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Finding God in the Wilderness

Hiking the Appalachian Trail—once before Tisha B’Av—taught me the essence of observance

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Camp Lessons

Between color wars and singalongs, some Jewish camps include Holocaust education in Tisha B’Av programming. What does that mean for Jewish identity?

I hobbled into the campsite that night, and found a friendly father and son on vacation from Cologne. Having had only brief interactions with other hikers up to this point, I was eager to converse. As we talked and shared stories, bonded over our love of nature and swapped recommendations of our favorite trails around the world, I noticed a citronella candle sticking out of the father’s cooking kit. Though nervous that I would bring a cloud over our happy campsite by having to explain to them what day of the Hebrew calendar it was, I hesitantly asked if I might be able to borrow the candle for the night.

Maybe he had already guessed I was Jewish and was somehow aware of the significance of the day. Or maybe he just thought I had an overwhelming fear of bugs. Either way, he handed me the candle and told me to use it however long I’d like, then turned back to his meal. I lit the candle and closed my eyes.

Though I tried to keep the images of the Holocaust in my mind as long as I could, I found that my thoughts kept carrying me back to my personal predicament. It struck me that, just as I’d done 13 years earlier, I was allowing the pain and discomforts I felt to dictate my spiritual and emotional being. I’d convinced myself that by wallowing in my personal difficulties, I was somehow connecting with the endless tapestry of Jewish suffering, commemorating their pain through my own self-immolation. But the reality was as self-pitying and immature as my previous attempts.

I decided from that point forward, I would spare as little mental or emotional energy as possible on my own difficulties. Instead, I would offer joy to the community of nature around me, emulating the Ramah energy that I loved as a teenager. The world seemed to change at once, as suddenly the cries of pain and fear from inside were drowned out by the natural beauty resonating all around me.

I knew then that I would complete my journey. When my eyes opened, I soaked in the beauty all around me, as if seeing it for the first time. Then I smiled, turned back to my camp mates, and continued our conversation deep into the night. As I sat at the camp table with these bubbling, energetic Germans, who radiated back at me the joy I felt and recaptured that day, alone yet not alone in the deep wilderness of southern Virginia, far from home and everyone I loved but loved all the same, it felt only natural.


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Christopher Reiger says:

Having just returned from some solitary time in the Catskills (during which I wrestled with how to usher in Shabbat sans accoutrements), I especially appreciated this read. Thank you.

Joe smyth says:

Thanks for the memory. As a Pacific Crest Trail walker, prayer, and the occasional shared meal went a long way over the months I traveled.
I may have been the only one out there with a prayer shawl. A fabulous experience. A reminder of solitude and shared experience !


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Finding God in the Wilderness

Hiking the Appalachian Trail—once before Tisha B’Av—taught me the essence of observance

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