There’s a passage in the Talmud that asks “Why didn’t you take advantage of all the beauty I’ve provided for you in the world?” says Rabbi Thomas Louchheim of Congregation Or Chadash, one of several local synagogues that includes hikes and other opportunities for congregants to worship in the open air. “Worshipping is not about placing yourself inside studying Torah all day. When you worship outdoors, that becomes your synagogue.”
Rabbi Stephanie Aaron of Congregation Chaverim has led High Holiday services on Mt. Lemmon for years. “It’s another way of connecting. It’s a high place of soul,” she told the AJP. “It’s pretty magnificent bringing in the new year on Mt. Lemmon, seeing that regeneration from the fires, which is a side effect. But it’s our regeneration too. Mt. Lemmon is our amphitheater of pine trees, blue sky, earth and air.”
Local outdoor services often include hikes, but it’s important to make services accessible to everyone — whether driving to a location on Mt. Lemmon or taking the shuttle to a certain point in Sabino Canyon.
“We have been holding monthly outdoor services every month with our Wandering Jews group from Temple Emanu-El for the past 16 years,” notes Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon. “It is a magnificent way to appreciate God in nature, to find the source for holiness and beauty and meaning in our environment. We vary between Shabbat morning hike services (including reading from our traveling Torah), Havdallah hikes, our Passover experience in the desert, family outdoor celebrations (like our Tashlich celebration in Reid Park) and our Shabbat morning of spirituality, meditation and yoga, all out in nature. By combining hiking, the natural beauty of our world and the camaraderie of the trail with prayer, study and contemplation, we create an amazing fellowship among our Wandering Jews.”
Chaverim also has a small traveling Torah, as well as a traveling ark made of wood, which was built by members, says Aaron. “It’s a small, light Lithuanian Torah from before the Holocaust. In the mid-1800s, the rabbi would ride around on his horse carrying the Torah from village to village. A congregant purchased this Torah for us.”
Both Or Chadash and Temple Emanu-El often include meditation in their outdoor services. “Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel encourages a sense of awe in breathing in, to become part of who you are,” says Louchheim. “One of the names of God is breath, in both Hebrew and Latin. When you expire and your breath leaves you, Divinity leaves you. You die.”
“Being outside in nature is a great place to express religious feelings,” says Andy Iventosh, who has led Temple’s Wandering Jews hikes in past years. “You feel closer to creation.”
Some congregants enjoy services outdoors so much they joke and ask Louchheim, “Why do we need to go inside for services?’ Being in a beautiful chapel is also important, I tell them. It’s another way of praying.”
Chaverim offers a Blue Sky Shabbos at Sabino Canyon around three times a year, says Aaron, adding that it takes place at the one-mile shuttle stop by the creek. “What I especially love is officiating at b’nai mitzvah outdoors. I remember one [that took place] at a Mt. Lemmon house on a wraparound porch with around 60 people. There have been a few on Mt. Lemmon and one recently at the JCC sculpture garden.”
Another special occasion for Chaverim, she says, is an annual Sukkot service with a potluck dinner in the Karla Ember memorial garden on the synagogue’s campus.
Whether synagogue members hike up Mt. Wasson (a popular Tucson trail) or worship outdoors on their own campus, incorporating the beauty of nature, says Iventosh, “brings the community together.”
Upcoming outdoor services include: Temple Emanu-El Wandering Jews Havdallah hike on Saturday, Feb. 21 at 5 p.m. at Sabino Canyon. It will be an easy, family friendly walk to the first shuttle stop (around 1 mile), stroller-accessible. Bring a picnic dinner and a flashlight. Meet at the north end of the parking lot; bring $5 parking fee. For more information, call 327-4501. Congregation Chaverim Blue Sky Shabbos at the Chaverim campus on Saturday, March 28. A Passover seder will take place at the Tucson Botanical Gardens on Saturday, April 4. A Shabbat under the Stars will be held at the Chaverim campus on Friday, April 10. For more information, call 320-1015. Congregation Or Chadash hikes with services will resume in the spring. For more information, call 512-8500.