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What Does a Rabbi Do on a Canoe Trip, Anyway?

What Does a Rabbi Do on a Canoe Trip, Anyway?

Not your burning question upon awakening this morning? I understand. But I would imagine that some might ask this upon learning that I, a rabbi, recently returned from a four-day long canoe trip with a group of Jewish summer campers from URJ Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute. For while I am indeed a water-loving, former-lifeguarding adult, I’m certainly no pro at canoeing or camping - and while it’s always great to have more hands on a camp tiyul (trip), one could argue that there were already four competent counselors accompanying the 17 teenagers heading out onto the Wisconsin River that afternoon. Still, there I was, heading out onto the river with this group, excited and a bit nervous, the lifeguard/mom combination ever cautious with kids and water.

For four days we canoed on the Wisconsin River, covering some 45 miles. Each night, we camped on a sand bar, with an exquisite view of the water and tree line, where our campers learned quickly how to set up tents and find the best ways to relieve themselves in the wilderness. We carried our ingredients and prepared our meals, cooking tasty vegetarian dishes for dinner each night, with campers helping to cut up vegetables for meals quickly devoured. And we carried our water and the rest of our gear in our canoes.

Each morning we got up, packed our tents, ate breakfast and loaded gear into our canoes. We learned who our paddling partners would be for the day, and, before we set off, I told a story or shared an inspirational Jewish text before we joined in the morning prayer Modeh Ani, expressing gratitude that we are awakening and alive.

Each day we paddled and floated, stopped for lunch, sang, called out conversations, and watched the terrain and water level change. When we found a good campsite around dinnertime, we unpacked, grouped gear first, and gave the campers time to run around, explore, and play.

Each evening before bed, we joined in Sh'ma and Hashkiveinu, our bedtime prayers, and on the last night, we created our own ritual for the mystical practice of Kiddush Levanah, the sanctification of the new moon. Kiddush Levanah is a not-so-well-known ritual that is to take place in the first half of the month, when the moon is waxing, affirming the potential for renewal.

The tiyul went off without a hitch, with the chanichim (campers) enjoying, learning, and creating community and the madrichim (counselors) leading with warmth, strength, and good limits for their precious cargo. As for me? My roles varied, from the general just-part-of-the-group type to those one might call rabbinic, including:

  • Passing out blessing cards to madrich and chanich, with some of the many blessing of our tradition, with the hope that they would find and create sacred moments on the journey.
  • Launching our canoes at the outset, in Sauk City, WI, with Tefilat Haderech, the Jewish travelers’ prayer.
  • Learning to cook for 22 people on a Coleman stove.
  • Engaging in conversation canoe partners who were either very quiet or utterly energetic.
  • Partnering with campers to create sacred moments of ritual each evening.
  • Pointing out eagles, turtles, and fish along the river – and upon doing so, encouraging campers to join in a blessing for wonders of nature “Baruch Atah Adonai…oseh ma’aseh v’reishit.” In other words, encouraging all involved to step back with awe, or, in the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, "radical amazement."
  • Reminding teenagers to don their hats and sunblock and drink water. (I am still a parent, even if these are not my children!)
  • Answering questions about being a rabbi – and, perhaps, throughout the trip, showing campers a real-life model of rabbi as person who was as un-showered, sand-covered, and dirty as they were!

Throughout the trip, I tried to encourage our travelers to consider the difference between a traveler and a tourist, a distinction set up the prior week as we read at the end of the book of Numbers of our Israelite ancestors’ journeys. This distinction is one of perspective and goals, and openness to the opportunities for learning and growth before us. Certainly these campers can now at least articulate that a tourist goes from stop to stop to stop, and a traveler goes with the flow and looks at the larger picture of the journey and what is to be gained from the experience - though, if I had to bet, I’d say that these campers internalized this teaching, too, as we journeyed with the flow of the Wisconsin River.

Rabbi Lisa S. Greene is a member of the clergy team at North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, IL.

Rabbi Lisa S. Greene
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