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Take it outside: Orthodox Jews with a hankering for nature are organizing strictly kosher adventure trips

by Johanna Ginsberg / NJJN Staff Writer / 04.12.07
Phil Lehman, a retired computer salesman living in Silver Spring, Md., desperately wanted an adventure in the Grand Canyon – hiking the South Rim, rafting down the Colorado.

But as an Orthodox Jew, he wasn't sure he would be able to do more than gawk at the natural wonders and beat it back to the nearest city in time for Shabbat.

"Without kosher food and stopping for Shabbos, I would not be able to do it," he said.

So he contacted Outdoors Unlimited, which runs rafting trips down the canyon. Together, they're organizing a white water rafting trip down the Colorado River with a hike in the canyon this June. Outdoors Unlimited is handling logistics and equipment; Lehman is recruiting the participants and coordinating the kashrut aspects.

He's even investigated the possibility of bringing a Torah scroll. Despite limited advertising, word got out, and people are signing up from New England, Maryland, even out West.

First there was the Burning Bush Adventures: Judaism in the Wilderness – Reform Rabbi Howard A. Cohen, a former Outward Bound leader, offering Jewish life-cycle events in the Vermont woods.

Then there was the Adventure Rabbi in Colorado – Reform Rabbi Jamie Korngold running Jewish trips out West. Huppa on top of the mountain, anybody?

And now, make way for outdoor adventure travel for Orthodox Jews. They are joining outdoor clubs, leading hikes, and taking on rugged terrain in unprecedented numbers. Some, like Lehman, are linking individual efforts with established secular companies; others have started companies to serve the observant market.

David Brotsky of Elizabeth has been leading hikes for about 10 years through his organization, Dave Trek Adventures. He has taken along Torah scrolls and he davens in the woods whenever there's a minyan. He said he often finds himself introducing people to the outdoors, encouraging them to try backpacking for the first time, and offering guidance.

"I like helping people get into this stuff. Often people have never gone hiking before," he said. "When we go backpacking, I'm very paternalistic. I want to make sure people understand what's involved. I make sure they hear what I'm saying, and I tell them which stores to go to."

But, said the 40-year-old attorney, fewer people are surprised to know that there are more observant-friendly backpacking treks, compared to 10 years ago.

When he traveled around the world several years ago, Brotsky had plenty of hits on the blog he wrote about the trip and fielded lots of questions about how he managed Shabbat and kashrut.

The Orthodox outdoor world is still small, acknowledged Alon Krausz of Teaneck, who runs the Jewish Outdoor Club, which offers outdoor adventures to the Modern Orthodox in the metropolitan New York area.

"I know all the players," said Krausz.

He organizes everything from light hikes to serious backpacking adventures.

JOC's 1,930 members make it the largest such club in the country. Krausz has been running hikes for about 10 years, but it's only in the last few years that the numbers have exploded, he said.

"There are a lot more Jewish people looking to get outdoors," he said.

That's in part because, he suggested, people find spirituality outdoors. "When you're on top of a mountain and you look down at the view, it's impossible not to feel God," he said.

The growth in involvement is also due to the accessibility that e-mail and Internet technology offer, he said, combined with a general trend in the secular world. The Adventure Travel Trade Association says adventure travel is the fastest-growing segment of the travel industry.

Adventure travel that meets the strict kashrut and Shabbat observance guidelines of frum Jews isn't so easy, however. Established outfitters like Outdoors Unlimited or educational organizations like the National Outdoor Leadership School don't generally offer trips that accommodate Orthodox needs. But they are learning.

Love and fear

Jordan Rosenberg, another Orthodox outdoor enthusiast, said he believes day schools could benefit from outdoor education and wants to create a cadre of trained religious leaders with outdoor certification. He is working with NOLS to offer, for the third time, a monthlong training for Jewish educators in conjunction with Walking on the Way, an organization he recently founded to provide outdoor Jewish experiences.

Rosenberg, 26, an educator and rabbinical student at Yeshiva University's Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, hails from Pittsburgh. He views the outdoors as a potent educational tool in the yeshiva world as well as for the more marginally affiliated.

In the religious world, he said, the outdoors offers a place for students to make choices and become more conscious of the religious acts that may become rote in familiar settings.

"There's not so much space for that in a day school," he said.

And for the marginally affiliated, the outdoors offers a venue to connect to tradition by connecting to creation.

"So much in Judaism requires so much knowledge," Rosenberg said. "Walking into a synagogue is so loaded; walking in the outdoors is totally different."

He also said that the outdoors enables people to access both love for God and fear of God (ahava and yirah), two ends of the spectrum of religious consciousness as described by the medieval sage Maimonides.

"In my experience working with kids, when you're outdoors you access both ends," said Rosenberg. "For ahava – it's what a wonderful hike is, so natural, so sacred in these woods. And at the same time, there's yirah – I feel like a tiny speck, an infinitesimal being in the grand cosmos thundering over my head. I feel terrified."

Despite all the enthusiasm, the rugged path can be lonely for the observant outdoor enthusiast. Heshy Fried, outdoorsman, yeshiva bochur, and writer of the blog Frum Outdoorsman, generally goes it alone.

"I wouldn't want to be part of a big group," said the 25-year-old private investigator in Albany. But when he wants company, it isn't so easy to find. He defines himself as "hard core" and said, "People are willing to do it, but only to an extent. Girls want to do nature hikes, but they hear 500 miles and backpacking – it's another story."

He added, "It's much tougher to find people doing the extreme stuff than people who will do tame hikes or bird-watching."

Krausz described a similar phenomenon at the Jewish Outdoor Club. "The rugged trips are hard to sell. When we stay at a decent lodge, I get a better response than when it's backpacking for four days. People still want showers, bathrooms, and nice meals. By and large, we're not quite there."

He added, "People want a taste of the outdoors. We're in the middle of a change, a place where people are thinking about getting rough and tough and moving beyond exploring cities and museums."

In fact, those business models that are succeeding fall more into the luxury category, like Kosher Expeditions, which offers trips to places like Costa Rica, Yellowstone National Park, and the Canadian Rockies as well as African safaris. Trips include hiking, biking, rafting, and the like and generally include upscale or luxury lodging.

Meanwhile, Rosenberg acknowledged, so far he hasn't filled his NOLS trip despite opening it to Jews across the spectrum. Lehman's trip is not yet full either. And one extreme outfitter offering kosher, shomer Shabbat trips known as Extreme Jews did not make it. Krausz speculated that it was ahead of its time.

Fried said his blog doesn't get a lot of traffic – about 25 hits a day but sometimes reaching 100. By comparison, his more popular blog, frumsatire.com, averages 1,000 hits a day. He can't figure out why. "I think it is the ultimate in frumkeit [religiosity] – you get to do things that are 100 percent kosher while being surrounded by only God's creations."

Krausz is confident that it will all change soon enough. "It's an idea whose time will come," he said.


Letters to the Editor

RCBC commends club for action on agunot
 

"Not just hiking: Outdoors club joins fight for agunot" (Feb. 22) describes the bold leadership efforts of Alon Krausz, founder and president of a 2000-member outdoors club, who recently led his board of directors in banning from its membership any member who is withholding a get (Jewish divorce) from his (former) spouse. The purpose of this non-profit club is to provide the opportunity for modern Orthodox Jews to get together for fun and adventure in the great outdoors. Nevertheless, Krausz possesses the vision to recognize their opportunity and responsibility to help solve some of the most pressing challenges that confront our community. The members of the board were appalled to learn that one of its members was indeed withholding a get, and therefore took action and instituted this new policy.

The rabbis of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County strongly commend the actions of this club. The problem of recalcitrant spouses who refuse to perform the commandment to terminate their marriage through the traditional get process after being directed to do so by a beis din, in violation of halacha and basic decency to their former spouses, is a recurring one in Jewish life. Rabbis are at the forefront of the battle to procure gittin in such cases, but do not possess sufficient power and influence to resolve this difficulty independently. Communal pressure then becomes the strongest form of influence available to us. However, it can be effective only if the entire community is united. Many synagogues have instituted similar bans, excluding any such people from membership and participating in synagogue services and activities. Moreover, rallies are organized to protest these actions of these individuals. These efforts greatly depend upon communal support from the lay community. Rallies are only effective if people attend and boycotts only work if people follow them.

It would certainly be appropriate if their peers shunned such people socially by, e.g., not inviting them to meals, smachot, other celebrations, social outings, or even the local softball league. We are therefore gratified to see the responsibility taken by the leadership of the Jewish Outdoors Club in instituting its own ban. This type of initiative greatly strengthens the cause for which we are all working. We strongly endorse the actions of this club, and encourage others to follow suit.

Rabbi Meier Brueckheimer, Executive Vice President,Rabbinical Council
of Bergen County


Not just hiking: Outdoors Club joins fight for agunot
By Lois Goldrich | Published 02/22/2007

When Teaneck resident Alon Krausz and fellow members of the Jewish Outdoors Club head for the hills, chances are they model good techniques in rappelling, hiking, mountain climbing, and the many other activities the group routinely enjoys.

But 32-year-old Krausz, founder and president of the group, wants to model behavior of a different kind. Last week, the organization, whose members hail primarily from New York and New Jersey, voted to ban from membership any male who is withholding a get, or document of Jewish divorce.

Krausz, who has seen the 11-year-old organization grow — primarily through word of mouth — from an informal collection of 50 or so members to a full-fledged organization with a mailing list of 2000 and a 20-member board of directors, said he hopes the action will send a message not only to the club’s own members but to other organizations as well.

"We hope it will raise awareness," said the author of the new policy, noting that some other outdoors groups are now considering a similar measure. Krausz said he was inspired by a piece in which the author urged organizations to take strong action on agunot ("chained women" whose husbands refuse to grant them a religious bill of divorce) — an area in which the rabbinic community is widely perceived as having fallen short.

As reported in last week’s Jewish Standard, in the worst cases, husbands have refused to grant religious divorces to their wives for years, sometimes issuing the documents only in exchange for sizable ransoms. While in the United States there is some recourse for these women through various rabbinic courts and civil laws, in Israel there has been a steadfast refusal to address the problem.

Krausz, chairman of the math department at SAR High School in Riverdale, N.Y., said the Jewish Outdoors Club, which he created to provide a recreational venue for Shabbat-observant, kosher Jews, schedules about five activities a month. "There was a need for this kind of organization," he said, noting that a large number of young Jews lead an observant lifestyle. And whether the scheduled activity is hang-gliding or snowmobiling, members — who range in age from 21 to 45 — generally fill up available slots within 48 hours, said Krausz.

"When I realized how our numbers had grown, I knew we had a unique opportunity to perform tikkun olam, fix up the world," said Krausz, pointing out that the group had been called twice in the past by women whose husbands refused to grant them gets. "We took the men’s names off our mailing list," he said, but he added that the goal of the new policy "is not to remove names from our lists but to pick up where the rabbis have left off and raise awareness."

"We hope others will follow suit," he said, adding that he has received a "phenomenal" response since sending out an e-mail announcing the group’s decision. "I received 75 to 100 e-mails in 48 hours, all but one of them extremely positive."

The e-mail — framed after consulting attorneys, the Jewish Feminist Alliance, and an organization for agunot in Israel — was carefully worded, said Krausz. The new policy states that "[a]ny man who is considered to be withholding a get will be removed from the e-mail list of the Jewish Outdoors Club and banned from all JOC events until the get is granted" and that "[a] man is considered to be withholding a get if a civil divorce or separation action has been filed more than 12 months ago, and a get has not been given."

Krausz said he hopes the community as a whole will be inspired to make the "heinous issue of agunot a primary cause."

"When you send an e-mail to 2,000 people, you are making a bold statement. The issue isn’t just for rabbis and for the [Jewish] leadership," he said. "Everyone must do their part to help. We hope this will be a trigger point."


Celebrate Spring with Jewish Outdoors Club's 6th Anniversary

By Alexandra Cooper / Blueprint, April 2003

What are the chances for romance if you're sweaty, dirty and gasping for breath after finishing a four-hour hike? According to Alon Krausz, founder of the Jewish Outdoors Club (JOC), better than you might think.

The club already has four marriages to its credit. But even if love isn't in the air for hikers, excitement might be. The club "quenches my thirst for adventure, as it does for other JOC adrenaline junkies," said Krausz.

Since its inception in 1996, the JOC has grown from a small group of hiking-enthusiast friends to a mailing list of over 800 people with activities ranging from ice climbing to river rafting. Krausz realized his gatherings filled a void on the Upper West Side when, in 1997, he organized a hike through Kehilat Orach Eliezer. 60 people attended and after creating a mailing list, the club expanded to its current size entirely through word of mouth.

The primary purpose of the JOC is "to bring Jews to experience and appreciate the great outdoors," according to Krausz. A secondary, but just as important, objective is to serve as an informal setting for people to meet.

While the typical JOC member is single, between the ages of 20 and 35 and Modern Orthodox, the group does not promote a particular agenda. "I believe that everyone experiences the outdoors in a unique and personal way," Krausz explained. "Anyone and everyone is welcome."

Generally, his groups consist of a balance of singles from Manhattan and surrounding areas including New Jersey, Westchester, and beyond. Some members travel from as far as Philadelphia and Buffalo to attend events. Krausz himself is married and lives in Riverdale. "We're just a fun group of people looking to have a good time and make > friends," he said.

In the past, the JOC has sponsored events such as biking, camping and caving, as well as more exotic activities like hang-gliding, snowmobiling and skydiving. With an outing about every month, the JOC's schedule for this spring includes paintball, whitewater rafting, several hikes and kayaking. To celebrate the organization's sixth anniversary, a weekend retreat is being planned for May.

Though Krausz plans the majority of JOC events, any member can initiate an outing. Also, unlike other Jewish outdoors and environmental groups, Krausz leads JOC activities according to the laws of Shabbat and kashrut. But, he stressed, "Denomination isn't as important as personality."

"People who are fun-loving, easy-going, and good-natured usually fit right in."

The road to happiness, however, does not always go smoothly. In the group's earlier days, Krausz once led a ten-person hike that wandered off the trail, lost for 12 hours. On another outing, a woman broke her nose walking into a tree. Several years ago, a group of ten went snowmobiling in Vermont, and a total of three snowmobiles crashed. And when a planned rafting trip was snowed out, the participants took a detour to the local casino.

"If you're the kind of person who needs everything to be perfect, JOC isn't for you," joked Krausz. Still, he counts almost every JOC outing as a success. "Even if the event itself or the conditions are only so-so, the people really make it great."

"The people are friendly and down-to-earth," said Tamar Shuldiner, an Upper West Sider active in the JOC who echoed Krausz' sentiment. Since conditions in the great outdoors can be unpredictable, the easy-going, good nature of the group comes in handy. Both Shuldiner and Krausz took part in a recent weeklong trip to Utah. Driving along the steep, muddy back roads was so rough, the group needed to be rescued by a park ranger. "We make plenty of wrong turns," said Krausz, "but we have a ton of fun doing it."

Because the group does not operate for profit, JOC's admission charges are low--activities are priced to only cover general expenses. Costs generally range from $2.00 for hikes to $105 for ice climbing. Most outings are booked to capacity. There is a limit of 50 people per hike, and according to Krausz, "they always fill up within 48 hours."

For information on joining the Jewish Outdoors Club, or more on the organization, visit the group's website at http://jewishoutdoorsclub.com.



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