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Finding a Spiritual Home in the Woods

Less than a week later, I compile prayers, poems and meditations into a booklet. We assemble ten friends and relatives for a Rosh Hashanah hike up Bear Mountain and for a short interactive service at a viewpoint just below the summit. Looking at the mountains before us, I find that spiritual place I longed for on one of the highest of holy days. Reciting the Shema brings tears to my eyes. A friend brings his shofar and several passing hikers stop to listen. We conclude with a picnic lunch. The following year there are 15 people. When our Rabbi, Scott Weiner, at Temple Israel of New Rochelle, finds out about our hike, he wants in. Soon, we are leading an annual congregational hike the second day of the holiday. 

Rosh Hashanah resonates with me. There is power in pausing to reflect on what was and to think about what is ahead; to symbolically throw away “sins” (or the bad stuff) and imagine the good stuff of a year beginning anew. And I am not alone. Over time, the number of participants grows. Most recently, we had more than fifty people – ranging from seven to seventy years of age. We change things up and pick different spots in Harriman for the half-day hike. We even added a community Chanukah Havdalah and sunset hike, complete with a campfire and headlamps, and that too is beginning to build traction (traction is also something we supply to participants when the trail gets a little icy).

Hikes begin at the trailhead where everyone introduces themselves and is assigned a number for the periodic shout outs we conduct along the trail ensuring all are accounted for. Participants are asked to put away their cell phones, and mostly they do. Once we get going, Ira picks a few leaves and stems – maybe wintergreen and black birch – to point out the differences in smell. If we are lucky we find the last holdouts of the blueberry season to snack on. We find rocks containing iron ore which reminds us of the area’s historic mining activity and take out a compass to show its magnetic properties. The kids are mesmerized and start collecting their own rock samples, excitedly holding them against our compass to see if they can get the needle to move. There are streams to cross and a few small rock scrambles to make it over. 

As the day goes on there develops a multigenerational synergy as young and old connect, each challenged by the experience in a different way. When we point out a location where we spotted a bear the week before, folks become even more aware of their surroundings. Stopping at the most beautiful point for our service and lunch, challah loaves and grape juice are pulled from backpacks. Rabbi Weiner carries a small Torah scroll and holds it up against a mountain backdrop during the service he leads. The day ends at a lake with an ‘environmentally friendly’ Tashlich service, casting stones into the water as the final prayers of the day are recited.  

These are truly the days of awe as we sing and pray amidst the most majestic of scenery. We use the prayer booklet I created that first year and everyone takes a turn reading. The sound of the shofar echoing in the mountains brings me back to ancient times. Passing hikers still stop to listen. The moment is exactly what I was hoping for. On this holy day, the widest of tents opens, beckoning all to enter its spiritual home.

Karen Bloom is an avid four-season hiker who enjoys introducing others to the great outdoors.  She loves to write about her experiences on and off the trail.  By profession, Karen is co-owner of Fund Up, a boutique consulting company advising non profits on how to find and raise more money through a personalized approach to fund development.