kozlow and congregants

Rabbi Julie Kozlow takes congregants hiking in the Bradshaw Mountains near Prescott.

I was always taught that a sanctuary had to have a window in it so we could see outside. Only then would we be able to understand our Judaism in the context of greater creation.

Most Wednesdays of the year, I ask my congregants to go hiking with me. In our beautiful wilderness we can get out of the synagogue and reflect on the world around us and what drives us. I call these excursions “Holy Hiking.” I, too, use this time to examine who I am as a rabbi and a spiritual leader.

The passion that drives my rabbinate is the call to bring our mighty and profound heritage meaningfully into the hearts and souls of our Jewish community.

I am not interested in solely maintaining the status quo — that was never my passion. I understand my calling as both a searcher and a teacher of sacred truths.

I am compelled to bring alive our history, our mission, our God, our wisdom, all of it, into the hands of our people. I am driven to hand it over to those who are searching for answers. This wisdom provides spiritual nourishment at its best. And though for me, this work is an honor and a privilege, it is nonetheless quite challenging.

For so many Jews, past experiences in synagogue life have left a bad taste in their souls. The constant refrain that many rabbis hear is how shallow, how political and how uninspired so many of their experiences with synagogue life has been.

They say, “It never spoke to me; it never touched me.” They tell me it was irrelevant and uninspiring. They say they don’t believe any of it, and that there is no connection to be found.

Each and every time I hear these words, my soul cries. Yet, it is this sentiment that is the driving force behind my passionate commitment to bring the truth, the vitality, the spiritual magnificence of Judaism back home to modern Jews.

It may well be true that this is the experience that many Jews have of their Judaism, yet, this is not the result of an intrinsic lacking in the religion. Rather it is the result of an oftentimes shallow and spiritually insignificant way with which so much of Judaism has been delivered in our time. The bottom line has often been an attitude of “just do it” without explaining why do it.

I ask why and so should you.

My entire rabbinate has been about trying to find meaningful answers for the Jews I serve. I am hungry to know God, I am hungry to sense eternal life, to experience true prayer, to build true community, to dance with time, to wrestle with existence itself and mostly, to know the very meaning of life. This is what compels me in my work, in my craft, for these are the questions I assume others hunger to answer as well. I believe that a Jewish community should journey together to find these answers.

The challenge is that most humans will see what they expect to see, and that makes real religion very hard to see indeed. I close my eyes every night and pray that I can find ways to break through the limited expectations that my congregants have of Judaism, and of me as a rabbi, so that they might find even a hint of the treasures that exist just beyond their reach. Because there is so much more.

The missing piece is God — and the sky-rocketing numbers of those who don’t believe. I, too, do not believe in the God that most of our contemporaries do not believe in. But not to believe in anything is a loss beyond words.

God is the Spirit Creator of the mystery of the universe. God is as close to you as your own breath and as expansive as the entire cosmos. God is not human, yet God is a vital part of one’s life experience, if only they can stop long enough to listen for something that they don’t even believe exists.

God is the first challenge for me and God is why I take my congregants out to hike into the magnificence of the beauty of Arizona.

So where does Holy Hiking fit in?

Demanding that folks sit in a room and read words that no longer have any meaning to them is not the way of my rabbinate. I teach Jewish liturgy as a mantra; I teach God as a Spirit; I teach Judaism as love. I try it all — whatever it takes to rattle the complacency of disbelief. We live in times where humans believe in mostly nothing. My job is to open the windows of souls to see more, to see farther, to see what has not yet even been imagined.

This, I believe, is the future of the spiritual and religious endeavor. It is no longer the stern patriarchy telling us why our voices don’t count or why we are wrong to feel what we feel. Its time for more listening and less lecturing. The trajectory has been breached. An angry God can no longer speak to the human heart. The speaking God can be heard today as a low murmur, and for many it will find its voice in acts of love and goodness. Oftentimes it can be heard more easily outside in the beauty of God’s artistry — the living, breathing magnificence of God’s world of nature. Today, it is God’s goodness that will compel humanity towards goodness.

I will engage my congregants in any way that I can in order to give breathing space for the soul. Building a sacred community in our day includes participating in the fullness of life. To pray together we must learn to play together so we will stay together.

So, yes, let’s go hike or kayak or breathe or sing or pray or laugh. There are so many places to find God today and we, the leaders of our people, must expand the sacred space that calls itself a synagogue. The walls must come down so that new, broader, more inclusive, spiritually nourishing space can be built. For this is the future of all good religion.

And so we begin with a hike. JN

Rabbi Julie Kozlow is the spiritual leader of Temple B’rith Shalom in Prescott.