Praying in the Woods
I have always loved being outdoors, especially hiking in the woods. There’s something about being outdoors that I find spiritually fulfilling. One of the first gifts that I bought for Lynn – before we were married – was a backpack, so she can’t say she didn’t know what she was getting into. A few months before our wedding, while we were meeting with the rabbi who would be officiating at our wedding, the rabbi was extolling the virtues of joining a synagogue and I asked him, “Why do I need to join a synagogue? I can pray in the woods.” He replied, “Yes, you can. But do you?”
More than twenty years later, our oldest daughter was a counselor at URJ Camp Harlam in Pennsylvania. Lynn and I went up to camp on the Saturday between sessions to visit. It was a beautiful summer day and we left home early in the morning to spend as much of the day as we could with our daughter, including attending a Shabbat morning service at camp. When we got to camp, we learned that the Shabbat morning service would be held in the chapel in the woods, rather than the chapel on the hill. The chapel in the woods is a bit smaller and has a much more intimate feel because it’s in the woods. It has half-log benches and a 3-trunk tree that serves as an ark, holding the Torah scroll. Trees completely surround the area. Lynn and I walked over to the chapel in the woods a little early and sat on one of the benches. It gave me a little time to look around and take it all in. A few minutes later, as the service started, Lynn looked at me and saw that I had tears streaming down my cheeks. She asked me, “What’s wrong?” I could only say “I’m praying in the woods.”
More than twenty years after that Saturday morning, only a few weeks ago from when I’m writing this, Temple Beth Ami had our first Shabbat hike. We went to Sugarloaf Mountain. More than 100 people signed up, and more than 70 came out on a cold November morning to hike Sugarloaf Mountain. Rabbi Weiss had heard me tell the story above once before and asked me to tell it to the group before we started the hike. About an hour after I told the story, I was at the top of Sugarloaf Mountain with tears in my eyes, participating in a Shabbat morning service. I was praying in the woods again.
Based on the feedback we have gotten from that hike, I know we’ll do more of them. I look forward to hiking and praying in the woods, and I hope you and your family will join us on the next one. I am not going to wait another twenty years before praying in the woods again.