Retreat deepens connection to a natural world
When Fair Lawn resident Joe Freedland learned about a GreenFaith retreat offering "a powerful opportunity to experience the most unexplored aspect of the spiritual life in western religion the relationship between the human soul and the natural world," it just "clicked," said the co-chair of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center religious affairs committee.
"I hadn’t had a vacation in seven years and this just felt right," he said. "It was something I needed to do."
The May retreat, "Meeting the Sacred in Creation," was the idea of Rabbi Lawrence Troster, Teaneck resident and rabbinic fellow of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, who serves as the GreenFaith rabbinic scholar.
In ‘001,Troster participated in a wilderness trip to Alaska for Jewish environmentalists. There he met Kurt Hoelting, wilderness guide and Zen Buddhist instructor, and resolved to bring him "back east" to lead a similar group.
The GreenFaith retreat, led by Hoelting with the help of Troster and GreenFaith executive director the Rev. Fletcher Harper, brought 17 rabbis, Christian clergy, and religious lay leaders to the Garrison Institute a renovated Catholic monastery in Garrison, N.Y., in the heart of the Hudson Valley and provided them with periods of deep silence in which to contemplate nature and spirituality.
Each day started with meditation, and meals were eaten in silence. "We had both sitting and walking meditations," says Troster. "We climbed [hills] in silence and had discussions when we reached the top. It was spiritually uplifting and refreshing."
Describing the experience as one of spiritual renewal, Troster says the group also discussed how to incorporate their enhanced environmental awareness into their personal and communal lives.
"The idea is to raise people’s awareness of the connection between spirituality and the natural world," he said. "We can bring this into both worship and programming."
Freeland has long been interested in furthering environmental awareness. Some months ago, he invited Harper who is involved in the "greening" of Temple Israel & Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood to speak on religion and nature at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center.
"The retreat was fantastic, from many points of view," said Freedland. "You have to be into meditation," he added, noting that while he had little experience with it before the retreat, he was always open to it.
"You learn to relax and focus inward," he said, "and meditations outside create more of a connection to nature and make you more aware of your human and personal place in nature. You really develop an appreciation for the natural world."
From the religious point of view, he said, it was instructive to think about Jewish teachings while walking and "be grateful for having the time to walk, think, and feel."
"It gave me an opportunity to develop a real connection not just pay lip service to it," he said.
Freedland would like to start a weekly Torah class at the Fair Lawn synagogue. He would call it "Torah and teva," nature, he said. The class would point out the connection between the weekly Torah readings and the natural world and would explore practical ways to implement better environmental practices.
"I’d love to get kids involved," he said, noting that this would need to be a long-term process involving the entire synagogue community. "I want them to understand that recycling is a Jewish value."
Rabbi Debra Hachen of Temple Beth El of Northern Valley, who also participated in the retreat, said she was drawn to the program by her interest in meditation. Three years ago, she took part in a program of contemplative meditation sponsored by the Jewish retreat center Elat Chayyim in Kerhonkson, N.Y.
Hachen said that, coincidentally, a congregant concerned with environmental awareness approached her after she registered for the retreat to tell her about it and suggest that she attend. At the same time, that congregant initiated an effort to receive a grant from GreenFaith to have the synagogue evaluated. Following the evaluation, the group will suggest ways in which the shul can become more environment-friendly.
"We’ve been recycling for a long time," said Hachen. "We have a [recycling] box in every room of the synagogue."
The rabbi also noted that Cantor Allen Leider, the synagogue educator, is particularly interested in teaching about the environment and recently offered a five-week course on Judaism and the environment for seventh-graders.
While, like Freedland, Hachen plans to incorporate teachings on nature into programs of Torah study, she said she would also like to fashion a Shabbat experience for congregants that will include a nature walk.
"You can show people quotes about religion and nature," she said, "but you must take them outside to really give them the experience. It doesn’t work if you only approach it intellectually."