It’s Only Natural: The Powerful Connection of Jewish Spirituality in the Great Outdoors

One of my favorite presentations at Judaism 2030 from Rabbi Mike Comins – OG

by Rabbi Michael Comins

Have you ever met anyone who read a book in a library and then decided that God exists? Have you ever heard a person say, “I go to Shabbat services because I want to say my theology out loud, with the same words I used last week?”

People get to God, if they get to God, because of God-moments, not God-concepts. While the ideas in prayer are important, it is the experience of prayer – facilitated by poetry, music, introspection and community – that moves people. Words like “transcendence,” “heart” and “connection” are used to describe meaningful services, not “intellectually satisfying.”

More Spiritual Dynamics, Less Theology

As Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shlomi puts it, “Theology is the afterthought of the believer.” That’s why the most influential theological writers of our time begin with lived experience. Buber speaks of I-thou, Heschel of wonder and awe, Soloveitchik of the experience of faith. They describe the spiritual dynamics of encountering the Divine in great detail, and largely ignore philosophical discussions on the why and what of God in favor of exploring the how and the who.

Instead of theological speculation about God, we can ask, what makes some moments transcendent, how do we get more of them, and what do we do with them? Regarding prayer, we can talk less about what happens on God’s end and more about what makes prayer work on our end. Instead of “why do bad things happen to good people,” and other insoluble dilemmas, we can ask, what makes for a good prayer session, how do I uncover my heart’s truest yearnings, how do I put those yearnings into words, and how does prayer help me cope with loss?

Involving the Body

When I’m thinking conceptually, doing math, speaking analytically, or writing prose, as I am right now, the neurons are firing on the left side of my brain. When I’m playing the guitar, biking, drawing, standing in awe before a sunset or responding to injustice – in other words, when I’m emoting, creating art, thinking intuitively, exercising or otherwise living in the present with awareness primarily on my senses – more synapses are firing in the right brain. For most people, most of the time, God-moments happen when we’re in right brain consciousness.

But what happens when we enter a synagogue service? We open a book and start reading. We activate the left side.

Fortunately, we have an incredible way of putting the words of the Siddur into our hearts. That way is music. Little wonder that today most liberal synagogues have a full fledged band on staff or that the most popular synagogues and minyanim have turned their services into one continuous song.

Why does music stimulate the right brain and transform the worship experience? Because it engages the body.

Our bodies are intimately involved with our emotions and our feelings. If you want to know how someone is feeling or whether they are telling the truth, do you give more weight to their words or to their facial expressions? And while our minds have many subterfuges, our bodies rarely lie.

So the more we inhabit our bodies, the better our chances of having a God-moment. It’s not surprising that Yoga, most styles of meditation and other body practices continue to gain in popularity. It’s not surprising that traditional Jews shuckle with fervor, or that the singing of a niggun (a wordless melody) is central to Chasidic practice, or that so many Reform Rabbis are songleaders.

Nor is it surprising that we outdoor Jewish educators get credit just for doing the same service or Torah study in nature that we usually do under a synagogue roof. On a trail, your senses are already engaged, your attention is focused on the present, and your vision is not limited to the familiar (the sanctuary) or the two-dimensional (prayer book). Getting to a God-moment is much easier from there.

But why settle for what you can do elsewhere? There is so much more that Jewish educators can and should do in the natural world.

The Unique Classroom that is Wild Nature

To understand why nature is the world’s greatest classroom for teaching the Jewish educator’s most difficult subjects, God and prayer, we turn to Abraham Joshua Heschel. His magnum opus on Jewish belief, God in Search of Man, begins with an extended treatment of wonder and awe.

The Hebrew word yirah, writes Heschel, refers to both “fear” and “awe.” What, he asks, is the difference? If a lightening storm is about to descend on us, a healthy response would be to get as far away as possible. But if we can safely watch, we are attracted. We want to get close. We somehow know that genuine living, and its meaning, are found here.

Awe is a composite term. Think of the most awesome event you know. Most say child-birth. What makes it awesome? We are lost in a swirl of emotions caused by danger and beauty, by being so close to the great mystery of life and death. Somehow, in moments like this, we intuit that this life has importance, that we are called to serve life, and that the source of this call is deep within this world, and somehow beyond it.

This, writes Heschel, is what leads us to God.

Awe precedes faith; it is at the root of faith. We must grow in awe in order to reach faith. We must be guided by awe to be worthy of faith. Awe rather than faith is the cardinal attitude of the religious Jew (italics in the original; A. J. Heschel, God in Search of Man [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1955] p. 77).

Nature is the everyday home of wonder, the place where most people regularly and reliably experience awe. You can’t walk down a trail without seeing beauty and decay, the pulse of life and the reality of death. Suddenly the question of God is compelling to the most non-religious of people. Suddenly expressing gratitude through prayer makes sense, and the introspective process of teshuvah is easier in a place where the usual routines and habits no longer apply. There is no better place to teach the spiritual dynamics of Judaism.

Jewish education has greatly improved in recent years due to the out-of-the-box thinking of educators and funders. We would do well to think out-of-the-building as well.

Rabbi and Israeli desert guide, Mike Comins is founder of TorahTrek Center for Jewish Wilderness Spirituality.

This article is from a series prepared by presenters at Judaism2030: A Working Conference for a Vibrant Jewish Future.


How We Spent Our Sundays With ‘Weekend Edition’s’ Liane Hansen : NPR

After 22 years hosting Weekend Edition Sunday, Liane Hansen’s last show is May 29. We’re remembering some of our favorite moments with her and want to hear yours, too. Got a special Liane memory? Share it with us in the comments section below and we may add it to this timeline!

Our Favorite Moments From Weekend Edition Sunday

Credit: Thomas Pierce, Ned Wharton and Melisa Goh

A Super Conference – Creativity, Play, and the Imagination across Disciplines

Creare – v. Latin. The act of creating; to make, to produce,
to give birth to new meaning.

“A path is made by walking on it.” Chuang Tsu

In the spirit of Creativity, Play, and the Imagination, this interdisciplinary conference seeks to bring together educators, artists, scholars, and game-makers from all disciplines to reflect on and experience creativity as a central site for learning and everyday living.

By providing a space for participants to come together and share creative practices, processes, and products, the conference aims to facilitate creative discovery and promote interdisciplinary collaborations so vital to expanding our perspectives. To this end, this conference seeks to blend theory and practice, as Wallace Stevens wrote of poems, “‘not ideas about the thing but the thing itself,’ part of the world and not about it.” In exploring content and concept, the conference will be a forum for constructing. Rather than flat, one-directional presentations of information, this conference places an emphasis on a dialogue among people and an interaction of ideas across disciplines in order to bring forth new possibilities. This then embodies the notion of creativity which requires imagination, an openness for possibilities or as Maxine Greene (2007) says, “a passion for possibilities – what might be, what could be” (2). It also involves play, a space to explore possibilities.

The conference is organized in conjunction with Game Show NYC, an art exhibition of games that expands the concept of an art show by making the enjoyment of art an active and educative experience (see for more details). By orchestrating this conversation between conference and exhibition, we envision an intersection and interaction of people and events that will continue to grow and bring forth new possibilities long after the events themselves are concluded.

Creativity, Play, and the Imagination will be held from May 26 through May 28, 2011 at Teachers College, Columbia University – 525 W. 120th St. New York, NY 10027.

A Call for Jewish Education Through Gaming and Game Design | eJewish Philanthropy: Your Jewish Philanthropy Resource

by Rabbi Owen Gottlieb

What will “Jewish” look like as today’s new media evolves into tomorrow’s new media? Learners are increasingly Gamers, Designers, and Builders (Tinkerers). New media landscapes allow learners to develop and hone their affinities, teach themselves, and mentor their virtual peers. They collaborate in problem solving online and offline, and their design skills are increasingly important. How does the formation of identity morph as game spaces allow us, through role-play, to try on a variety of new possible selves? What do Jewish educators and leaders need to know as print shifts to digital, the role of teachers increasingly becomes that of guide, and games become a new language of learning?

In the secular world, Games for Learning are receiving a great deal of attention. This inter-disciplinary set of pursuits combines the learning sciences, media studies, design, performance studies, linguistics, and other fields. In particular, Games for STEM Learning (STEM refers to Science, Technology Engineering, and Math) have received attention from the White House and funding from MacArthur Foundation, AMD, Microsoft, and others. But Games for Learning reach beyond STEM (now, some add an “A” to STEM to make STEAM – adding “Art” to the mix.) Games for Learning are being built to teach civics (Sandra Day OConnor’s, environmental awareness, and social entrepreneurship ( and its student designers). The 2010 Education issue of the New York Times Magazine featured the cover story “Video Games Win a Beachhead in the Classroom,” which discussed the New York City public school Quest to Learn, dedicated to Game-based curriculum, and New York University’s Games For Learning Institute. Idit Harel Caperton’s organization, Globaloria, has spread digital game design classes through public schools in Texas and West Virigina, teaching computer programming to students. Games for Learning and “Serious” Games are expanding in secular educational settings, as they demonstrate the power to engage and teach.

It is a crucial time for Jewish philanthropy to turn to Games for Learning. 97% of today’s youth are digital gamers, and with the proliferation of the iPhone, Android, iPad, and other tablets, games are becoming ubiquitous among adults as well – on subways of NYC and on table tops as gamers enjoy more complex board and card games at home and at parties. To date, no Game for Jewish Learning (based on Learning Science principles) is available for the iPhone or iPad. There are those of us who have the skills to make these games a reality and want to make them happen – to bring knowledge of the learning sciences to bear on the next generation of Jewish education, but to tailor such games to Jewish subjects and audiences, we need support from the Jewish philanthropic community.

In my presentation at the Jewish Outreach Institute’s Judaism2030 Conference, I will present the emerging disciplines of Serious Games and Games for Learning. I will draw connections between current Games for Learning endeavors and the potential they can bring to Jewish education, identity formation, and community in the years to come. And for those who miss the conference, this is a conversation I hope to spread within the larger Jewish community. Let The Jewish Learning Games Begin!

Rabbi Owen Gottlieb is a Jim Joseph Fellow and PhD Candidate in Education and Jewish Studies at NYU, specializing in Digital Media and Learning. He is the Founder and Director at ConverJent. ConverJent is dedicated to the development of Jewish Games for Learning, teaching Game Design for Jewish Learning, and bringing together a community of Jewish game designers with Jewish educators and leaders.

This article is from a series prepared by presenters at Judaism2030: A Working Conference for a Vibrant Jewish Future.


Reality-TV Producer Mark Burnett Tackles the Bible (NYTimes)

In what Mr. Burnett is calling the “most important project I have ever undertaken,” he has made a deal with the History Channel to mount a 10-hour series based on the stories of the Bible. The project, which History will announce on Tuesday, is expected to be on a similar scale to its most ambitious work, “America: The Story of Us.”

That 12-part series, covering the 400-year history of America and broadcast last year, was closer to the fare typically seen on the History Channel. But Nancy Dubuc, the president of History, said the historical importance of the Bible is beyond dispute.

“This is the most discussed, debated book in the history of mankind,” said Ms. Dubuc, whose channel has tackled other religious projects, like “Jesus: The Lost 40 Days” and “The Real Face of Jesus?”

She added, “What the book has come to represent, and the power of it and the importance of it is itself history.”

“The Bible” will not be a documentary representation; it will be a scripted, acted drama. That represents a departure for Mr. Burnett, the man behind hit shows like “Survivor,” “The Apprentice” (where Omarosa Manigault Stallworth appeared as a contestant) and “The Voice.”


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Rabbi Gottlieb presents at Judaism 2030 | A working conference for a vibrant Jewish future



Join us as we:

  • Chart a course for an optimistic Jewish future;
  • Identify future trends that will impact our community;
  • Determine practical steps we can take today to address those trends;
  • And better position our organizations and institutions for the future.

Keynote speaker

What The Future Will Look Like (And Where We Might Fit In)
Dr. Marvin Cetron is one of the preeminent forecaster-futurists in the world and has consulted for 400 of the Fortune 500 firms, including General Motors, IBM, Best Western, and Capital One; more than 100 government agencies, among them the CIA, the TSA, and the NSA; and served as an advisor to the White House for every administration from the time of John Kennedy through the Clinton years.
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Join us for the Conference. I will be presenting on Jewish Games for Learning and Jewish Community of the Future along side Dan Sieradski who will present on Transhumanism!