Under a cope of twinkling stars, University of Tennessee student Joshua Crowley ’23 and eight other students held a Havdalah service on Feb. 22 in the Smoky Mountains. Together they swayed in a circle and recited prayers as they sipped wine from a Kiddush cup and smelled the sweet ceremonial spices of cinnamon and cloves.
The students were from different Jewish backgrounds. Most of them didn’t even know each other well before their trip to the Smokies.
The service was part of a Shabbaton organized by Hillel at University of Tennessee, Knoxville. The weekend experience also included hiking in the mountains, creating mosaics of Israel and discussions about Judaism.
“We’re all able to be Jewish,” Crowley said, adding that the outdoors provided a space for the group to bond and explore their Jewishness together. “Out in the middle of nowhere, there’s nothing to do but talk.”
Hillel at UTK is one of more than 10 Hillels close to nature that are creating Jewish experiences in the rugged outdoors. Stretching from the mountains of Vermont to the shores of California, these Hillels are using their natural surroundings to cater to the adventurous spirits of their students.
Many of these students, who are self-described “nature lovers,” value their connection with the natural world. Judaism also values that connection.
For instance, the concept l'vadah ul'shamrah, meaning “to till and to tend,” encourages people to become stewards of the earth. There’s also Bal Tashkit, which forbids unnecessary destruction of the environment.
Because there are many Jewish values relating to nature, students have opportunities to energize their connection with Judaism while doing outdoor activities they enjoy.
At Hillel for University of Utah, the Snow and Desert Shabbaton includes activities related to Judaism and Israel. Last year, participants compared the Dead Sea with the Great Salt Lake, pointing out similarities and differences between the ecosystems.
They used microscopes to inspect the Great Salt Lake, comparing their findings of particles and minuscule species with Israeli water sources, like the Mediterranean Sea and the Dead Sea.
For Good Deeds Day, a global celebration dedicated to helping others and the planet, Utah students volunteered at a no-kill shelter. They weeded dog yards, cleaned grime from markers in a pet cemetery and discussed tzaar b'alei chayim, the Jewish commandment that prohibits animal cruelty.
Hillel president and University of Utah student Eli Wolk ’21 said because Hillel for Utah largely operates outdoors, it appeals to adventurous students who might not otherwise be engaged. The variety of Hillel programs help Jewish students, who comprise less than 1% of the undergraduate student population at University of Utah, explore their Judaism and nature simultaneously.
“We’re tight knit, and because of that, we’re growing,” Wolk said.
For Oregon Hillel, having programs outside of the confines of the Hillel space isn’t a field trip — it’s a way of life.
One of its most popular programs, known as Retreat in the Snow, attracts roughly 80 students for a weekend of skiing and Judaism in Bend, Oregon. A featured event during one of the winter retreats included a mock shuk for students to learn more about Israeli culture. They were given fake shekels to buy items, including Israeli chocolates.
When the weather is warmer, a group of about 20 female students from Oregon Hillel stay near the beach for a weekend retreat on the Pacific Coast during Rosh Chodesh. During these annual retreats, women have engaged in conversations about topics such as the #MeToo movement and body image.
The women ring in Shabbat with a service atop a balcony overlooking the ocean.
“It’s a space to congregate as women, like Jewish women have been for years,” said Sara Birch ’21, who attends University of Oregon. “People benefit from the energy and space we’re creating. I like that time because I feel really connected to the other women, even if I’ve never met them before.”
University of Southern California Hillel organizes a similar Shabbat experience on the beaches of Santa Monica during the High Holidays. Last year’s event was the first to include meditation, led by student Aliya Swanger ’22, who serves as co-vice president of wellness at USC Hillel.
Swanger said mediation allowed students to reduce stress and improve their mindset for the coming year. The session reflected the Jewish emphasis on wellness and the interconnectivity of the mind, body and soul. Maimonides, a medieval Jewish physician and scholar, describes this in his writings.
“I think especially because our generation spends a lot of time on our phones, it’s easy to forget we live in such an amazing state,” Swanger said.
To celebrate the High Holidays at University of Vermont Hillel, students paddle kayaks onto Lake Champlain to perform tashlich, the practice of throwing breadcrumbs into water to cast away transgressions for the new year. The program, known as Kayak Tashlich, encourages students to create personal connections with Jewish traditions through nature.
At University of Colorado at Boulder Hillel, CU Mountain Jews connects students with their Jewish roots through physical activities.
The club’s inaugural event on Oct. 19 involved rock climbing, drawing roughly 30 students. Strapped in harnesses, the students ascended the rock face and grasped for puzzle pieces taped onto the bumpy wall.
Each piece detailed a fact about Israel, such as Israel was the birthplace of voicemail. Together, the puzzle pieces offered students a glimpse of Israel, encouraging them to discuss their relationships with the country.
Tania Blanga ’22, who started CU Mountain Jews, said activities such as rock climbing are opportunities to have fun and learn.
She hopes that future events for the newly formed club will include a Havdalah hike and discussion about how many opt in and out of certain Jewish practices and how that affects each person.
“Jews can meet Jews while being outside,” Blanga said. “I want people to say, ‘I hiked this really great glacier, but I also had this really great conversation. I want it to be a jumping off point to what Hillel has to offer.”
Story written by Monica Sager.