, who lives in England, would stop traffic almost anywhere, with his arms completely covered with bird tattoos. He says they depict endangered species from Turkey, threatened by the large number of hydroelectric power plants being built there.

This is his first trip to Israel, and he says he was a little nervous about coming. But now that he is here, he feels comfortable.

“It’s amazing, it’s such an experience,” he told The Media Line. “It was misty one morning and then all of a sudden all of these cranes appeared out of nowhere. You suddenly feel your place in nature. It’s an emotional experience.”

Opinion: The end is nigh. Seriously.


In countless cartoons, there’s a guy in a robe and long beard who’s walking around carrying a sign saying The End Is Nigh. The joke is that he’s ridiculous – some loony who takes the Book of Revelation literally.  But what if the joke’s on us?

The June 6 issue of the leading scientific journal Nature contains a ” target=”_hplink”>already happened.  It will be irreversible, “a planetary-scale critical transition” whose consequences may include mass extinctions and “drastic changes in species distributions, abundances and diversity.” 

Its consequences could be as catastrophic as an asteroid hitting the Earth.  But unlike asteroids, volcanoes, plate tectonics and other suspected culprits in the prior Great Extinctions, the cause of this tipping point is people.

There are 7 billion of us now; there will be over 9 billion when today’s toddlers start having kids.  To support that population, we’ve cleared more than 40 percent of the planet’s surface for agriculture and urban development, and that will hit 50 percent by 2050.  Add to that the fossil fuels we’re burning, and the resulting carbon dioxide that we’re pumping into the atmosphere is acidifying the oceans, melting the ice caps, messing with the climate and heading us toward “widespread social unrest, economic instability and the loss of human life.”

So what do we do with news that bad?

The right’s response has been denial – a ” target=”_hplink”>bad news head on.  What if the specter of a global tipping point, an irreversible environmental catastrophe, grabbed our attention as powerfully as the prospect of extinction grips the people of Earth in space invasion movies?  We’d do everything we could to stop it, right?

In the U.S., the scale of action required to prevent such a state shift in our planet’s biosphere can only be attempted by our political system. 

Uh-oh.

Special interests own Congress.  The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision holding corporations to be people, together with the demise of campaign finance laws, puts plutocrats first.  Big media, while raking in billions from political ads, is holding audiences riveted to spectacles instead of holding candidates accountable for lying.  If you think a re-elected Barack Obama could get a decent energy policy passed by the next Congress, you haven’t been counting the Koch brothers’ money or ” target=”_hplink”>Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Finding Judaism in the great outdoors


BERKELEY(JTA)—There were about two dozen people on Rabbi Mike Comins’ Torah Trek in Tilden Park here.

Most members and friends of Chochmat HaLev, a Jewish Renewal-style community, had hiked a lot. Many had prayed or meditated. Some had done both together.

But none, the hikers were to learn, had done it quite this Jewishly.

Comins, a compact man with sandy hair, suddenly took off down the trail at a rapid pace. The hikers set off behind him, chattering happily on this sunny Shabbat morning. They walked for five minutes, their conversations growing louder. But oddly, Comins said nothing.

Then he stopped. When the hikers caught up to him, Comins told them to walk for another five minutes, this time in complete silence.

What a simple exercise, but how powerful the impact. It’s amazing what one hears as the mind quiets down. The rustling of a tree branch. The crunch of a foot as it meets the earth. The pounding of one’s heart.

For Comins, that small, still space is where God can be encountered. And that’s where he and a handful of other Jewish spiritual leaders are trying to take those willing to follow, even for a few hours: into the wilderness, back where Judaism began and into themselves at the same time.

Comins, 51, now based in Los Angeles, does it by walking. He leads groups on Jewish spiritual hikes via Torah Trek Spiritual Wilderness Adventures, the company he founded in 2001.

His Reform colleague Rabbi Jamie Korngold, 42, in Boulder, Colo., created her Adventure Rabbi program that same year. She leads those hiking, skiing and biking their way back to Judaism.

Both rabbis have published books to help others do it on their own.

Comins’ book, “A Wild Faith,” came out last fall; Korngold’s “God in the Wilderness” appeared in April. The books, filled with biblical wisdom and practical exercises, are small enough to fit in a back pocket—while one is hiking, for example.

Their messages come across so well because they developed their rabbinates to answer their own needs.

Comins, ordained in 1996 by Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, was leading spiritual treks in Israel’s deserts but felt his own Judaism had become sterile.

“I’d become a spiritual wannabe,” he says. “I was taking people into the desert, but we did the same things we’d do in the city—we’d take out the text and study, we’d take out the siddur and daven.”

He moved back to Los Angeles, took a two-year spiritual sabbatical and developed what he describes as a personal relationship with God.

Just saying those words makes him chuckle. No, he’s not enamored of New Age thinking. It took him a while to convince himself that what he was experiencing was real and worth passing on.

Korngold, a skier, mountain climber and ultra-marathoner, says she was languishing in Calgary, Canada, after her 1999 ordination. Then she took a group of students to the Grand Canyon for a baby-naming ceremony for a daughter of one of the students. On the trip she realized her real gift lay in bringing Judaism to the unaffiliated through the sports she loved.

Comins’ walks are aimed at spiritual seekers. Some of his participants are disaffected Jews who like to hike. Others are Jewishly involved but want to deepen their spirituality by exploring the wilderness.

What makes his walks Jewish is not the encounter with nature—- that, he says, has a power beyond cultural context—but how he guides his groups to respond by saying Jewish blessings and reflecting on the teachings of rabbis who loved the outdoors, such as Nachman of Bratslav and Abraham Joshua Heschel.

“In the wilderness, it’s hard not to experience awe,” he says. “And as Heschel explained, the gateway to God is awe.”

Zann Jacobrown on a trek last fall near Seattle recalls Comins leading the group in the shacharit, the traditional morning prayer, then asking them to walk around and come back with their own morning prayers related to what they found.

Jacobrown brought that exercise and several others from the Torah Trek back to the religious school where she teaches, taking the children on a spiritual day at a nearby river. She says it was a big hit.

Thousands have taken part in Torah Treks and Korngold’s outdoor adventures. The rabbis receive calls from rabbinic students and leaders of Jewish organizations eager to learn how to become wilderness spiritual leaders. More than 1,000 people are registered on Korngold’s social network site.

Korngold’s adventures are more consciously aimed at outreach to young Jews who are marginally, if at all, involved in Jewish life. She runs holiday retreats in deserts and campgrounds, and in winter leads Shabbat services on top of a mountain with worshipers skiing down afterward.

“My dad goes to shul every single week, but my peers, if they have to choose between going skiing or going to synagogue, they’ll choose skiing every time,” says Korngold. “So I say, I’ll go with you, and we’ll make this a holy day and a Jewish day.”

Most of her participants are aged 25 to 45.

“We’re really hitting that demographic everyone’s trying to reach, and for 85 percent of them, this is the only Jewish thing they do,” Korngold says.

Boulder resident Rosalie Sheffield went on Korngold’s Passover retreat in April in a desert in Utah. She describes hiking to the top of a stone arch and standing with more than 50 others in a line, their hands on a Torah scroll stretched before them.

“That moment was so spiritual, looking down at the Torah, then up at the arch, seeing all those Jews standing together,” she says. “I think it’s perfectly fine and appropriate to find a connection to God outside the synagogue walls.”

Books: Bird-watching and ‘the Jewish question’


No doubt because I once worked at a Jewish newspaper and have written a novel about a woman rabbi — not to mention a work of nonfiction called “The Talmud and the Internet” — I am sometimes asked if my new book about bird-watching, “The Life of the Skies,” is a Jewish book.

At the risk of sounding like the joke about the zoology student obsessed with Jews who called his thesis “Elephants and the Jewish Question,” I invariably find myself answering, “Of course!”

It may seem strange that a book that talks about John James Audubon, Henry David Thoreau and Roger Tory Peterson, and that includes a quest for the possibly extinct ivory-bill woodpecker, seems to me to be so obviously Jewish. Must everything be about Jews? The answer, of course, is yes, everything is about the Jews — or at least Judaism is about everything.

I began bird-watching 15 years ago and, unlike many activities, I can trace it back to its originating moment. I was at Shabbat lunch one day in Manhattan, and a man — a rabbi, as it turned out — observed that “the warblers will be coming through Central Park soon.”

It was March. I had no idea what warblers were, but I knew I wanted to go out and find them. I felt, almost mystically, that they might lead me somewhere.

I’ve been following them ever since, and they have led me many places — outward into this country and other countries — especially Israel, where birds are movingly abundant, and also into myself, my own evolutionary origins and the mysterious questions about what my relationship is to the natural world that produced me and from which I was nevertheless oddly cut off.

“Birds are the life of the skies, and when they fly they reveal the thoughts of the skies,” wrote D.H. Lawrence. That phrase, “The Life of the skies,” has theological overtones.

Whether you believe birds were created on the fifth day of creation, as the Bible tells us, or that they evolved in slow, painstaking eons from a dim reptilian past, their existence embodies and raises religious questions.

Are birds the life of the skies because the skies have no life outside of the biological world that fills them — no divinity? Or are they the life of the skies because divinity, creation itself, is implicit in them? Even as it may be implicit in us, animals though we be.

Environmental questions are at heart religious questions. What do we owe the natural world and why? Must we save the natural world because the earth is the Lord’s, as the psalmist said so beautifully? Or because it is ours?

Either way, we should care about saving it, but I think it is important to push through to the questions — the religious questions — at the heart of our interest in the environment.

I worked at The Forward newspaper for 10 years, beginning in 1990. It never once occurred to me that Abraham Cahan, the creator of the Yiddish Forverts, was a bird-watcher. But then I read that in 1903, when the Kishinev pogrom broke out, Cahan was off bird-watching in Connecticut and, according to a friend’s memoir, rushed back to New York, binoculars and bird guide in hand, because he “wanted to be with other Jews.”

This of course might tell you that there weren’t a lot of Jews bird-watching in Connecticut in 1903, when bird-watching was just coming into its own. But it makes great sense to me now that Cahan was a watcher and namer of birds.

His whole project as a journalist, in addition to the search for justice for working people, was to help Jewish immigrants feel at home in America. His newspaper, for that reason, used increasing amounts of English and answered questions continually about the habits of the country.

Birds for Cahan were, I suspect, another dimension of the vocabulary of America. We sturdy ourselves in new places by leaning on the natural world.

Audubon, who arrived in America from France in 1803, was an immigrant as much as Cahan, and by creating “The Birds of America,” he was in some sense assimilating himself into his new home, even as he was giving his new home a wild, animal aura.

Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, John Adams, when he was off on a diplomatic assignment, “Do you know that European birds have not half the melody of ours?” That quotation appears as an epigraph in Alfred Kazin’s landmark study of American literature, “On Native Grounds,” which Kazin published in the dark year of 1942.

Kazin was himself a child of immigrant readers of the Yiddish Forverts, and one feels in his whole book the urge to establish himself as part of the American landscape. Much as any founding father — or founding mother, which Abigail Adams really was — he wanted to put his country on equal footing, both morally and politically and also environmentally, with Europe.

Birds are the language spoken by the land itself. In that sense, they are transcendent of any single nation, even as they reinforce national identity.

Birds raise complex questions of belonging, much as Jews often have.

I was once talking to Kazin, and he told me his daughter was living in Israel.

Well, I said, “She’s really on native ground.”

Kazin became extremely upset. “You think that’s funny,” he said, “but it’s not.”

He had labored too long as a child of immigrants to fit himself into a single place. He wanted to be a bird of America.

But even the birds of America nest in one region, winter in another, pass through a third during migration. I see birds in Central Park that come from Costa Rica and are on their way to Canada.

Kazin’s ethnic anxiety mirrors a larger anxiety about where we ourselves belong in the natural world. We all must figure out where we belong geographically but also metaphysically. We are technically in the animal kingdom but also in a kingdom of our own devising that sets us apart from the animals.

Take Tu B’Shevat to heart and start healing nature


These are the times for which Tu B’Shevat was created. The rabbis who envisioned this holiday were prophetic: They knew we would need to be reminded on a regular basis about howimportant trees are to our lives. And trees have never been more important to our survival than they are today.

Trees heal and protect us. They are our planet’s life support system. In our collective ignorance, we’ve unwittingly done so much damage to the natural systems upon which our lives depend that their ability to support us has been severely compromised. Climate change is just one consequence unfolding today.

So what do trees do? Most of us know they produce oxygen and take in carbon dioxide. Less obvious is the crucial role trees and forests play in moderating climate, preventing floods, filtering water pollution, ensuring water supply, lowering energy demands and preventing skin cancer.

Trees don’t ask for anything as they perform these services. As a result, humans forget how important they are. When we forget or no longer understand our need for trees and forests, we also neglect the need to plant, nurture and protect them. The result? Havoc.

Throughout history, as civilizations have forgotten and allowed forests to be destroyed, they’ve perished. It’s a fairly simple cycle. When trees and forests are cut down, they are replaced with deserts. Floods, erosion, desertification, drought and famine replace fertile soil, abundance and stability. Our rabbis knew this. People forget.

Today, climate change provides an urgent reminder of the connections between trees and life support. At the most basic level, more trees equals more carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere.

But in Los Angeles, trees do much more. As trees shade asphalt surfaces, they reduce overall urban temperatures. Properly planted trees can reduce the “urban heat island effect” by as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit. As trees shade buildings, they reduce our need for air conditioning. One mature tree located for maximum shade can reduce a homeowner’s energy bills by as much as 10 percent.

Perhaps even more important is trees’ potential for reducing what is the largest single use of electricity in the state of California — the 20 percent of our state’s energy required to run the pumps that bring water to Los Angeles.

But don’t Los Angeles’ trees use this water? To some extent they do. But over their lifetime, if appropriately planted and cared for, trees can provide amazing water conservation services. Essentially, trees recharge our groundwater. Think of them as nature’s sponges.

Imagine a typical L.A. winter rainstorm. First picture the water as it hits our typical cityscape of driveways, parking lots and streets. The drops hit the ground and quickly surge, picking up toxins and trash and washing through storm drains into the sea, polluting, wasting and costing taxpayers more than $1 billion a year in water and flood control costs.

Now picture this rainwater as it lands on a tree. Imagine a healthy, mature tree — one surrounded by mulched earth. Here the rain’s fall is broken as it hits the canopy of leaves, where it is softened and slowed down. From there, the water drips gradually into the ground, cleaned and filtered through the soil as it goes.

A very large, mature oak tree (with a 100-foot diameter canopy) in a deeply mulched setting can retain as much as 57,000 gallons of water — two swimming pools’ worth — over an average year. That’s water that, if allowed to soak into our local aquifer, could help replace the water we transport (with fossil fuels) from the Colorado River and other distant sources.

What I’ve just described is the forest’s natural water cycle — it’s what operated in our region before we came along and in our ignorance, disregarded, overpaved and broke it. At TreePeople, the organization I’ve led for more than 34 years, our dream is to restore this cycle and in the process heal our city and make it sustainable.

How do we do that? We are working with volunteers from communities across the county to literally break up the concrete and asphalt and put the forest back in place. We are educating people about all the things that a forest can do and engaging them to bring those natural cycles back.

Clearly we have a big job. At one time, Los Angeles was a lovely, natural ecosystem. Now the city is two-thirds paved.

We have become one of the most unsustainable urban areas on the planet. But we can turn that around. And it can start with you this Tu B’Shevat if we take Tu B’Shevat to heart and engage in stewardship and healing of nature, so that nature can heal and protect us.

Everyone can play a role in this healing. You can plant trees in your home landscape, schoolyards, streets and parking lots. You can do this as an individual, a family, a congregation, business or club. You can plant fruit trees with low-income families to help increase their access to nutrition. You can work with your neighbors to green and beautify your neighborhoods and restore your connection with community.

You can also be an advocate for sufficient county and city funding to ensure that public trees are properly cared for.

To successfully do this healing work requires learning the tree lessons we’ve forgotten and adding new skills of community engagement to ensure the new trees can both survive and thrive.

TreePeople can be a resource. We provide training, tools, resources and volunteers to help people bring green to schools, streets, parks and damaged natural areas.

These truly are the times Tu B’Shevat was created for. To honor the deepest intent of the holiday, consider making a deeper commitment to trees and the environment. Consider making it a priority to heal and restore our natural systems all year round. In the balance is a chance to repair the significant damage we’ve done, and a chance to be a healing force that benefits us all.

Andy Lipkis is the founder of TreePeople.

Partners in Creation


Roger Gottlieb makes the case in his book, “A Greener Faith,” that we are in need of an ecotheology — to view the Earth in a more divine and holy way. He writes that
we have so separated ourselves from nature we don’t actually feel our interconnectedness with it; rather, we value the Earth only for what we can take from it. In order to have a meaningful teshuvah from the sins of taking the Earth’s resources for granted, we need a positive outlook with forward vision and hope.

Jews, it can be argued, already have an ecotheology. The Torah is clear when it discusses our relationship to the Earth.

This week, in Genesis, we are told, “God took the first human being, Adam, and placed him in the Garden of Eden, to work it and to watch it” (Genesis 2:15). Yet, a misinterpretation of an earlier verse has guided our human relationship to the Earth for too long. In the first chapter of the Torah, God says: “….Fill the Earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis 1:27-28).

Dominion is too often read as “mastery over,” freedom to control and use at will, which easily leads to exploitation. However, there are many commentators who understand the word “dominion” as correlating to “uniqueness.” In this reading, humans have the unique responsibility to care for the Earth and its inhabitants. Rather than dominate, humans are called upon to make moral choices on behalf of the Earth, for we are the only creatures that God created with the capacity to reason and with the gift of free will; we alone have the capacity to destroy or protect the planet.

Gottlieb writes that we are not concerned by the signs of global warming, or in developing widespread renewable energy sources, or in how our progress has affected the planet’s ecosystem because we see ourselves as outside of nature, rather than integral to it. We substitute “environment” for “nature.”

Through semantics, nature has become an “issue,” something we can be involved in or not. Our sense of being unaffected by nature, as superior to nature, is a danger — indeed an idol — that the Torah warns us against. We must return to viewing ourselves as a part of nature.

Dr. Nathan Lewis, one of my congregants, a Caltech professor and expert in climate change, stated bluntly to me, “The next 10 years will determine what kind of planet we will live in; if we keep on this same path, we will leave our children a planet unlike the one we received.”

Lewis is most concerned about the irreversibility of our actions, even as he acknowledges that science cannot prove definitively what will happen. He argues that we shouldn’t be betting against the indicators that imply what can happen. Waiting to find out will be too late.

Many rabbinic texts detail our long tradition of ecotheology, explicitly supporting the idea that caring for the Earth is a distinctly religious imperative. Long before we started talking about fuel emissions, the rabbis of the Talmud prohibited inefficient use of fuels, saying: “Whoever covers an oil lamp [so that it burns less efficiently], transgresses the mitzvah of ba’al tashchit, do not destroy” (Shabbat 67a).

Long before recycling was the norm, the 16th century manual Sefer HaHinuch taught that “tzadikkim, righteous people, waste not even a mustard seed in this world; they use their strength to conserve everything possible.” These texts illustrate that our ancestors recognized our responsibility to nature, and that our actions must be directed by the holiness of mitzvot.

We created this problem, intentionally or unintentionally; we are responsible for fixing it.

Lewis told me that we get more energy from the sun in one hour than all the energy consumed in one year. Using God’s resources and our brains, we can solve the challenges we face.

California is poised to become the environmental leader in our country. And religious groups around the country are joining its efforts. The Reform movement has a nationwide campaign for “greening” its institutions. The Pacific Southwest Region of Conservative Judaism continues to back its Green Sanctuaries campaign, partnering with the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), and the Board of Rabbis of Southern California is expanding that campaign to all synagogues that wish to participate.

We each can make a difference. I challenge us to try some, if not all, of the following:

  • Raise or lower the thermostat in your homes by two degrees;
  • Use compact fluorescent light bulbs in your home;
  • Carpool, walk or ride a bike once weekly;
  • Invest in fuel-efficient transportation;
  • Reduce waste and recycle seriously;
  • Visit the COEJL Web site for more information and ideas.

Every change has an impact. We are called by God to live in consort with the Earth, as God gave us the awesome responsibility to be partners in creation. Let us strive to live up to that divine gift. As Pirke Avot teaches, “It is not up to us to finish the work, but neither are we free to ever stop trying.”

Now more than ever, we need this attitude toward our Earth.

This d’var Torah is an adaptation of Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater’s Yom Kippur sermon. To read the sermon in its entirety, visit ” target=”_blank”>www.coejl.org
Green Sanctuaries:

I’ll try it!


If you tell anyone I know that I was awake at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning, on purpose, they wouldn’t believe you. If you added that I didn’t immediately turn over
and go back to sleep, they would start laughing. If you told them that the reason I was awake at the crack of dawn on a weekend was to go camping, they might actually bust a gut.
 
Although this statement may seem more the result of a chocolate-induced hallucination, or simply a trip out of reality, the bottom line is that it’s all true.
 
I, Caroline, the lover of sleeping in, the guru of late nights, the “midnight is early” girl, saw Saturday before noon came around. How did I get into this predicament, one might ask? Was I possessed by an evil spirit? No. Was I pulling an all-nighter and just never went to bed? Not quite. The answer is that I was awake that early on a weekend because I had a boyfriend.
 
So now you’re wondering how those two things go hand in hand? Well, we had reached “that place,” the place all new relationships reach at one point or another, that spot where your mutual likes have reached an end, and you start hearing yourself say, “I’ll try that” to your significant other’s idea of fun.
 
We all know and have been at “that place,” where a die-hard sports fan might find himself or herself taping a game or favorite TV show so they can go to their significant other’s family gathering. A person who isn’t overly fond of the beach might start trudging through the sand because it’s their honey’s favorite place in the whole wide world. A picky eater might take small bites of unappealing foods without admitting their distaste.
 
This is when we are testing our own comfort zones. When the person we’re dating mentions the word “hiking” or “musical,” do we shudder, scream and run in the opposite direction? Or do we slowly push ourselves and try that something new.
When my boyfriend first mentioned camping, I won’t lie: I definitely hesitated. At first I found the suggestion more comical than anything else.
 
Me, camping? Are you serious?
 
Now I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. I happen to love nature. But I tend to enjoy taking pictures of nature more than, say, living in nature. I’d rather watch the National Geographic channel on the couch than sleep on the ground in the woods.
 
But after “I’ll try it” slipped out of my mouth, I soon found myself experiencing my first “true to life; sleep in a tent; live with nature; no hot water; cook your food; granola bar for breakfast; what’s that noise in the bushes … did you hear that, too?” camping trip.
 
The good news was that my boyfriend had picked a spot that was simply stunning. Our campsite was steps from the ocean, with a backdrop of bright green hills covered with yellow wildflowers. As we took in the sunset barefoot on the beach, I remember thinking, “If this is camping, I can deal with it.”
 
As the night went on, it seemed that I was not only tolerating camping, but, dare I say, actually enjoying it. The night sky was just amazing. I saw a sea of stars, and could even see them twinkling in different colors.
 
Although I was slightly sleep deprived by the end of the weekend, I had to agree with my boyfriend that camping can be a very relaxing experience. I had pushed outside of my comfort zone, falling asleep to the sounds of the ocean, the wind and the gazillion or so frogs living in the stream right behind the campsite. I can honestly say that I truly enjoyed myself.
 
The thing about reaching “I’ll try it” is that you are daring to imagine that things can work out for the best, and that you can add another activity to the list of common likes.
 
So will I go camping again? Sure. But if he thinks he’s ever going to get me to try and actually like hiking, he’s got another think coming.
 

A Phone Call from our Late Tante Mina


The words “Message from Tante Mina” showed up on my Aunt Tova’s cellphone. Normally this wouldn’t be such a big deal, as Tova got messages all the time, but
there were several peculiar things about this one.

  1. Tante Mina wasn’t programmed into Tova’s phone, so how did her name pop up?
  2. Tante Mina didn’t even have Tova’s cellphone number.
  3. And the oddest thing about this particular message was the fact that Tante Mina had died several months before.

Perhaps I should have mentioned the last one first.

In this day and age it’s easy to become overloaded and pessimistic about mystical events and spirituality. We have TV shows featuring psychics for people and pets, mindfreaks who can pull people in half, David Blaine can float and oodles of people have stories claiming “I shouldn’t be alive.” We have “Spiritual Experiences for Dummies” in our bookstores and little red kaballah string bracelets gracing the wrists of celebrities in People magazine. Want to touch base with a long lost deceased relative? Go visit “Crossing Over,” where the host will verbally entrance you into a “meeting.” Or go ghost-hunting with machines that click louder in certain corners and eerie blurbs of light not quite captured by the camera.

It’s always hard to believe these shows, since as an audience we see it after it has been through the shooting, enhancing, splicing, editing and magic of television. After seeing all of this mysticism that apparently occurs every single minute of the day, it’s hard to truly focus on the real magic that occurs from time to time. Because as experience has taught me, it does in fact exist.
Mysticism, for my family, and I think for most people as well, usually shows itself through nature.

One of my favorite stories is about my grandmother on my father’s side. She always used to call us on our birthdays and claim that the mariachis were at her house with her. Then she would sing to us in both English and Spanish as the imaginary mariachis played in the background. After she died, birthdays never seemed quite the same. On my dad’s birthday he was awake earlier then usual, sitting at the kitchen table reading the paper. All of a sudden a group of birds started chirping like mad! My dad lifted his head out of the paper and listened.

Once the chirping stopped he smiled to himself — looked like his mom had sent him the mariachis after all.

Another instance was when my mother was at the gas station on the one-year anniversary of the death of my father’s aunt, Regina. A large beautiful butterfly landed on her car and flirted with her the whole time she was pumping gas. As the butterfly finally took its leave, my mother sensed that it was the spirit of Regina, just stopping by to say hello.

These stories I can handle — the sense of someone’s spirit in a butterfly or group of birds, perhaps a familiar scent on a breeze carrying with it memories of a beloved someone. These occurrences are common — a sense of something familiar that we connect to the memory of someone we lost. A favorite spot can bring back a favorite story, and with it a smile of remembrance.

But it seems that in this digital age things are getting even more advanced. No one can seem to explain how Tova’s cellphone got this message. There is no record of it in her call log, as there should be, and it came through on a ring tone that isn’t an option on Tova’s phone. All that is left is a sense of confusion, awe and humor, all rolled into one.

I can’t help but chuckle every time I get the crazy image of Tante Mina sitting up in heaven playing around with a cellphone, trying to get in touch with us all. I can’t quite wrap my mind around this bizarre event, but I find it comforting all the same. All I ask is that she not try to e-mail me, as that would truly be too much.

Caroline Cobrin is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles and can be reached at carolinecolumns@hotmail.com.

The Bittersweet Meaning of Mud


Mud

I had been waiting seven years, and my machon summer at Camp Ramah in Ojai was finally here. It would be different from every other summer, because we would finally be the oldest group, and camp domination would be ours. I knew it would be bittersweet, and I looked forward to making every moment of this incredible summer count.

Natalie KatzThere is one program in particular that embodies all of the emotionalism and meaning of machon summer: Tza’adah. Tza’adah is a five-day, four-night overnight trip that takes campers far from the boundaries of camp and into the nature of Northern California, where we bond with friends, while experiencing the outdoors. I was a little skeptical about not showering for five days, but before I knew it, the day finally came — we were ready to embark on a wild adventure.
We drove for what felt like a lifetime to Big Sur in Northern California. The next morning, we had our first day — and only day — in Big Sur. The morning started with a bowl of Rice Krispies and some scrambled eggs. Following breakfast, we were given the choice between a hard, medium or easy hike.

Assuming the hard hike was going to be well, hard, I set off with the rest of the adventurous campers on the hard hike. We trekked all the way up a beautiful cliff overlooking the ocean, singing songs to pass then time and admiring the scenery.

We walked along the beach and came to an astounding discovery. Earlier that day, a beached whale had died and was now lying on the sand. Staring with amazement at the gargantuan creature, we developed one of the verses of our machon song, “This Tza’adah of Mine,” sung to the tune of “This Little Light of Mine.”

Later that evening, after arriving at Lake Casitas, our campsite for the next three nights, we sat around the bonfire and sang cliched camp songs, aided by packets of the best songs hand selected by our wonderful counselors. We could all sing along and learn the words. I will keep the songbook forever as a memento of this journey.

The next day, we took a bus to a beautiful beach. As my two friends and I were walking along the shore, we found a rock shaped like a heart. We took it with us, promising to start a new tradition of passing the rock, along with a letter, among us so we can keep in touch after camp.

The last day, we were given a choice between kayaking, rock-climbing and mountain-biking. I chose kayaking.

The group leader gave us the task of fitting as many people in one kayak as possible without it tipping over. This may not seem to be difficult, but it was unbelievably hilarious and so hard! Try to imagine people laughing hysterically while squeezing their way onto a little kayak. Meanwhile, it’s sinking, and we’re desperately trying not to tip it over.

I was sitting near the front, and after the ninth or 10th person climbed on, the kayak flipped over. Everyone fell in the water — and to top off a perfect day, the water was the perfect temperature.

Then we had one last task: To stand up straight on the kayak and paddle it like a gondola in Venice. I succeeded after falling in a couple of times!
Tza’adah had finally come to a close, but we were not going to finish without a huge hurrah. As is tradition at Camp Ramah, the machon campers run into the chadar ochel, the dining hall, at the end of lunch, giving mud hugs to friends and family. On our last day, we trudged eight miles back to camp from Lake Casitas, singing, laughing and stopping for POWERade along the way, a necessity in the sweltering heat.

We finally got to camp, jumped in the mud pit and got ready to run into the chadar. I will especially remember being the first to do a belly flop in the mud.

Once everyone was finished getting muddy, we formed platoons and began to march to the chadar. The platoons lined up at different entrances. I could feel the adrenaline pulsing through my veins.

The counselors yelled, “Charge!” and we sprinted for the doors. It was complete pandemonium inside. I ran around yelling, cheering and giving mud hugs to all my friends, making sure to squeeze extra tight to ensure they were truly covered in mud.

Looking back
is so hard, because I know I will never again have the chance to run through the dinning hall covered in mud. Tza’adah defined my camp experience, and I know that even though I will never be a camper again, the memories I created this summer will last forever.

Natalie Katz, a 10th-grader from Manhattan Beach, has attended Camp Ramah for seven years.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the September issue is Aug. 15; Deadline for the Ocotber issue is Sept. 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.

Power of Vows


I have twins who are almost 5 years old. One of the things that my wife and I are trying to teach them is the power of words, both for the positive and the negative.

They are learning that words can inspire, motivate and excite a situation, as they discover new and innovative ways to talk to each other, to us as parents and to the people with whom they interact. They are also learning the harder lesson that words can just as easily hurt, insult and change a situation for the worse in just a matter of moments. It is a lesson that we all learn; yet, how we carry forth these critical childhood moments of language education and speech management can determine the kinds of lives we lead, and the kinds of interactions we have with one another.

Parshat Matot opens with a lesson in the power of words. God commands Moshe to speak to the leaders of the tribes, saying, “If a person makes a vow to Adonai or takes an oath imposing an obligation on him/herself, he/she shall not break that pledge; he/she must carry out all that has crossed his/her lips” (Numbers 30:3). I am leaving aside the sexist language of this parsha, where women cannot make vows, and am operating with the knowledge that we have moved past the ancient subjugation of women. Having said that, the power of the word is what matters here.

Our ancestors understood that when we make a vow, promising to give something to God, or take an oath regarding our own actions, this was the highest and most serious endeavor, as the power of speech is what separates us most critically from the animal world. “Baruch She’amar V’hayah Ha’olam, God spoke and the world came into being.”

In the first of his two important comments on this section of Torah, the Chatam Sofer, 19th century sage and scholar, teaches that “the entire Torah is dependent on this matter of vows, for it is the foundation of foundations, for if we don’t keep our word through the vows we make, then there is no foundation for our receiving Torah in the first place” (Iturei Torah).

How many of us say things that we don’t mean? How many of us use words or phrases like, “I swear…”or “I promise…”or “You have my word…” in a colloquial or trivial fashion? I catch myself doing that all the time. Our society has lost the power of our word and that is a detriment to our ethical composure. With all of the scandals that have rocked us, from Enron on down, we know that our capitalist nature has in some ways affected our ability to be honest; making the most money at any cost drives people to make false promises or lie about the situation. That is why Torah is so important and the cycle of our religious life is so necessary in today’s world; we must all work hard to ensure that we are all leading lives founded in truth, dedication to keeping our word and thinking before we speak.

In noticing that the Torah calls on Moshe to speak to the “heads of the tribes,” the Chatam Sofer says, “People in high public office are more often tempted to make promises that they cannot keep. Their behavior could lessen the respect others have for the spoken word.”

Our public figures, to a large extent, operate on saying things in order to keep power. While this is not true for all leaders, too many have been found guilty of lying, misrepresenting the facts, making empty promises and not keeping their word. Of all the terrible things happening in the world today, two stand out in this regard.

First, the war in Iraq — which has taken 2,500 American lives and tens thousands of Iraqi lives, and cost us our reputation in the world through Abu Ghraib — was based on false premises and lies. How can we trust a leader who lies in regard to the highest level of commitment, war and peace? The amount of misconception in this war, and in the whole “war on terror,” speaks volumes to what the Chatam Sofer was warning leaders against.

Second, the response to Hurricane Katrina. After failing to adequately respond to the crisis while it was happening, the federal government made promise after promise to the recovery and rebuilding of the devastated Gulfport region, only to renege or abandon most of those promises. Nearly a year after the hurricane, whole parts of the area still look like a war zone. There is no better illustration of false promises than what has not happened in New Orleans. Thankfully, religious groups, including our own Board of Rabbis of Southern California, and local synagogues have been partnering with other religious institutions to do our small part. But promises not kept are failing thousands of innocent and needy people.

As I try and teach my children to speak kindly and wisely, I am thankful for the words of the Torah and the comments of the Chatam Sofer, who guide me in offering a legacy of honesty and commitment to the value of integrity. May we all find ways to keep our word, imitating God, by whose word our entire existence was created.

Judaism Finds Its Niche in Great Outdoors


There are Jews hanging from mountaintops all over Colorado. Others are lighting Shabbat candles on sailboats or discovering their spirituality on the ski slopes.

These Jewish adventure enthusiasts not only make an effort to do the hobbies they love with other Jews, but they do so looking for religious or spiritual meaning. By combining their dual interests, this growing cadre of adrenaline seekers is building a new definition of what it means to do — or be — Jewish.

Take Rabbi Jamie Korngold.

When Korngold realized that the Reform Jews she was trying to reach in Boulder, Colo., were more interested in skiing than sitting in synagogue on Saturday mornings, she strapped on a pair of snow boots and headed up the mountain: “For 30 percent of us, synagogue life is working really well, but the other 70 percent, we need new ways of reaching those people.”

“There are so many people whose religion is the outdoors, who really experience their spirituality outside of the synagogue,” said Korngold, who has biked from New York to San Francisco and competed in a 100-mile trail run. “So what I do is say, ‘You’re going to be outdoors, you say it’s a spiritual experience. Let me show you how it’s Jewish.'”

Korngold’s Adventure Rabbi program challenges participants to discuss Torah passages, as well as Judaism’s relationship to nature, during mountain minyan hikes, backpacking treks through the desert and Rosh Hashanah retreats to a ranch in the Rockies. Her trips are so popular that Korngold said her main problem is finding enough guides to meet demand.

“Our Web site gets 200,000 hits a month,” she said. “Our e-mail list is larger than the local federation’s.”

Rabbi Howard Cohen, a Reconstructionist rabbi who runs the Vermont-based Burning Bush Adventures organization, also talks about the need to build bridges between Judaism and the outdoors.

“I know so many Jews who have essentially grown detached from the Jewish community because as they were growing up, they couldn’t get what they wanted from the Jewish world,” he said. “So they went outside of it. But Judaism doesn’t have to be a separate part of their lives.”

Cohen calls the stereotype of the unfit, nonathletic Jew “residual anti-Semitism,” noting that Jews long have been involved in heart-pumping activities like boxing and farming.

Cohen himself is proof of the Jewish athletic tradition. Before attending rabbinical school, he spent 10 years working for Outward Bound. Now he leads day school students, among others, on such expeditions. Before going, participants are sent Torah portions, as well as a list of questions, quotes and readings.

Cohen promotes discussion on these materials out in the woods and has students keep Shabbat and bake challah in the field. Being with students in this context changes his ability to relate to them, Cohen said.

“There are a lot of rabbis who ski or play golf and put their kippah in their back pocket,” he said. “But rabbis who take their congregants skiing, they have a different bond.”

Cohen admitted that rabbis who follow this path may not serve Jewish community “needs,” such as Shabbat services and bar mitzvah training, but he said they do provide some of the “wants” Jews have from their religion.

Rabbi Nachum Shifren, an Orthodox surfer who rides waves in a wetsuit and full beard, said the surfing lessons he offers in Los Angeles and Israel offer catharsis.

“It’s definitely a therapeutic thing,” Shifren said. “Once you’re hooked on all that power and might of the ocean, you’re just never going to be the same.”

Shifren is working on a new program to wean innercity youngsters off drugs and gang life through surfing. Cohen also is developing a program for troubled youth.

“We tend to think of religion as a place where you have to toe the line … but there’s room for rebellion in religion,” Cohen said, citing “iconoclastic rabble-rousers” in the Torah such as Abraham.

The Chicago-based Steppin’ Out Adventures uses this community-building effect as a vehicle for matchmaking, allowing Jewish singles to schmooze while biking in Ireland or climbing the Inca Trail in Peru.

Robin Richman, director and one of the co-founders of the organization, described the bonding that takes place as “amazing.”

“When you’re on an adventure you plan as best you can, but things happen. Those are the things that become jokes between you,” she said, citing a weekend getaway to Wisconsin, where, due to three straight days of rain, the group wound up eating lunch in their underwear.

“It definitely brought the trip close together very quickly,” she said with a laughed.

Richman’s method has produced results. Since it began in 1993, Steppin’ Out Adventures has led to 60 marriages, 34 babies and “a whole lot of friendships and business partners,” according to the group’s Web site.

For the 20 members of the Chesapeake Bay’s Sailing Chavurah, the marriage of the outdoors and Jewish life also has proved transformative.

“At first, we all thought we were the only one” who sailed and was Jewish, said Julien Hofberg, the group’s commodore. But over time, boats named Tikkun Olam and Miss Shue Goss found each other, as did a Holocaust survivor, an accomplished Orthodox racer and a half-dozen Reform and Conservative Jews from the region.

“Now we hold Havdalah services every Saturday; we have a Chanukah party,” Hofberg said. “We share our expertise … and watch out for each other.”

 

Finding God Under the Stars


The fog/smog lies heavy over the San Bernardino mountain range, but with a little imagination, it’s still possible to make out Los Angeles — and Catalina — in the distance. Likewise, at an elevation of more than 6,000 feet in Running Springs, it’s possible to envision the great promise of Camp Gan Israel, Chabad’s new sleep-away camp and retreat center, even though the site is still undergoing heavy remodeling.

The synagogue, a former classroom, has been gutted, stained and stripped; nails line the floors ready to fasten down carpeting; a basic square wooden stage faces east toward Jerusalem, ready to hold an arc, its Torah scrolls and serve as the bimah for services three times a day. The gargantuan soccer field lies barren in the wind, bereft of green in the middle of this mild mountain winter. A pool sits covered, laden with puddles.

But come summer — and even to some extent the upcoming weekend — the site will be ready for visitors.

West Coast Chabad-Lubavitch purchased the 70-acre site, located less than two hours from Los Angeles, for $4.3 million last summer from CEDU Mountain Schools, a boarding school for at-risk youth that had owned the property since 1967. The woodsy grounds — replete with apple trees, ponderosas, oaks, maples, cedars and sequoias — includes hiking trails, a campfire/amphitheater, a greenhouse, a ropes challenge obstacle course, sports facilities and 18 buildings, including the synagogue, dormitories, an arts and crafts shed and a rustic ski lodge-style social hall that was featured in Architectural Digest in 1996.

For the past few months, Chabad, known for its can-doism (“If you build it, they will come”), has been transforming the school into a multipurpose center that will serve as an overnight summer camp, a weekend retreat center and also provide luxury suites for religious families and individuals who might want to enjoy the local skiing (Big Bear is 14 miles away and Lake Arrowhead is half that). Or those who want to just be out in nature.

“Camp Gan Israel was named after the Besht — Rabbi Israel Ba’al Shem Tov — who was a nature yid,” camp director Gershon Sandler said, using the Yiddish word for Jew. “He spent a lot of time out in the wilderness; he would leave civilization and return to inspire others.”

For Sandler, a 31-year-old who is a ba’al teshuvah with years of camping experience at both secular camps with names like Indian Head, and Jewish camps like Ramah and Nesher, that is what both camping and Judaism are all about: To learn an appreciation for nature, for God’s world, and to go back to civilization and spread that love.

“To be a light onto the nations,” Sandler said, “We have to be a light onto ourselves.”

The ear-popping road up to Running Springs is windingly nauseating, but relatively easy to navigate this year due to the mild California winter; last snowy season it would have taken chains to reach this small town whose population is just 300, or nearby Green Valley Lake, or, at the end of the road peppered with secluded homes with stables, Camp Gan Israel Running Springs.

“Welcome to Camp Gan Israel,” reads the engraved wooden sign that swings from wood beams in front of the reception hut. It’s a welcome that’s been a long time coming. For two years Rabbi Baruch Shlomo Cunin, director of West Coast Chabad-Lubavitch, searched for a site for the campgrounds, and for decades before that Los Angeles’ Orthodox community has been trying to create its own sleepaway camp on the West Coast. The effort has never met with success, primarily because there was never a permanent site, so Orthodox families either shipped their kids off to Camp Moshava in Wisconsin, to East Coast camps or kept them at home.

Not that Gan Israel will be a mainstream “Orthodox” camp like the East Coast coed camps Morasha and Nesher, which cater to Young Israel and Yeshiva University families; after all, Gan Israel is going to be run by Chabad, a Chasidic movement that many consider a separate stream. Yet Gan Israel is not planned to be a purely Chabad camp either; it won’t be a camp just for Chabad kids, the children of shluchim (emissaries who are sent around the world) and other children raised in the movement. There are already two camps like that: The original Camp Gan Israel in upstate New York, which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary, and another Gan Israel in Montreal.

The plan is for Camp Gan Israel Running Springs to serve some of the approximately 10,000 kids who have nowhere to go once they’ve outgrown the 30 Gan Israel day camps in California and Nevada. These kids, ages about 4 through 11, often come from secular or non-Orthodox homes, many of them immigrant families from Russia or Israel who attend Chabad day schools.

Chabad plans to recruit children from these schools and day camps, as well as from the larger community.

“Gan Israel is for parents who want to provide kids with a Jewish experience, Jewish identity and pride, with dance, sports, ruach [spirit] and nature,” Sandler said.

This first summer, the camp will be for third to eighth-graders. There will be one month for girls (June 26-July 23) and one for boys (July 27-Aug 23), with a two-week or four-week option priced at about $100 a day. They hope to have about 100 kids per session — the camp’s capacity will be about 200 — with some 20 counselors on staff (a 1 to 5 ratio), as well as specialist instructors for arts and crafts, music and drama and a Chinuch rabbinical staff led by Rabbi Naftali Richler, who teaches at Shalhevet High School. Richler is developing the educational program, which will work with children of all religious levels.

In many ways the camp will be just like any other sleepaway camp — sans panty raids and first kisses — with overnight hikes, day trips and a color war, but “everything will have a Jewish theme,” said Sandler, who has studied camping through fellowships from the National Jewish Camping Association.

A landscape architect by training, Sandler has lofty goals for these city kids.

“First we have to make them not afraid of nature, to instill in them that sense of awe,” he said. “Then the next step is to teach them about interconnectedness — how, on a basic level, a tree grows, and eventually the branches fall and they make a new tree; and the water cycle of evaporation and filtration — just the basics. The whole idea is that they should develop a greater appreciation, which leads to a greater responsibility.”

Fifty years ago, Camp Gan Israel in New York started out as a camp run by Chabad for non-Chabad children, but within years it became a camp for Chabad children. Sandler says he wants this camp to have the widest possible appeal — and that means appealing to Modern Orthodox kids — so the emphasis will be on a “Jewish experience,” not necessarily a “Chabad” experience. Indeed, only a few mantelpieces around the campus are adorned with giant framed pictures of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the movement’s charismatic leader, who died 10 years ago without leaving a successor, spawning a Messianic movement that holds little appeal to the non-Chabad Orthodox.

Sandler insists that all staff will be trained to work with the general, non-Chabad population.

“Our goal is not to make the children religious; that’s not Chabad’s mission,” he said. “The goal is that the child returns to the community with more Judaism.”

The air is chilly inside the dormitories, but already, as quickly as bunk beds are being built, sheets, pillows and blankets are being laid out for a Toras Emes Shabbaton retreat the next weekend. Soon the totem poles will be repainted or replaced (they might be considered idolatry), the tennis court will be converted to a hockey court (better to promote teamwork) and the wood logs once cut by high-adrenaline at-risk youth converted to benches.

It’s easy to picture log benches encircling the char pit, dozens of girls or boys telling (Jewish) ghost stories, eating (kosher) marshmallows and singing (Hebrew) songs.

“Our focus is to provide the kids with a fun, positive Jewish experience,” Sandler said gesturing at the campgrounds. “That’s why this is so important. As far as educational opportunities, there’s nothing quite as effective as summer camp.”

For more information on Camp Gan Israel Running Springs, call Chabad Youth Programs at (310) 208-7511, ext. 1270.

 

A Torah Trek to Find a ‘God Moment’


It’s a Sunday afternoon in midwinter Los Angeles, the sun is sparkling, the temperature is perfect, I’m in one of the most beautiful settings anyone can imagine, and I’m supposed to be talking to God. I’m sitting alone in a lush, grassy field near a rustling brook, mountains surround me, birds are chirping, the smells of nature are excellent and all I can think of is whether I should eat that last bit of leftover lunch that I still have in my backpack.

It is an especially untimely moment to be pondering such a mundane question, because on this day, I’ve joined 14 adults on a daylong excursion in Malibu Creek State Park led by Rabbi Mike Comins, who runs Torah Trek, Spiritual Wilderness Adventures. Whether it’s a one-day exercise for first-timers — like ours is — or a multiday meditative adventure, the idea is to spend time studying Torah, reading, thinking, meditating and seeking a “God experience,” as Comins calls it. We are now at the ultimate moment of the day, the portion called “hitbodedut,” which translates from the Hebrew as “to be alone.”

So I’m on my own, tackling the task of connecting to God, and I’m doing just about anything but. The act of meditation, never my strength, seems particularly contrived for me on this day. Add God to the mix, and my sense of failure multiplies.

A soft wind blows across my face, ruffling my hair ever so slightly. Is that God? A blue jay flits, determined in its search for some unknowable purpose. Is that? I watch as a small biplane flies overhead, and I’m sure that its passengers are feeling more awe than I am, but are they having a close-to-God experience? Up in the sky, do we feel more spiritual? Is it easier to feel God’s presence when we’re above everyone else?

OK, I’ve got about another 20 minutes of solitude to go. So far, I must be completely off track.

I live in the heart of urban Los Angeles in a house that looks out on urban sprawl, with a view, too, of the much-utilized Griffith Park. There is no silence in the city, but I’ve grown used to that. There are trees and a little grass, but not much in my neighborhood. I appreciate the beauty of our Southern California climate, but I rarely feel the transcendence of nature in my daily life. In honor of Tu b’Shevat, in hopes of connecting to a greater sense of our natural world, I’ve come on this hike.

Comins believes that Jewish practice has lost its connection to our ancestors’ roots, which lie, as we all know, in the Torah but also in the connection of the Torah itself to nature, even to the wilderness. Yet, for most of us, as Comins explains at the start of the day, the essential experience of Judaism has become a series of stories and edicts, rather than an experience or a communing. So, through trial and error, and in concert with a small community of fellow spiritual naturalists, he’s attempting to connect the dots.

“If you ask people where they are likely to find a ‘God moment,’ they say in nature,” Comins says in his introduction to the day, which began at 9:30 a.m. with the group of us sitting on dewy grass at the entry to the wilderness park. “If we have this arena where the issue of God is not contrived, and, at the same time, our greatest challenge in Jewish education is finding God, then one plus one is two.”

Comins, 49, grew up in Studio City; he had a classic suburban childhood interspersed with regular family camping trips to Yosemite. When he decided to make aliyah and moved to Israel, he says, he initially considered his backpacking career a thing of the past. He studied to become a Reform rabbi in Israel, and as he sat in front of a library computer screen for days on end, working on his thesis, he says, “I felt less and less God in my life.”

” target=”_blank”>www.torahtrek.com.

 

Post-Katrina, Jews Raised Funds Fast


Major Jewish organizations have raised more than $30 million to house, feed, educate and relocate thousands of victims of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi.

The biggest chunk of money has come from the United Jewish Communities (UJC), which represents 155 Jewish federations and 400 independent communities across North America. As of Dec. 13, UJC said it had collected $25.5 million in Katrina disaster relief, of which $7.9 million already has been allocated to Jewish and non-Jewish hurricane victims.

The single largest beneficiary of UJC’s generosity has been the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, which received $4 million for programs ranging from emergency assistance for individual Jews to general funding for social services.

UJC funds also have gone to the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, as well as groups such as MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, to aid 13 food banks and other groups along the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast.

Smaller amounts have been allocated to groups such as the Dallas Mayor’s Housing Initiative, to provide housing assistance to evacuees ($250,000); the Jewish Federation of Northern Louisiana to provide Wal-Mart gift cards to evacuees in shelters ($153,900); and the Jewish community of Jackson, Miss., for emergency aid to evacuees ($50,000).

The American Jewish Committee also has been active. In mid-December, the group’s executive director, David Harris, visited New Orleans to present a total of $575,000 in hurricane relief funds to four institutions.

Dillard University, a predominantly black college, got $200,000 to help rebuild its Information Technology Center, while $125,000 each went to Clement of Rome, a Catholic church, and two synagogues — Congregation Gates of Prayer, a Reform synagogue next to St. Clement, and Congregation Beth Israel, an Orthodox shul in suburban Lakeview that was severely damaged by Katrina.

“Each of us is potentially vulnerable to the fury of Mother Nature, irrespective of where we live, the religion we practice, or the lifestyle we lead,” Harris said. “Responding to the needs of our fellow Americans in New Orleans was a moral imperative, and we are glad to be able to contribute significantly to the long-term rebuilding and recovery efforts.”

In addition, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), which represents more than 900 Reform congregations, has raised $3.4 million in general hurricane relief.

Rabbi Deborah Hirsch, director of regions at URJ, said about half of that is going to general assistance for both Jews and non-Jews, and the other half to Reform congregations throughout the Southeast that suffered damage this fall from Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma.

“Whenever there’s a disaster of this kind, there are often high uninsured losses. Obviously, the fund won’t be able to cover all those losses,” Hirsch said. “Between these three hurricanes, the losses are going to exceed whatever is in the fund.”

The URJ also has raised $225,000 for SOS New Orleans, a new fundraising campaign to help four New Orleans-area Reform congregations maintain their operations, programs and services: Gates of Prayer in Metairie; Temple Sinai and Touro Synagogue in New Orleans; and the Northshore Jewish Congregation of Mandeville.

According to a URJ press release, some 500 to 600 of the more than 2,000 families that belonged to these four synagogues before Katrina might not return. This puts an added burden on the synagogues’ fundraising efforts at a time when they need money more desperately than ever.

“Never in our modern Jewish history have we witnessed such a dramatic displacement of a Jewish community in North America: so many people displaced, for who knows how long a time,” said Robert Heller, chairman of URJ’s board of trustees. “Those who want to return need to know their congregations will be there for them. The buildings can and will be repaired, but souls and spirits do not mend so easily.”

Eric Stillman, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, said that besides the institutional grants, his federation has received over $100,000 in private, individual donations from outside the New Orleans area since the hurricane.

“We’re tremendously grateful to the American Jewish community for the way they’ve stepped forward and provided financial support,” Stillman said. “I don’t know where we’d be otherwise.”

 

Even Utopia Has a Price Tag


Late in the summer of 1987, my parents shipped me off to the Cleveland Jewish Community Center’s cleverly named Camp Wise. It was August, the weather was hot, and the little village of wooden cabins with tent flaps for walls was a welcome change from the air-conditioned houses of the city.

I was smitten with camp after my first peek at those cabin-tents — and that was just the beginning of a six-year-long love affair. Camp Wise sprawled over more than 250 acres of lush East Coast-style woods, which also were home to a pint-sized lake, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, a rudimentary ropes course, horse stables and lots of wooden shacks designated for just about every activity you could think of. And, of course, the best part was the campwide Shabbat processional through the woods to our open-air, tree-lined chapel.

Sure, camp is utopia, but even communing with nature can be expensive these days. So, how do families — who have all of life’s necessities plus Hebrew school and bar mitzvahs to think about — afford such a luxury?

At Camp JCA Shalom, a JCC camp in Malibu, a three-week camping experience can cost almost $2,400, a full summer can run twice that, and these numbers do not include all of the expensive extras — hiking boots, outdoor gear, sleeping bags, etc. — that may be necessary.

Luckily, there are a lot of options out there for families on a budget, said Jerry Silverman, the president of the Foundation for Jewish Camping. “Talk to the camp, talk to your rabbi, and talk to your local [Jewish] federation — it is all about asking.”

“The end justifies the means,” he added. “If you don’t ask, your children will suffer.”

And Silverman wouldn’t want that. He and his organization share the same simple goal: To increase the number of Jewish campers, since it views camp as one of the most powerful ways to build Jewish identity and commitment in young people.

The Foundation for Jewish Camping’s Web site has a directory of camp scholarships that will be updated next month to include a more complete list of options for Californians.

Most camps have some sort of scholarship program. Camp JCA Shalom, for example, offers two different financial aid packages — the Camp JCA Shalom Summer Campership Fund and the Marla Bennett Campership Fund — to help families afford camp. Although neither of these funds covers the full cost of camp, through the help of The Jewish Federation and individual donors, the camp is able to provide $170,000 in scholarship money each year. Last year, roughly 200 campers received some amount of aid.

Federation allocates more than $500,000 annually to camps, including almost $400,000 to Camp JCA Shalom in 2005. About $160,000 of that total is designated for scholarship programs. California-based Camp Ramah, Camp Alonim at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Camp Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop Camp and Gilboa Habonim D’ror also receive scholarship money.

At The Federation’s Summer Camp and Israel Programs Expo on Sunday, Jan. 22, at Valley Beth Shalom, camp discounts will be among the raffle prizes.

The Foundation for Jewish Education is a Beverly Hills-based organization that offers full scholarships for first-time campers whose families are not affiliated with a Jewish school or synagogue. Last year, the foundation sent nine campers to Camp Alonim.

If financial aid is not right for your family, Rachel Grose of the Jewish Free Loan Association, a Jewish Federation agency, suggested tapping the many interest-free loan options available to the Jewish community. For example, she said the Morris Doberne Camper Experience Loan Fund and the Jewish Free Loan Association are two great resources, both of which offer loans of up to $2,000 per camper.

According to Silverman, finding the right financial assistance or loan option is worth doing some research.

“Jewish summer camp is the most undervalued investment in the Jewish community,” he said.

He knows this from first-hand observation. When Silverman’s 9-year-old daughter, Alison, attended her first year at camp, she fell in love with the intoxicating mix of nature and Jewish culture. Silverman was struck by his daughter’s real emotion when she cried for her now-disbanded camp family and when she questioned why her real family does not sing for an hour after Shabbat dinner like she did at camp.

“I am telling you right now, I cannot describe the glow on my daughter’s face,” Silverman said of his daughter’s return.

Phil Liff-Grieff, the associate director of the Bureau of Jewish Education, agreed with Silverman that camping is a wonderful tool for all Jewish people — namely because it is undiluted Jewish living.

“Rules of the outside world can be left in the outside world,” he said. “It is a total experience.”

At camp, Liff-Grieff said, every activity becomes an opportunity to teach Jewish life — even a basketball game. For example, he explained, campers learn how to behave on the court from friends and staff members.

Maybe times have changed, but I seem to remember more healthy competition than moral instruction on the b-ball courts of my Camp Wise childhood. Another thing I can’t remember: What financial sacrifices my parents made so that I could go to camp. But I definitely remember the one-of-kind experience of JCC summer camp — or, as I prefer to call it: utopia.

The Federation’s Summer Camp and Israel Programs Expo will be held Sunday, Jan. 22, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. at Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. Summer programs for all ages and denominations will be represented, plus food, entertainment, prizes and raffles for camp discounts. For more information, call Lori Harrison-Port at (323) 761-8343.


For more information and a directory of camp scholarships, visit the Foundation for Jewish Camping at www.jewishcamping.org. For information on the Jewish Free Loan Association go to ” target=”_blank”>www.tfjeinc.org.

Skip Beaten Path for Zipline Adventure


High above Kiryat Shemona, the Bekaa Valley to our left and the Golan Heights straight ahead, my wife and kids jumped from a cliff and sailed hundreds of feet on a zipline.

Waiting to leap were two young Orthodox men. The first pushed off, his payot flapping in the wind as he held on to his harness with one hand and his kippah with the other. After thinking for a moment, his friend stuffed his kippah in his pocket and jumped, both hands firmly on his harness.

Ziplining with the Orthodox. Digging for Maccabean relics with archaeologists. Off-roading on the Golan. We planned our family trip to Israel on the theory that our kids would learn more if they were happy and engaged than if they were bored and bedraggled.

Our strategy paid off. If you ask Jacob, 10, about the Lebanese border, he’ll tell you about ziplining and tobogganing — and about the Hezbollah flags he saw nearby. If you ask Mollie, 12, about the 1948 War of Independence, she’ll tell you about her visit to the bullet factory hidden under a kibbutz laundry room.

Grown-ups have asked Mollie and Jacob about our trip and often get right to the point — “Was Israel scary?” The fact that our kids can answer that Israel is a place of fun, not fear, while demonstrating an understanding of some of Israel’s security dilemmas, gives us great satisfaction.

Our kids declared during our trip that while tiny Israel may look like “nothing” on a world map, “there’s a whole lot of something inside.”

It’s important to take your kids to Israel. If the best route to American Jewish kids’ hearts and minds is the fun route, then here are some adventures slightly off the beaten path you can pursue with your family:

Rough It in Style at El Capitan Canyon


As a city woman whose family is unaccustomed to “roughing it,” I planned our family vacation to involve a lot of nature but no sleeping on hard ground. That’s what made El Capitan Canyon in Santa Barbara the perfect place for us: It’s camping for people who like staying in Hiltons.

A two-hour drive north of Los Angeles, El Capitan Canyon is a former private campground that was transformed five years ago into a plush nature resort on 65 acres heavily populated with oak and sycamore trees. It allows guests to savor a rustic environment, but with down duvets and gourmet coffee for the coffeemaker.

Upon arrival, we took in the sweet, clean air gently blowing through the canyon. We had booked two cabins for our party of seven: a king suite with a bedroom, a living room with a pullout sleeper sofa and kitchenette, and a bunk cabin (which could have slept six) for our three sons. All cabins have bathrooms with showers, as well as refrigerators in kitchenettes — an important consideration for kosher consumers like us who bring our own food.

For more rustic tastes, El Capitan Canyon offers canvas safari tents on raised wooden decks, with screened windows and zip-down flaps. Bathroom facilities and showers for the tents are located in nearby buildings. Though our boys were at first disappointed at the absence of TVs, the beauty and calm of the campground environment assuaged them.

Cabin rates range from $135 to $345 for their brand-new canyon loft, which has a king-sized bedroom, living room with a sleeper sofa and stairs leading to a sleeping loft that can sleep up to four. It also has a full bathroom, gas fireplace and kitchenette. Safari tents range from $115 to $135 for a deluxe tent. Midweek pricing specials are available.

Cars are not allowed in the canyon, but a shuttle brings guests from their cabin or tent to the entrance of the facility, where the El Capitan Canyon store and deli are located. We preferred walking the half-mile or so from our cabin to the store, spotting vibrantly colored scrub jays and woodpeckers along the way.

Visitors can be as relaxed or as busy as they want. Our family borrowed complimentary bikes from the front office and rode for several miles on the bike path along El Capitan and Refugio beaches, just five minutes from the campsite. Water-lovers can kayak or surf, though rentals are not available directly on the premises. My husband and I hiked along the paths in the canyon, on the lookout for snakes, bobcats or mountain lions, which signs at the trailhead warn live in the mountain. (Fortunately, we didn’t meet any.) Our less adventurous kids preferred to swim at the pool or play catch on the large grassy area adjacent to the cabins. Our favorite time was after dinner, when nearly everyone dined at picnic tables outside their cabins or tents. We met our neighbors, our kids met other kids and we had fun roasting ‘smores in our fire pit.

The campground management at El Capitan Canyon also offers a ropes challenge course, wagon and carriage rides, guided hikes led by a naturalist, and horseback riding at the adjacent El Capitan Canyon Ranch. Live concerts are performed Saturday nights through September, and feature jazz, blue grass, oldies rock ‘n’ roll and more.

But if that sounds too ambitious, telephone the front office and reserve a massage, facial, mud treatments or other spa services. After all, you’re there to relax!

The hit movie, “Sideways,” has made visits to the nearby wineries in the Santa Ynez Valley more popular than ever. We toured the Firestone Winery, which offers tours every hour, and while we could not partake of the wine tasting, it was fascinating to learn about the complex and delicate nature of wine making. For those who keep kosher, Herzog Wine Cellars is now open in Oxnard. Plan to make this kosher winery part of your trip on the way to or from El Capitan Canyon.

If you are traveling with kids, make sure to drive to nearby Solvang for seasonal apple picking. A stroll through Solvang and a quick stop at Ostrich Land in Buellton can help round out a family-friendly day.

El Capitan Canyon, 11560 Calle Real, Santa Barbara. For more information, call (866) 352-2729 or visit www.elcapitancanyon.com.

For help planning your trip, be sure to visit the Santa Barbara Chamber of Commerce at www.sbchamber.org or the Santa Ynez Valley Visitors’ Association at syvva.com.

For a list of area wineries, visit santabarbara.com/winecountry. For more information about Herzog Wine Cellars, call (805) 983-1560.

For fruit picking, try Apple Lane Farm, 1200 Alamo Pintado Road, (805) 686-5858; or Morrell Nut & Berry Farm, 1980 Alamo Pintado Road, (805) 688-8969.

Judy Gruen hopes her next vacation will include a trip to at least one outlet shopping center. Subscribe to her regular “Off My Noodle” humor columns at www.judygruen.com.

 

A Hard Rain


 

In the winter of 1861-1862, the skies in California let loose, unleashing torrents of water around the state. In Los Angeles, rain fell for 28 straight days, pushing the Los Angeles River higher and higher until a waist-high wall of water jumped its banks, ripping away everything in its path.

My great-great-grandfather, Isaias Hellman, who was 19 at the time, got caught in the turgid waters. He had arrived from Bavaria three years earlier — part of a group of Jews who left their small town in Reckendorf — to work as a clerk in a dry-goods store owned by his two older cousins. The store was set in a row of shops in Bell’s Row, a two-story block-long commercial building on the southeast corner of Aliso and Los Angeles streets. The Row had long been the favored location for the pueblo’s sizable group of Jewish merchants. Many early settlers who would later play crucial roles in transforming the small town into a modern American city had their first stores there, including Isaiah and Samuel Hellman, Solomon Lazard, Philip Sichel, Wolf Kalisher, Henry Wartenberg and others.

The surging waters from the Los Angeles River rushed through the small downtown, carrying driftwood, mud and sand as it enveloped the row of shops. Hellman, who not long before had made his home in the store’s back room, rushed with his two cousins to salvage any goods they could. As the three men started to grab shoes, books, tobacco and other goods, the saturated adobe walls started to crumble and they were forced to flee.

When the floodwaters receded, Los Angeles had been transformed. The façade of the Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church, which had stood sentinel in the Plaza for 40 years, melted away, its straw and mud bricks unable to withstand the water’s onslaught. The cascading river ripped out thousands of grapevines. Sand lay a foot thick over once-fertile orchards. Roads became so impassable that Los Angeles went without mail for five consecutive weeks.

The entire state suffered that year. From early November to the end of January, 37 inches of rain fell in San Francisco. Rain and melting snow turned the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys into an inland sea, 250-300 miles long and 20-60 miles wide. When the rain stopped, it made the news: “On Tuesday last the sun made its appearance,” The Los Angeles Star noted. “The phenomenon lasted several minutes and was witnessed by a great number of persons.”

The heavy rains were followed by two years of drought, years of sun and wind so relentless the grasses that covered the valleys and gentle hills running from Los Angeles to the ocean 20 miles away turned a brittle brown. Most of the cattle that roamed the hills began to die and travelers taking the stage from the port of San Pedro to Los Angeles saw hills heaped with decaying carcasses. The number of cows in the county dropped from 70,000 to 20,000.

Weather has always been an important determinant in Los Angeles’ history. The twin effects of floods and drought from 1861-1864 completely finished off whatever remained of the rancho way of life, where dons reigned over thousands of acres of land and huge herds of cattle. Many of the Spanish Californios were forced to sell their land to stay solvent, opening the way for the rise of the Yankee economy. The disasters also ruined many small businesses, including that of Hellman’s cousins. It changed the city’s architecture as businessmen replaced adobe buildings with brick structures.

But those living in Southern California regarded the disasters as aberrant and moved quickly to repair the damage. The Hellman cousins and other affected merchants relocated their businesses and learned an important lesson about frontier life: to succeed, one had to be flexible and change with the ever-evolving economy. Soon boosters began promoting the region as a place like no other, blessed by sun and fertile soil and ease of life. The rains hit hard again in 1884, when more than 38 inches caused widespread flooding, but by that time most of America thought of Los Angeles as a Mediterranean paradise. Trainloads of settlers poured in, lured by the promise of a golden life. By 1890, more than 50,000 people lived in the city.

By that time my great-great-grandfather had spent 31 years in Los Angeles and had watched it transform from a dusty pueblo where fewer than 300 people spoke English to a bustling city. As the city grew, he prospered, eventually becoming one of the region’s largest landowners and a major investor in the city’s water and gas companies. He was president of the Farmers and Merchants Bank for 45 years, lending funds to Harrison Gray Otis to buy the Los Angeles Times and to Henry Huntington to build the trolley cars that eventually crisscrossed Los Angeles. He helped build the city’s first temple, B’nai B’rith.

But from the time of the 1862 rains, he always kept a close eye on the weather, frequently noting it in his letters and diaries. He knew that living in Los Angeles meant floods and droughts and even earthquakes, but he didn’t let those threats defeat him. California had become his home and he refused to let nature push him away.

Frances Dinkelspiel has been delving into the history of Jews in California for the past few years as part of her biography of Isaias W. Hellman. A former reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, Dinkelspiel’s freel-ance work has appeared in the New York Times, People, San Francisco Magazine and other venues. She can be reached at FDinkelspiel@yahoo.com.

 

A Garden Tour of Biblical Proportions


 

Majestic fig trees bear their succulent fruit amid enormous leaves. Boughs of olives suggest the impending harvest as their color changes from green to black. Massive citrons emit their magnificent scent.

You’ve just entered Neot Kedumim, Israel’s biblical landscape reserve. With relevant selections from the Bible and other ancient texts paired with each exhibit, this beautiful, tranquil place puts a new spin on the idea of a “biblical theme park.” These 625 acres of majestic trees, grapevines, shrubs and flowers were once barren territory, used as an army training ground.

Thirty-five years ago, a visionary named Nogah Hareuveni, now 81, conceived of reclaiming the land to its lost glory. His simple but profound idea? Looking at “text in context,” said Beth Uval, Neot Kedumim’s native English-speaking guide and writer, a former American who moved to Israel in 1970.

“If we look at the text in relation to the climate, the nature and the harvest, we find the nuance, depth and power of Jewish sources,” Uval said.

As a result, Neot Kedumim’s appeal is now widespread among visitors who love exploring the natural beauty of Eretz Yisrael as well as students of the Torah, Talmud and halachah, or Jewish law. So treasured is Neot Kedumim, that in 1994, it received the Israel Prize, the highest honor awarded by the State of Israel, for its special contribution to the society and the state.

Shortly before Sukkot, I had the pleasure of touring this inspiring landscape on a trip sponsored by the Israel Ministry of Tourism and El Al. Neot Kedumim was already well on its way to welcoming guests with its annual holiday-themed exhibit. A two-story sukkah, a sukkah on the back of a camel and a sukkah on a boat are all recreated according to the text of the Mishna. Uval escorted a small group of us through the park’s “Four Species” section, which relates to the four flora used in the holiday’s commandment pertaining to lulav and etrog — binding branches of willow, myrtle and palm with citron fruit.

“We get people here with an open Mishnah and many people who enjoy nature,” Uval said. “That’s one of our aims, to find common ground among all Jews. If we try to look for a broad common denominator, anyone living according to the same calendar experiences this as a very unifying force.”

Near the pond hosting the floating sukkah, Uval pointed out a fascinating replica of ancient technology. A long wooden cylinder with iron supports was positioned between the pond and a small stone pool a few feet away. Between the pond and the pool, running beneath the upper most end of the cylinder, was a small stone channel. When we turned the crank at the top of the cylinder, we could clearly see a screw-like structure turning and we could hear the water moving inside. After a few minutes, a rush of water poured out of the cylinder, filling the channel and running directly into the stone pool, symbolic of a mikvah, or ritual bath. This “water screw” is discussed in Tosefta Mikvaot 4 and 5: “Archimedes screw does not invalidate the mikvah because the water is not disconnected from its source. The mikvah is kosher, the water comes in one continuous flow.”

This is just one example of the many fascinating displays throughout the park.

During holidays such as Sukkot, Chanukah and Passover, children’s activities dot the park’s many trails. For Aliyat Haregel, the three pilgrimage holidays of Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot, young visitors have the opportunity to make sandals and robes, as well as coins reminiscent of those once used as the half-shekel tax in the ancient Temple. They also participate in musical processionals to a threshing floor for a light snack.

Around Shavuot and Tu B’Av, visitors tour a “Song of Songs” path. The foliage and texts relate well to love and romance, themes replete in both holidays.

Further along in the park, at another interlocking landscape, is the “Seven Species” area. This section features an authentic olive crush and press. We each picked a green olive off a branch and gently squeezed a drop of oil out with our hands. The taste was extremely bitter but the oil was deliciously emollient on my hands.

Uval reached into her bag to reveal a replica of an ancient oil lamp of clay, a project kids enjoy creating during Chanukah visits. This region of Israel, the Modiin area between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, is believed to be the ancient home of the Hasmoneans, the leaders of the rebellion against the Syrian Greeks that led to the miracle of Chanukah.

“When we say a great miracle happened here,” Uval said, “it truly was here. That very much brings Chanukah alive.”

During Chag Urim, the holiday of light, as Chanukah is also known, young visitors experiment with creating olive oil, which was used in the biblical Temple to light the menorah. Guests pick black olives and place them under a massive crushing stone powered by a live mule. The resulting mash is placed in a flat basket positioned under a large log hanging horizontally. The log is lowered with weights, as described in the Mishnah.

The last stop was the “wedding trail.” It had been a very hot day, and as the sun set, the air felt particularly soft and fragrant. As a nearly full moon rose, we proceeded along a romantically lit path, taking in the last views of crimson pomegranates, their crown-like stems nearing the end of their reign.

Neot Kedumim is located off Route 443 near Modiin. It is wheelchair accessible. For more information, call 011-972-8-977-0770, visit gen_info@neot-kedumim.org.il. Due to cuts in recent government funding, Neot Kedumim is seeking support for its programming. Contact the American Friends of Neot Kedumim at (914) 254-5031 or

Campers Hit the Great Outdoors


The tomato plants are thriving. Their leafy green stalks shoot straight out of the moist brown earth and sway gently in the breeze. The lettuce, alfalfa and spicy greens starts also look healthy. Herbs grow everywhere. This garden, like all gardens at one time, is still in its formative stage — one of promise. This garden, unlike other gardens, is planted in the shape of the state of Israel.

Nestled deep within a Malibu canyon off the Pacific Coast Highway, the Shalom Institute, a Jewish summer camp and nature center, has planted an extensive organic garden on its grounds this year and plans to incorporate the age-old tradition of farming into its summer programs.

“I don’t think any of this is new, but it is fashionable at present,” said Becca Halpern, the camp’s program director. “First every camp needed an Olympic-sized pool, and then it was a climbing wall, now every camp has a garden.”

Perhaps the Shalom Institute’s new garden is not on the cutting edge of summer camp innovation. At this point, maybe it is not even a novel idea, but the garden represents a growing trend in Jewish education, one that brings a predominantly urban culture back to the earth.

And this movement — at least in America — has taken its time. It began in the late 19th century, introduced in the politics of Theodor Herzl, the man credited as the founder of modern Zionism. Herzl’s chief lieutenant, Parisian physician, Max Nordau, made a speech in which he called for the need to develop what he referred to as “muscle Judaism.”

“If, unlike other peoples, we do not conceive of [physical] life as our highest possession, it is nevertheless very valuable to us and thus worthy of careful treatment,” Nordau said at the Second Zionist Congress in 1898. “Let us take up our oldest traditions. Let us once more become deep-chested, sturdy, sharp-eyed men.”

So how does an organic garden at a JCC summer camp relate to the high-minded ideals of famous Zionists? Well, Halpern explains, the garden is really a metaphor. It is a way of teaching Jewish concepts, such as tikkun olam (repairing the world), or tzedakah, which Halpern translates as justice — or more specifically, environmental justice.

And the campers, literally, eat it up.

“I talk about edible and medicinal plants with 10-year-olds,” Halpern said. She makes her point, however, by taking them into the woods and scavenging snacks.

Another summer program has taken this concept of bringing campers into nature to an entirely different level. Yael Ukeles runs Teva Adventure, an outdoor adventure program jointly based in New York and Jerusalem. Teva Adventure has teamed up with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) to offer wilderness trips rich in outdoor survival skills and Jewish education.

The organizations’ pilot program last summer was a trip for boys to the wilds of Alaska, where the predominantly Orthodox participants learned skills such as ice-climbing and glacier-hiking, while finding time to pray three times a day and observe Shabbat.

“I think there are a lot of programs like this in the secular world and I think the Jewish community is following suit,” Ukeles recently said by phone from Israel. “A person who is Jewish should be able to participate in a program like this inside the Jewish community; they shouldn’t have to go outside the Jewish community. It is also educationally, a tremendous opportunity, not just in a social Jewish context, but a tremendous opportunity to do Jewish education.”

Ukeles worked with NOLS instructors to build a curriculum that synthesized outdoor skills and Jewish education throughout the trip. She explained that the program relied heavily on metaphors to make a point.

For example, the group drew parallels between their journey and other famous journeys in Jewish history, such as the 40 years the Israelites spent wandering in the desert. Also, when the boys were tied together as a rope team, while hiking a glacier, the group talked about how this symbolized the connection between all Jews.

The boys also learned how to keep kosher in the outdoors. They cooked together before Shabbat, learned how to erect an eruv and even made challah without an oven under the open sky.

For Gavi Wolf, an 11th-grader from Passaic, N.J., the trip was a “crazy success.”

“The whole experience of being in Alaska was so unreal,” Wolf wrote in a letter to Ukeles. “It was funny because although I had the heaviest physical weight on my back that I have every (sic) had, I felt more at ease and unburdened than I have ever have before. I was with people that I loved in an extraordinary place.”

It is Wolf’s last thought that sums up the single most important factor in the success of any summer program for youths, be it a JCC camp or a wilderness adventure. According to a recent survey by the National Study of Youth and Religion, which measures U.S. teenagers’ involvement in religious summer camps, the thing participants value most is a sense of community.

“If there is one story here that is coming out of the data, it is that summer camp is as much of a cultural activity or more so than a religious activity,” said Dr. Philip Shwadel, a researcher for the project. “They feel more at ease with [other] Jewish kids, especially the ones who don’t live in highly Jewish areas.”

The ability of summer programs to connect Jewish youths from different backgrounds is unparalleled. Like members of a kibbutz, they live and learn together in the natural world. One parent of a Teva Adventure participant noted this lesson and, like the Zionists of old, offered his own philosophy on the future of Judaism.

“Judaism can reach its zenith only through the cooperation of diverse individuals and groups,” Craig Wichell from Sebastopol, in Northern California, wrote in a letter about his son’s outdoor experience. “In Judaism, we each have our role to play.”

While the founders of modern Zionism called for Jews to recreate their more physical past in the present, Ukeles hopes Jews will do this while bringing Jewish education to the outdoors.

“In our climate-controlled lives, we go from an air-conditioned house to an air-conditioned car or a heated house to a heated car,” she said. “It is easy to lose touch and these programs remind us that we are not necessarily running the show here. There is something bigger and in the context of the world, we are small and God is big.”

For more information on summer programs, visit
www.campjcashalom.com or

A Desert High in Palm Springs


While nearby flatlands warm under perfect 60-degree winter weather, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway transports visitors to a pristine snow-covered forest. In just 10 minutes, this aerial tram carries passengers nearly 6,000 feet. The beautiful 14,000 acres of Mount San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness area are among the most visit-worthy in this heavily tourist destination.

As you ride in the world’s largest rotating cars of the Aerial Tramway, the flora and fauna include everything one would see driving from the hot Sonora Desert of Mexico to the Transitional (alpine) Zone of Alaska. The highlights read like entries from a naturalist guide. From the main road nearest the tram, Highway 111, to the tram station, this green cienega, or Spanish marsh, nurtures cottonwood, sycamore, wild grape, mesquite and native Washingtonia filifera palm trees. Barrel cactus, cholla, prickly pear and yucca grow amid springtime wildflowers, including lupine, Canterbury bells and sunflowers.

Desert bighorn sheep, kit and gray foxes, bobcats, coyotes and ringtail raccoons also make their home here. As the tram climbs, wild apricot trees stand amid metamorphic rock, gneisses and schists. Deer and mountain lion roam among chaparral. And as the elevation rises, evergreens, firs and oaks thin as the peak approaches.

At the top of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, there are a host of trails — including a three-quarters of a mile loop through picturesque Long Valley, just behind the Mountain Station that introduces visitors to regional plants and animals. A much longer path, at 5.5 miles, leads to the peak of Mount San Jacinto, the second-tallest mountain in Southern California at 10,834 feet.

The ideal tram departure time is just before sunset. The reversible 80-passenger cars revolve slowly from within, making two rotations and offering spectacular views. One popular option: capping off the day with a drink in the Top of the Tram Restaurant and the Elevations Restaurant while admiring the city lights below.

Erected in 1963, nearly 30 years after its inception, the tramway was named an engineering “wonder of the world” for its ingenious use of helicopters in erecting four of five support towers; 23,000 flight missions were required to carry workers, supplies and materials for the towers and the Mountain Station.

During the summer, the mercury reaches well into the 100s in Palm Springs, but the mountain offers more than 54 miles of hiking trails, camping and guided nature walks, at almost 40 degrees cooler.

Another day, my father and I opted to hike closer to sea level at nearby Palm Canyons. This ancient home of the band of Cahuilla (Agua Caliente) Indians boasts palms that are 200 years old, many of them with the natural foliage skirts that are removed on commercial palms. These layers of dried branches encircle the trunk-like structure of these trees, which technically are massive grasses rather than trees.

We learned these facts and more by joining a guided tour with Rocky, a native Hawaiian who turned tribal ranger after serving 20 years in the Marine Corps and 10 volunteering with the San Bernadino Police Department as a rescue tracker. His desert survival skills make him a perfect guide. Rocky showed us all the edibles and how the native peoples prepared acorns, made their homes and harvested the sweet date palm fruit growing high overhead.

We wandered amid giant palms, verdant grasses and a warm, picturesque creek that smelled of sulfur due to a high mineral content. Rocky pointed out one tiny, creek-side impression where a native family would have once ground their acorns (five such mini-ditches appear in rocks throughout the canyon).

In contrast to our inspiring, mellow days of hiking, one evening we attended the raucous “Palm Springs Follies,” a Rockette-style music and dance of the 1930s and ’40s with performers old enough to have lived it. Amazingly youthful seniors age 56 to 86 strut their stuff in between international vaudeville acts from November through May.

Jewish impresario Riff Markowitz, a former television producer, serves as emcee for this three-hour extravaganza, leading the audience through a show peppered with Jewish jokes — even a few relating to travel.

At one point he turned his attention to the holiday of Thanksgiving, saying no Jews were aboard the Mayflower.

“Do you know why?” he asked. “There were no first-class seats.”

The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is located at One Tramway
Road. The cost is about $20. Tramcars depart every half hour from 10 a.m. to 8
p.m. For more information, call (888) 515-TRAM or visit “>www.psfollies.com .

For the Kids


Nuturing Nature

Last week, we learned not to cut down the fruit trees of our enemies in times of war because, as the Torah says, the trees are “not our enemy.”

In this week’s parshah, Ki Tetze, the Torah continues its compassionate attitude toward nature’s creatures: Do not pull a baby bird out of its nest when its mother is around. If you have to do it (because you need to eat) do it when the mother is away from the nest.

It also reminds us to help — not ignore — an animal that has fallen down in the road. The Torah says to always be considerate and think about how your actions will affect the people and creatures around you.

Poetry Corner

Liat Chesed, 71¼2, of Los Angeles, writes:

I like to grow trees.

They’re beautiful and so green.

I plant and I plant.

I feel like a tree.

A Yiddle Riddle

Rabbi Levy was getting ready for synagogue in the month of Elul. All of a sudden, he heard a car honking its horn. He looked outside and there was a limousine with a driver parked outside his house. He realized that his students had misunderstood his request.

What had the rabbi asked for and what did his students bring him instead? (Hint: Two similar words — one in Hebrew and one in English.)

Send your answer to kids@jewishjournal.com .

The winner will receive a gift certificate to Baskin-Robbins.

Remember the Good


One of the most precious moments parents and children share
with each other is the quiet and routine of bedtime. I hope you sleep
well at night, but, as we all know, sometimes it is
difficult to fall asleep, or to have a restful sleep. There are too many things
on our minds. We’re filled with excitement and anticipation. Or we aren’t
feeling all that good. Things are happening in other places that concern us or
disturb us.

King Ahashuerus had such a night in the Purim story. We read
in Megillat Esther, the Scroll of Esther, that one night following the first
feast that Queen Esther had for King Ahashuerus and Haman, “sleep deserted the
king, and he ordered the book of records, the annals to be brought; and it was
read to the king.”

We’re all familiar with the story: The king discovers that
Esther’s uncle, Mordecai, has not been rewarded for saving Ahashuerus’ life. He
orders that this honor is to be carried out by Haman, and things begin to
change for the Jews of Shushan.

Jewish tradition sees something more taking place in this
scene. Judaism’s moral imagination describes that King Ahashuerus was not able
to sleep because of all that was going on around him: Esther was involved with
planning and preparing her next feast; Haman was busy building gallows;
Mordecai was upset, praying and wearing sackcloth. The midrash even states that
this was the very same night, in an earlier generation, during which the
Children of Israel remained on guard, watching for the angel of death to pass
over their homes as they anticipated their exodus from Egypt.

How can anyone sleep, our tradition seems to wonder, when
people are in peril? How can we find rest while others are weary, nervous or
even awaiting their redemption? For you and me it seems so easy. We crawl into
bed, turn off the news and it’s quiet all around us. Or at least it seems that
way. Do we really turn off our consciences so easily? Do we actually stop being
aware of everything we will awaken to the next morning?

I don’t think so. Even King Ahashuerus seemed to understand
that he needed to find a way to respond or he wouldn’t calm himself nor find
any rest on that fateful night. According to our tradition, the thing that most
disturbed Ahashuerus was whether or not someone had “asah li tovah” ( done
something good for me), which he had not properly acknowledged.

What a beautiful way to end a day! Did I fail to recognize
any goodness today? Is there something I can do about it now or tomorrow? The
difficult, the troubling, all that disturbs does startle us from our sleep.
That’s human nature. But what of goodness, of caring, of all that reflects our
ideals – — how do we remember all of that?

This Shabbat is called “Shabbat Zachor” (the Sabbath of
Remembrance). We read about Amalek, Haman’s ancestor whose evil attack against
the Children of Israel is recalled by the Torah to inspire us toward goodness
and resolve.

King Ahashuerus isn’t the only one with a record book.
Earlier in the Torah, Moses is told to write down as a lasting memory all that
Amalek did to Israel. As he does so, the Israelites quarrel among themselves as
they complain for water and sustenance.

“Is the Eternal present among us or not?” they ask.

The next verse then states: “Amalek came forward and fought
with Israel.”

It was the weakness of the people’s own spirit, their
inability to appreciate all that had brought them to this very moment of
redemption and opportunity that presented Amalek with the opportunity to
attack. They were separated from the truths and lessons of their own
experience, of the presence of God in their own story. Whom did Amalek reach?
The “stragglers” — those who were weak of heart and spirit, not physical
strength, the midrash suggests. Those people who knew how to complain but could
not appreciate the miracle and reality of their lives.

Remember King Ahashuerus’ sleepless night? We learned that
he was disturbed because something good might have been done for him to which
he had not properly responded.

As a father, this is what I want for my children. When I say
“good night” at the end of a day, of course I want them to sleep comfortably
and undisturbed. But I also want them to focus on remembering the good, the
decent and the beautiful of their day.

Zachor. We must all remember to tell this to our children
and our grandchildren. It is not enough to recall what Amalek did, as Moses was
commanded. Like Ahashuerus , we must also recognize the good that Mordecai did
and the meaning that every new day promises us all.

Shabbat Shalom! Happy Purim!

This weekend, Rabbi Ron Shulman celebrates his 20th anniversary with Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay in Rancho Palos Verdes.

Go Hug a Tree


Living in the asphalt-and-glass tangle of Los Angeles, it is sometimes easy to forget that we live in an area blessed with abundant natural beauty, from our gently folded green-and-gold mountains to our powdery sand, glittering sea and everywhere, the regal trees.

Until this week I had never been to Malibu Creek State Park — a mere 40-minute drive from my home — where I saw a family of deer grazing in a meadow, where the open skies are unblemished by billboards and antennae. Until last summer I had never been to Franklin Canyon, where unassumingly majestic wood ducks live in a still pond and the hills of Beverly Hills become graceful mountains with no signs of material mansions.

Tu B’Shevat, the fifteenth of the month of Shevat, is a yearly reminder to get out of the house and enjoy God’s world.

Designated in the Talmud as the new year of the trees, Tu B’Shevat marks the time when the sap starts rising and buds begin to appear on trees in the Land of Israel, first the shkadia (almond tree), followed by the others.

In Israel, the day’s halachic importance lies in calculating the age of the tree, as Tu B’Shevat is designated the birthday of all trees. This date affects in which year the fruit of young trees may be eaten and what tithes and offerings will be taken from the trees.

But for those of us with no trees to call our own in the land (aside from a JNF plaque, perhaps), Tu B’Shevat is an opportunity to get close to the yearly cycle of nature, to appreciate the complexity and depth of the natural surroundings that God has asked us to till and to tend.

Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th century German rabbi, told a story about a congregation who questioned why its rabbi was traveling to Switzerland, where there wasn’t much of a Jewish community. The rabbi replied, “I don’t want to meet my Maker and have Him say to me, ‘What? You never saw my Alps?’ ”
If the Alps are a bit far to make this year, here are a few suggestions for something a little closer to home.


Join the Party

The public is invited to commune with nature beneath the oaks and sycamores that canopy the grounds of Shalom Institute Camp and Conference Center of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles in Malibu, about 45 minutes from both the Valley and the city.

Last year about 1,000 people showed up for the festival, and Bill Kaplan, the institute’s executive director, expects a similar or larger crowd this year, if the weather is kind. The festival is also a reunion for Shalom’s campers and counselors.

The Tu B’Shevat festival will feature hikes and nature walks, tree planting, nature crafts and chances at the camp’s rope course and zipline.

Singers Cindy Paley and Robbo will entertain, while the Coalition for the Environment and Jewish Life will mount an exhibition, including books on Judaism and the environment, movies, quotes from the Torah about the environment and opportunities for advocacy.

“In our tradition we have the responsibility to take care of the earth l’dor va’dor, from generation to generation. What we do today affects our children and grandchildren and generations thereafter,” says Kaplan. “It’s about educating ourselves and being aware, and we’re trying to give people the tools to do that.”

The festival is Sun., Feb. 4, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. at Shalom Institute Camp and Conference Center. For directions and more information, call (818) 889-5500 or log on to www.shalominstitute.com.


Take a Hike

The Children’s Nature Institute (CNI), a nonprofit group founded by a nature-loving mom in 1985, has a long roster of family-friendly nature walks. CNI docents lead several educational walks every week, where they help children use all five senses to decipher their environment. The hikes are about two hours of leisurely walking along a trail, some of them stroller-friendly. For groups of about 20 people, CNI will arrange for private walks.

The institute also does outreach through educational field trips for inner-city schools and for kids with special needs. Its Wondermobiles are portable museums about birds, insects and mammals that are available for schools and birthday parties.

I spoke with Lizette Castano, the assistant to the executive director at Children’s Nature Institute, about trails Tu B’Shevat hikers could tackle on their own. Here are some of her favorites.

Solstice Canyon in Malibu, off Corral Canyon Road from Pacific Coast Highway, has a beautiful, wide trail with sycamores and oaks where kids have fun searching for woodpecker holes or listening for the telltale tap-tap. The canyon has a small stream with frogs and other creatures living in little pools. The site is shady, with all the basics: bathroom, water fountain and parking.

Temescal Canyon is a good one for families with kids in strollers, with its paved trail and convenient parking. There are huge eucalyptus, oak and sycamore trees, plenty of squirrels and, if you’re lucky, deer.
For those without strollers, continue up the trail for a substantial hike up the canyon to a small waterfall and creek.

Temescal Canyon Road is off Sunset, near Pacific Coast Highway.

Malibu Lagoon is a good destination for a marine experience. Birds are plentiful at this oceanside lagoon, and there are bridges from which you can watch fish and other marine wildlife. Rock hunting and studying the sizes and colors of grains of sand stuck to clear tape are favorite CNI activities here.

There is a picnic area and parking off Pacific Coast Highway and Cross Creek Road.

Budding botanists can head out to Santa Ynez Canyon in Pacific Palisades, where a wide variety of plant life abounds and a stream runs through the area.

Two Artists at One With Nature


Sculptress Harriet Zeitlin and painter Pat Berger share a lot in common. Friends for many decades, both artists have worked for more than 50 years, have had extensive teaching experience, were active in organizations championing artists’ rights in the 1970s, lost their husbands in the 1990s. They even own terriers (Pilot and Dori, respectively).

So it’s only natural that they should share gallery space. “Natura, Naturata,” a twin exhibit at the University of Judaism, currently displays their latest works. But make no mistake – these are two very different women with very different artistic styles and concerns.

Despite their mutual fascination with nature, there’s no redundancy in “Natura, Naturata” (the title refers to Spinoza’s famous quote “God and Nature are one”). Zeitlin’s sculptures, crafted from palm fronds, are a sharp contrast to Berger’s splashy, quasi-abstract “plantscapes,” as she dubs them.Zeitlin’s quirky artwork crowds her home studio in Brentwood: a pyramid made of discarded gloves, whimsical sculptures of abstract birds, a female built out of reconfigured neckties.”I just respond to found objects all the time,” Zeitlin says. “It’s almost as if the object comes first, and I’m just an instrument.”

Case in point: Zeitlin’s palm leaf series came about quite accidentally when, while walking Pilot around her neighborhood, she was impelled to drag some fallen fronds back home.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do with them,” she says, “but I knew I needed to bring them home.”The fronds became pieces such as “Bride” and the “Windfall” series of hanging pieces, the sleek, slick product yielding an eroticized plasticity, appearing organic and lubricated. With these creations, Zeitlin feels that she has achieved something “very sensual – a feeling of male-female intertwining.”

Initially inspired by the illustrative paintings of Milton Avery, Berger’s art has evolved over the years. She began with humorous slices of Venice Beach life, followed by a darker, socially conscious fascination with the homeless in the 1980s, and the melding of Biblical heroines and natural settings by the 1990s.Through it all, Berger has never strayed far from nature. In “Natura, Naturata,” she will delve deep into floral imagery, blurring the line between literal and abstract representation.

“I do these kind of close-ups of nature,” says Berger, who has worked for the Westside Jewish Community Center for 20 years and presently serves on the UJ’s Arts Council. The painter derived much inspiration from a fellowship stay in Costa Rica, and she has no qualms about abandoning figurative representation for now.

“It’s nice to go back to nature,” says Berger.

“Natura, Naturata” runs through Sept. 10 at the Marjorie & Herman Platt Gallery and the Borstein Gallery at the University of Judaism. For more information, call (310) 476-9777, ext. 203.

Right Place, Right Time


I remember how foolish I felt at first. There we were, my wife Didi and I, creeping around at midnight, quietly threading our way through low shrubs and overhanging trees where the beach met the foliage about twenty yards from the water. It was nearly pitch dark with only the light from the stars and a sliver of a moon visible in a foreign sky. It was Herron Island off the coast of Australia on the Great Barrier Reef.

I was on sabbatical and we had been traveling around this remarkable continent for a month. We had already traveled by train through the Australian desert watching kangaroos jumping across the landscape and wombats skittering along the tracks, and scuba dived with sharks and giant manta rays.

And now we were creeping silently along the edge of the sand at midnight praying for the chance to witness one of the miracles of nature that only happens on this tiny island once a year. Actually the beach wasn’t really sand at all. It was made of tiny grains of crushed coral from the barrier reef. Take ten steps outside your room, and your feet are walking on coral that has built up over thousands and thousands of years. Step into the water, and all you have to do is look down to see an entire world of color, marine life and beauty.

That night we were hoping to catch a glimpse of a giant sea turtle in its annual return to the place of its birth, some 40, 50 or even 60 years ago. These giant creatures, larger than a living room coffee table, return once a year in the middle of the night, slowly crawl out of the sea and inch their way up the sand to the underbrush. There they ever-so-slowly (they are turtles after all) dig a giant hole in the sand, lay between 100 and 150 eggs, slowly fill the hole and cover the eggs with sand, and then slowly make their way back into the water, and never see their eggs again.

If they are startled or disturbed before they begin the process of actually laying the eggs, they will turn around and return to the sea without completing their biological mission. But once they have begun the laying experience, neither sounds, lights or gawking observers will prevent them from finishing their genetic imperative of laying those eggs.

We crouched in the underbrush and waited. After what seemed like an eternity we heard her slowly coming up the beach. She stopped no more than three feet away from us and we held our breath and waited once again. Then we heard it — the thump, thump, thump of her oversized webbed feet as she slowly, methodically, began digging the hole for her precious cargo.

We waited and watched for over two hours. What we saw that night was one of the most miraculous experiences of our lives. Eggs, the look and size of ping-pong balls, being laid carefully in the sand. It was like watching the Discovery Channel, only live at our feet. We watched by flashlight as she laid her eggs, filled in the hole and slowly made her way to disappear back into the sea from which she had come. This was the very same beach where she had been born decades ago. And by some miracle of nature, she always knew how to return each year to start the cycle of life over again.

As we watched that dark Australian night, the words of this week’s Torah portion came into my head. “Yesh adonai bamakom hazeh, veanohi lo yadati,” said Jacob. “God was in this place, and until this vision, I had no idea.”

“I guess God is in every place,” I thought, “and you just never know what miracle will reveal it.”


Steven Carr Reuben is senior rabbi of Kehillat Israel, the Reconstructionist Congregation of Pacific Palisades.