Jews in the Woods

In the summer of 1998, I led a group of Jewish teenagers on a two week hiking trip in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. This is the story of how awful it was – the miserable weather, the arguments, the religious problems, the midpoint mutiny – and why, nevertheless, I think we should all get out in the woods a lot more often…

This is the group: nine Jewish teenagers: seven girls and only two boys. Religiously most are observant, but not all: of those who are there is some difference between the strictly halachic and the conservadox. At the other end of the spectrum is a girl who attends a Conservative dayschool but has a Turkish Moslem father and and is proud of her Turkish heritage. Most are from the Boston area, but one is from the Midwest. The strongest character is a sixteen year old girl; the youngest, a thirteen year old boy who is big for his age and who seems to be present in consequence of familial “encouragement” – his cousin really wants the trip to happen and says that without him there’ll be too few people.

Also two leaders: me – English, 30-something, observant, liberal, relatively late in life to the delights of outdoor living – and my co-leader, Liora, in her twenties, from a strong dayschool background but now secular. Liora is tough and down-to-earth and her idea of fun is leading non-Jewish teenagers from rough backgrounds on demanding hikes.

The plan was that we’d do a day or two of orientation at Camp Friedman, in upstate New York, and then drive up to New Hampshire to do an extended hike in the White Mountains.

And now share with me my four most vivid memories of the trip:

  • The first afternoon, at Camp Friedman, trudging off to a campsite just twenty minutes away – but in horrific cold torrential rain (in midsummer), miserable dark skies, and the thirteen year old boy coming down with flu;
  • The third day of the White Mountains hike, meeting up with our van for re-supplies, and a clear majority of the group say “that’s it – the weather’s awful, we hate this, we’re not going back up;”
  • Shabbat afternoon up in the mountains. In hard driving rain, Liora and I tighten our tarp for extra protection, whereupon our two most observant students point out (halachically correctly) that this is a desecration of Shabbat and that they won’t now enter the tarp;
  • Hiking down, a few days later, when we’re all tired. One girl’s rucksack will hardly fit her and it’s hard for her to carry it and someone keeps falling: Liora and I are terrified that someone’s really going to get hurt.

Against this sad litany, the reasons that I think that Jews in general ought to get outdoors a lot more – whether hiking, biking, rock-climbing or expeditioning, and whether for a few hours or for several months – may not be easily apparent. But consider this counter-list:

  • Too much of our world is [literally] over-sanitized. Wilderness trips are an antidote to that. From facing a degree of risk, to pooping in the woods, to learning about natural cycles, getting outdoors brings our regular life into an older and rawer perspective;
  • As a people, we Jews formed ourselves in the wilderness, and it shows. From the brachot of waking up to the specific brachot for thunder and lightning, to bensching and the brachot of using the bathroom, to building an eruv for Shabbat, to seeing Torah as practical jurisprudence in resolving arguments, Judaism comes alive outdoors in ways that are very different from, and shed great light on, most peoples’ synagogue experience;
  • When you go into the wilderness as a group, you have to deal with issues as a group. Cliques which might be acceptable in a school or youth group are less acceptable where you need to move together. Our trip was far from perfect in this regard, but it nevertheless drew out issues of religious and other difference, and raised important – and real – questions about the relationship between, for instance, a commitment to pluralism on the one hand, and one’s understanding of Jewish tradition on the other.
  • our parents want the world to be safe for us, as they properly should; but facing appropriate challenges helps us grow stronger in every way. In our midtrip mutiny my response was very different from a school environment, where students might simply be told what to do. What I actually said was the opposite: that the weather had been awful, that it had been hard, that we were tired and that no-one in fact was forced to go on. I said, too, that I hoped people would go on, that we were planning to go up to a place where we’d have great views, that the weather was due to lift, and that I thought people would feel proud of themselves if they kept going. But I made clear that each person had a real choice, and that they really didn’t have to go on. Both the reality of that choice, and the pride that can derive from facing a difficult choice and then seeing it through, are hard to replicate in our normal surroundings.

These four miserable memories are not the only reasons to get outdoors, of course. I haven’t mentioned how beautiful stunning views can be; how great it feels to work up a good sweat and get really fit; how much fun it is crossing rivers; how much I love singing by the fire – and building the fire in the first place. I haven’t mentioned how weird food combinations (like stale pita bread with sardines, jelly and mustard, say) can taste just great on the fourth day of a hike. I haven’t mentioned saying kiddush levana (the blessing over the new moon) outdoors, or dancing at kabbalat Shabbat, or what it feels like to have saved a “clean” outfit for Shabbat when you’ve been out in the woods for a couple of weeks. I haven’t mentioned mikveh experiences in freezing rivers, or elaborate ropes courses 50 or 60 feet up in the air. Or learning to tie special kinds of knots, or rock-climbing for the first time, or rock-climbing blindfolded to learn to trust your feet and hands, or learning the first-aid stuff that you really hope you’ll never have to learn, or even just learning to cook safely or to follow good environmental practice out in the woods. These are the pleasures which one banks in one’s memory, and seeks to draw down in moments of misery.

But the moments of misery are ok: I do think that’s part of the lesson. We are the first Jewish generation in a very long while who are growing up in conditions of peace, freedom and great prosperity. Getting out into a deeper connexion with planet earth and each other is both a product of that privilege, and the beginnings of responding to it – leading our people to healthier ways of life, in every sense, and helping us learn about the need to heal the planet as we grow.

Nigel Savage, Feb 2000,