The with-luck-not-too-lonely woman of faith
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The with-luck-not-too-lonely woman of faith

Local hiker joins love of Judaism and wilderness to create walking adventures 

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A group climbs a trail in Pyramid Mountain HIstoric Area in Boonton.

When you think of the words “wild” and “New Jersey,” you might think of bloated, run-amok politicians, or Sopranos in driveways or diners, or cement-shod bodies tossed under the Meadowlands. It is, after all, the country’s most densely populated state, and better known for the stadium than for actual, you know, meadowlands.

But New Jersey also is home to natural beauty, to wild animals and rattlesnakes, to gravity-defying geological formations, and to part of the Appalachian Trail, as well as to abandoned iron mines, crumbling old mansions, and other human-made artifacts decaying back into nature.

If you look at the maps put out by the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, sturdily and colorfully printed on a rip-proof, paper-like material called Tyvek – because it is meant to be used by serious hikers on real trails – you will see that the northern part of this state, beginning in western Bergen County and going west from there, is full of parks that are ringed with hiking trails. Just to their north, Rockland, Ulster, and Sullivan counties in New York state are similarly rich in accessible but rough trails.

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Shani Abelson holds a box turtle. It is a protected species; Ms. Abelson and her brother found it on a trail and moved it to safety.

Okay, so the trails are there. How do you go about hiking them?

Well, if you are a Jewish woman (actually, you don’t have to be either a woman or even Jewish, really, but the comfort level helps) you can join Shani Abelson of Teaneck as she hikes, guides, and teaches about those trails and what you see as you walk them.

Because Ms. Abelson grew up with an understanding of the north woods, she knows how to see each individual tree, as well as the creatures that live around it. Because she is an Orthodox Jew, both Jewishly educated and spiritually alert, she feels God’s presence there too, she says.

Ms. Abelson grew up in Niskayuna, N.Y., outside Schenectady, in a household that prized intellectual achievement, Yiddishkeit, Jewishness, and nature. It was an unusual mix, created by her parents, both of them unusual people, products both of their time and background and their own personalities and interests.

Ms. Abelson’s mother, Shelley, a retired English teacher, was born in the Bronx and grew up in New Rochelle. Her father was a pharmacist and the son of a pharmacist; he owned Lederman’s Pharmacy on Fordham Road in the Bronx. They were Jewishly connected, active members of the local Conservative shul, Beth El. Ms. Abelson’s father, Shel (yes, she said, her parents really are Shelley and Shel) grew up in Worcester, Mass., a blue-collar town, where his father was a postal carrier. They belonged to an Orthodox shul, and spoke about it with respect, but did not visit it often. Sheldon Abelson was poor but smart; “he says that Jewish boys who were good at math and science became doctors or lawyers,” Ms. Abelson quotes her father. “If they’re poor and good at math and science, they become engineers.” He is an engineer; they live in Schenectady because the town also is home to General Electric.

There happened to be an unusual Jewish day school in Albany, the Bet Shraga Hebrew Academy, created and run by the charismatic Shraga Arian, when Ms. Abelson was a child. Her mother taught there, and when her children were old enough for school, they went there. “When you give your kids a structured Jewish education, you are giving them a fighting chance Jewishly,” she said. “And of course kids bring these experiences home. Let’s do Friday night dinner, let’s go to shul…” The family, which always had kept kosher, became increasingly observant.

There, already, the two main elements of Ms. Abelson’s life – her soul-deep Jewish identity and her joy in the wilderness – were formed and entwined.

Her father is an avid camper, and her mother was not. “She’s from the Bronx,” Ms. Abelson said. Shelley Lederman was attracted by the romance of camping, and of campers. The Abelsons’ first date was in a canoe, “and I thought he was like Thoreau,” she recalls her mother telling her. Still, enough was enough.

So, “my dad was not mindful of gender stuff, and I was the oldest,” Ms. Abelson said. “He used to take me camping and canoeing in the backwoods.” Schenectady is near Albany, toward the head of the Hudson River; it is the state’s capital district, but it also is the gateway to the rugged mountainous country that makes up northern New York. “We would drive roughly 3, 3 ½ hours, for a two- or three-night trip. We’d portage” – they’d carry their canoes around rapids. “There were no bathrooms.

“The Adirondacks have been my father’s campground,” she continued. “In the summer he canoes, and in the winter he walks over the lakes that he canoes on in the summer. He built a toboggan – you have to boil the wood so you can bend it into the frame, and then you treat the wood.”

Her father, who is 75, still is an outdoorsman, she added. “Until very recently he went winter camping in Chibougamou, 1,000 miles north of Montreal.”

As high school loomed, with no local Jewish options available, Ms. Abelson decided that she did not want to go to public school. “My options were New York or Boston, because we were roughly equidistant from them,” she said. “New York looked like a fast lifestyle, so we went to visit the Maimonides school in Boston. The kids there were mainly nerds, children of MIT and Harvard professors.” She loved it. It is not a boarding school, but the principal found her a place to live. “It was with a different family every year. It was a fantastic education,” she said.

After high school Ms. Abelson headed to Barnard; between her junior and senior year she married, and soon after graduation she was pregnant. That marriage did not last – “I was young and stupid,” she said – but she feels no bitterness toward her ex-husband.

It was with that husband and their young son, Zakai, that she first moved to Teaneck, in 1990; in 1994 the family moved to Elizabeth. Eventually, Ms. Abelson and her son moved back to Teaneck.

Fifteen years ago, Ms. Abelson married Jerry Schneider, an accountant who is the CFO of the Henry Kaufman Campgrounds in Pearl River, N.Y. They are the parents of two young sons, Shammai and Hillel.

After they moved to Teaneck, Ms. Abelson started looking around for ways to get outside. She spent some time with the Jewish Outdoors Club, but although she loved it, she found it a bit too daredevil for her tastes. She remembers one of its members, “an adrenaline kind of guy, wire skinny, who had an event where you jumped out of a plane with a huge kite.” It sounds thrilling, but “I don’t think he got anyone to go with him,” she said.

The club is “fantastic,” she said. “It is not a singles group, but it has produced many shidduchim.” That is not accidental. “There is no artifice in the forest. Insects and bears are attracted to scents – why do you want to be more attractive to insects and bears?” In place of artifice there is true feeling, she said.

Ms. Abelson still wanted to hike, and she did not want to hike alone – not only is that less gratifying, it is also actively dangerous. “And I am not exactly a paragon of fitness,” she said ruefully. “The joke in my group is that I am usually the one least in shape. So it’s good that I’m the leader.

“But I said that if I can do this, I can get other women to do it too.”

In 2003, she put a notice on Teaneck Shuls, the local listserv, asking for women who were interested in hiking. “I got a huge response – and then three women actually showed up.”

Why women? “I feel that women in general – and particularly Orthodox women – are reluctant to carve out time for themselves,” she said. “But a human being should have some alone time, some time to consider who you are, and why you are. There is a reason why Soloveitchik wrote a book called ‘Lonely Man of Faith.’

“If a man says, ‘Honey, I’m going to play softball with the guys’ on a Sunday morning, his wife thinks that’s great. But women feel that if they say the same sort of thing, it’s a revolutionary statement.”

The walks the group takes are “moderately paced,” Ms. Abelson said. “In fact, some might say they are glacially paced.

“Adrenaline junkies don’t like my group. I don’t want a fast pace. I want to see and encounter things. I want to see wildlife. I am very into geology, natural history, human history, so when we see an interesting mushroom or rock formation or bark or old mine pit or bird, we stop.

“We learn to identify birds. I am into frogs and snakes, and any time we see one, we stop. If we see a beautiful view, we stop. Or a pond – I like to lob rocks into the pond. You throw it up high, and it comes down and makes a good noise.

“It is not so much about the destination. It is about the journey. The forest is an elemental place. It is a kind of equalizer. It makes other things seems stupid. The forest is uncomplicated, and it is cleansing.”

“Hiking is great for the body, the mind, and the soul,” she said. “Everyone comes home tired and dirty, but refreshed.

It also can be dangerous. Those rattlesnakes? There are two varieties of poisonous rattlesnakes in New Jersey, the eastern timber and the northern copperhead. Also, “we see plenty of bears.” Because we are well east of the Rockies, though, “there are no grizzlies.” Those are the really dangerous ones – they are not called ursus arctos horribilis for nothing. The black bears they see are happy to avoid hikers if they are given the chance.

Hikers face some man-made perils as well. “New Jersey was the iron mining capital of the United States from the Revolutionary War until the Civil War,” Ms. Abelson said. “And we have no old growth forests. They were all cut down to make charcoal for the iron furnaces. That’s why all northern New Jersey forests are second or third growth.” The pits were deep, and although they have been filled in by leaves and other debris over the last century and a half, careless hikers still can tumble in, although they do not fall to the bottom.

And then there are the mysteries. Some are the result of human activity. “Sometimes we will come across an old car from the ’30s,” she said. “Just in the middle of the woods, nowhere near any road. They’re usually stripped. And one time I was in Rockland County and I saw a kid’s bicycle, 20 feet up in the air, in a tree with no branches.” Why? “We have seen old moonshine equipment.” That one, she gets.

Other mysteries are geological. “You see trees growing out of rocks. How does that happen?

“One of the things we often see is glacial erratics. That is a big boulder that is perched in a very unlikely way. Why is it there? How did it get there? At the end of the last ice age, when the glaciers retreated, it was dragged under the ice and then dropped ungracefully.” Pyramid Mountain in Morris County is well known for its glacial erratics, she said.

Ms. Abelson dresses carefully, and advises the other hikers to do so as well. Hiking boots are necessary. Although many of the hikers wear pants, she does not, although she is careful to wear thermal leggings or bicycle shorts underneath her skirts, “and you always have to spray yourself with bug spray,” she said. “There is not a huge market for tzniusdik adventure-wear. I am always on the lookout for it.” She wants skirts that look “like something you’d wear in the ‘Little House on the Prairie’ or on the steppes.” It should be loose but not so loose that it flaps.

“Sometimes I think I was born in the wrong century,” she said. “I should have been born in the 1870s. And camping and hiking is trying to recreate a more primitive, even primal experience.”

The group – the Teaneck Ladies Hiking Club – usually draws six to 10 hikers. She has walked with as many as 11; more, she said, would make the tranquility that is her goal harder to reach. At 46, Ms. Abelson usually is the youngest member, although occasionally teen or even preteen sons or daughters come along as well.

She holds walks just about every other Sunday unless it is a Jewish holiday, over 80 degrees, or otherwise meteorologically unappealing. She picks them from the trail maps – sometimes they are walks she knows, other times they are not, and then she is as surprised by their reality, as opposed to their appearance on the map, as everyone else is.

In order to hike with Ms. Abelson, you have to call her first. She gets a feel for potential hikers – who need not be Orthodox – and discourages or even turns down the ones she knows will not enjoy the walks. They are not fast, but they are not easy either. The long, slow rambles encourage trusting, talking, and eventually sharing; “I have brought people together,” she said.

There is something both profoundly universal and quintessentially Jewish about the experience of being in nature, according to Ms. Abelson. “When you are in the forest, and you behold a beautiful vista – we have a saying, ‘Mah gadlu maasecha Yah’ – ‘How great are your works, Hashem.’ If there is any place to behold God – there is a shul, there is a beit midrash – a study hall – and there is the woods.

“There is a chasidic saying that God is not to be found in the city,” she continued. “Cities in those times were dirty, cramped, uncivil places. You feel God in the woods.”

Ms. Abelson’s group has a Facebook page – go to Facebook and type in Teaneck Ladies Hiking Club. She hopes to offer a walk during the middle of Pesach – April 6, 7, or 8. For information, and to find out if you would like to walk with her, email her at slabelson@gmail.com.

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