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Connecting to Judaism in the Great Outdoors

By Stacey Dresner

Imagine rowing a canoe down a serene lake, paddling ashore to hike and camp in the scenic woods of the Adirondacks, then reading a Jewish text about trees as you relax around a campfire. Or going cross-country skiing in Maine, stopping only to do havdallah at a beautiful frozen lake.

These are no ordinary camping trips. They are “Burning Bush Adventures,” courtesy of Rabbi Howard Cohen.

Howard for ledger 2

Rabbi Howard Cohen

For the past 25 years, Rabbi Cohen of Bennington, Vt. has taken Jews on canoe, camping, cross-country skiing and dog-sledding trips through his company Burning Bush Adventures (BBA), which connects nature and the outdoors with Judaism.

In those 25 years Rabbi Cohen was also rabbi of Congregation Beth El in Bennington for 12 years.

Dr. Randall Miller of Philadadelphia, formerly of Williamstown, Mass., met Rabbi Cohen in 1993 when he and his family joined Beth El.

“One of the first things he talked about was meeting God in the wilderness,” Miller recalls.

While leading Beth El, Rabbi Cohen took individuals and families into the great outdoors every chance he got, not only to commune with nature in a Jewish way, but also to have some good old outdoor fun.

“My main reason for creating BBA was to provide families with a fun, quality Jewish experience,” he said.

Burning Bush Adventures offers “experiential awareness exercises that combine the Jewish lens on a way of looking at the world in the outdoors,” he says. “The orientation is Jewish, so there is Jewish programming that takes place in the context of the trip. That varies. I’ve had bar and bat mitzvah aged kids out and we have studied their Torah portion, particularly when there is a special focus on nature,” he explained.

Miller, Cohen’s former congregant, took all four of his children on Burning Bush Adventures — some father-child dog-sledding and canoeing trips, and a canoe trip for the entire family. His first trip was a pre-bar mitzvah adventure with his oldest son.

“Howard taught him confidence, how to country ski and linked everything to Torah,” Miller explains. “He had stories and teachings that were linked to Torah.”

Cohen says he typically runs one to three dog-sled trips in the winter and two to six canoe trips in the summer.

He gets a lot of New Yorkers for clients, but he also gets interest from people in both Massachusetts and Connecticut. His clients range from Modern Orthodox to secular with strong Jewish identities. Around 95 percent of his clients are Jewish, but some non-Jews take part in Burning Bush Activities – especially the dog-sled trips.

“The profile of my clients — and it is a generalization – but it describes a lot of them-they are often from places like Manhattan where they’re almost always actively engaged in their Jewish communities,” Cohen says. “Most of the trips are for families or parents and child. And they are the kind of parents who are looking to have different and unusual experiences with their kids. They tend to stand out as people in terms of their creativity and how they look at the world and what they want for their kids…and generally they like the outdoors.”

Childhood fantasy

BBA davening

A Burning Bush client davening in the woods.

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Howard Cohen grew up in a traditional Conservative Jewish home attending Congregation Shaare Zedek, now called Kol Rinah.

The seeds of his love of the outdoors were sown when he was younger, he says. He was an avid Boy Scout and during his last year of high school he went to Israel on a Yavneh program and worked as a dairy farmer on a kibbutz.

Returning to the U.S., he attended the University of Minnesota and majored in philosophy and history, but also worked on the college’s dairy farm. “I had been on the kibbutz and had the opportunity to work on the dairy farm. I wasn’t planning a career in farming or agriculture; it was just something to do when I was in school.”

Halfway through college, Cohen says he decided he wanted to fulfill a childhood fantasy of being a “wilderness canoe guide.”

While still a college student, he began working with Outward Bound, the organization that takes participants on challenging learning expeditions, mostly in the wild. Cohen worked mostly with at-risk and delinquent youths. He worked with the organization for 4 ½ years in Minnesota, then for six more years in Maine.

For some time, becoming a rabbi had been in the back of Cohen’s mind.

BBA family

One of Rabbi Howard Cohen’s families, lighting Shabbat candles in the wilderness.

“When I was an undergraduate student, I studied philosophy and religion, so the idea of the rabbinate was sort of there early on, but for a lot of reasons I didn’t see it as an option after graduating,” he said. “I didn’t want to be in school, and I didn’t know where I would place myself – in which denomination. For different reasons at the time, Reform and Conservative didn’t really work for me. But the seed was planted.”

He often found himself thinking about the tenets of Judaism as he worked for Outward Bound.

“I kept coming back to Jewish teachings that I had learned over the year, as guiding principles and wisdom,” he says.

“Outward Bound was a secular program, so we were okay with using Native American imagery or ritual or language or Buddhist imagery or language, but the idea of taking something that came out of the Jewish or Christian tradition was considered not appropriate.”

Cohen recalls one day when he was sitting in the woods reading a book on Native American rituals.

“I put the book down and was daydreaming and thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to be part of this ancient people with earth-related traditions and rituals, and then it was sort of like this brick fell from the sky and hit me and said, ‘You are!’”

That was one more entry point on his way to becoming a rabbi. He began to think about what he would do next with his life.

BBA paddling

Rabbi Howard Cohen, left, paddling a canoe with some of his charges.

“I liked teaching but I didn’t want to be a classroom teacher; I liked people in a helping capacity but didn’t want to go into social work,” he says. “Religion kept coming back up because it is an all encompassing experience with people and you work with them in good times and bad times through lifecycles. So it kind of combined everything.”

He discovered the Reconstructionist movement and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) in his mid-20s.

He started rabbinical school at the age of 30 and began Burning Bush Adventures around that time.

“While I was still doing Outward Bound, some friends and I would talk about creating our own program – how we would do it, what would we do different than Outward Bound,” he recalls.

Then while in a rabbinical school class he had to do a project, and decided to form a Jewish camping program as that project. The business was started near Philadelphia, but was moved to Bennington when Cohen graduated from RRC in 1994 and became full-time rabbi at Congregation Beth El.

For a while Cohen operated BBA as a fundraiser for the congregation. “They gave me time off to run the trips, but most of the revenues went back to the congregation.”

In 1996, he retired from the pulpit at Beth El and took an interim position as the dean of Jewish life at the American Jewish Academy in Greensboro, N.C.

During that period, he stopped running Burning Bush Adventures, but started the business up again when he moved back to Vermont a few years later.

Rite of passage

BBA canoe

Paddling down Low’s Lake in the Adirondacks.

Cohen says many Jewish teachings go hand in hand with the wilderness experience.

One exercise he likes to do is a tree-themed activity. “There are tons of great passages from the Tanach and the rabbinic texts about trees and our relationship with trees,” he says.

He talks about the rings within trees that can tell you how old the tree is and about its growth.

“Then we shift gears. I say, ‘Imagine if you did a core study on yourself. Where are your growth rings? Where is the emotional growth, spiritual growth in your life?’ It is a reflection exercise where people think about their lives in a big picture sense about how satisfied they are but also where there was a lot of Jewish or spiritual growth. Typically, they will say, around their bar mitzvah or their child’s bar mitzvah, or when their mother died. It is a way of combining the study of nature with the Jewish focus.”

Paul Grobman, an attorney living in Manhattan, has taken all three of his children on Burning Bush trips with Cohen, starting with his daughter Suzanna when she was 12. Longtime members of B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan, the Grobman children attended the Abraham Joshua Heschel Jewish Day School.

canoe camping art 2“I wanted, in addition to the more formal rite of passage to do something with each of my kids before their bar and bat mitzvahs, that I thought would challenge them in a different direction,” Grobman says.

After speaking with Cohen on the phone, they organized a trip for a few weeks later.

“We met at the intersection of two state routes in Upstate New York. I had my oldest daughter and he had, incidentally, a 12-year-old girl, and we spent four days camping and canoeing,” he says. “And it was just really incredible.”

There were a few stumbling blocks connected to taking a pre-teen girl from Manhattan into the great outdoors.

“There were definitely deprivations, she was not someone who was used to relieving herself in the manner you are required to in the wilderness,” Grobman laughs.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter that first foray into the wilderness, both Grobman and his other two children decided they would do Burning Bush trips as well. With the younger kids, he did group trips with some of their friends and their fathers. They ended up doing winter camping, cross-country, and dog-sledding trips with Cohen.

“With my son, we cross-country skied in Maine. I remember we were by a stream and it was snowing. We sat down and we studied a little. We took out a Torah portion about nature and we sat there – fathers and sons and Howard,” recalls Grobman.

“It just works on so many different levels. In our case, as a great parent-child bonding trip, an incredible challenge for the kids, a challenge for the adults and exposure to a side of Judaism that is really incredible,” he said.

Cohen, 57, still lives in Bennington with his wife, Gail. Their three kids are now grown. He serves as part-time rabbi of Congregation Shirat Hayyim in Marshfield on the south shore of Boston.

On August 1, he will return to Congregation Beth El in Bennington to become interim, part-time rabbi.

“I have two pulpits, both very small and both very part-time,” he says. “Due to changing demographics and realities in the congregational world, Beth El in Bennington is not able to sustain a full-time rabbi and they are having to do some re-thinking, so it is easy for me to step in for a while.”

Cohen is also an active member of the local volunteer fire department and loves to take care of his chickens and the extensive vegetable garden he and his family call Barefoot Farm.

And whenever he gets the chance, he takes folks on his Burning Bush Adventures.

“Getting out of your normal habitat and into a very natural habitat really allows for more connection and less interference from the noise of our daily lives,” Randall Miller says. “And Howard is the vehicle for that.”

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