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How This Indoorsy Rabbi Found Connection in the Unlikeliest Place

Upon meeting me, it is clear that I am an indoor cat. I like to be inside, warm, in a comfortable matching sweatsuit and slippers sipping on my hot coffee. (If I am lucky enough to get a sip before my troops start yelling demands, that is.)

Home is my happy place. Throw on a soap opera or Schitt’s Creek and I am a very happy Mama. I literally own a T-shirt that says, “Indoorsy.”

When I first met my husband I was a little overwhelmed by his obsession with “doing things.” He loved being outside. Meanwhile, my version of the “great outdoors” was sitting on the beach at a hotel drinking iced coffee. Yes, it was apparent from the beginning that family, parenting, Judaism, money — you know, the usual hot button issues — would not be an issue between us. This would be one of the great pains of our marriage.

Over the years, we found our equilibrium: Though I rarely agreed to outdoorsy things like camping or kayaking, we’d spend Saturdays at shul followed by a moderately quiet (depending on which child was napping) afternoon at home. Sundays, we’d switch it up: Along with our kids — ages 6, 4, and 2 — we’d head to the aquarium, or we’d visit museums, or maybe catch a movie or get brunch.

Then coronavirus hit. I did not think it would completely change me in the way that it did. I am fortunate that my family and I have not been directly impacted by Covid-19. I am healthy, my family is healthy, my children are blessed to be learning in their classrooms this school year. But our usual entertainment choices were no longer an option. It was time to get creative and re-think what it means to “spend time as a family.”

My husband — always an opportunist — suggested, “Let’s go hiking.” I felt every single part of me cringe. I laughed. He told me he was serious, adding, “It’d be good for you to get outdoors, Dani.” The kids were excited, too, so I decided to be a team player and tag along. I mean, how bad could it be? I could definitely rock the hiking boot look, and that is half the battle, right?

Our first few hikes went OK, not horrible. They would always begin with the kids stopping every five minutes for a “nature pee” or another snack. They would always end with my middle child face-planting and crying hysterically. So, all in all, a normal day in the life. Three mile hikes took twice as long as they should have because our 2-year-old saw “another rock.” Spoiler alert: There are A LOT of rocks on hikes.

And then it hit me. (No, not the rock —  although that did happen several times when my 2-year-old was told, “no more rocks.”) I realized, just like everything else regarding our “new normal,” I needed a new perspective. Just as we no longer dined in restaurants — opting for UberEats instead — and just as we no longer attend Shabbat services in our physical synagogue — having switched to Zoom — my understanding of who I was, how I spent time with my family, and how I could relate to Shabbat had to change.

When the pandemic first hit last spring, I felt really disconnected. That was largely due to obvious factors like the new reality of virtual school, having the kids home while working from home, and so on. But what I did not realize was that the lack of routine — and our Shabbat routine, in particular — was wearing on me. It no longer felt like Shabbat was a peaceful time. It was just another chaotic day at home with the kids but with less electronics. Translation: a disaster.

I never knew I needed the outdoors. OK, maybe I still do not need the outdoors. But I do need peace and quiet. I need time to disconnect from my electronics and the outside world. I need time with my three kids and husband. I have such a hard time giving them and myself the time they need and deserve during the week. Going on hikes on Shabbat has opened up an entire universe for me. While I do not love the hiking piece, per se, I love watching my kids discover nature, run freely without masks in isolated places, and not worry that I am going to miss an email and have to step away to use my phone while my kids kvetch. And so, these outdoorsy afternoons have become my special time. My holy Shabbat time.

Ibn Ezra, an 11th-12th century Spanish Jewish philosopher, wrote in his poem “God Everywhere” that, “Wherever I turn my eyes, around on Earth or to the heavens/I see you in the field of stars/I see you in the yield of the land/in every beneath and sound, a blade of grass, a simple flower, an echo of Your holy Name.”

As a rabbi, Shabbat has always been a special time for me. Part of the reason why I did not go into pulpit work was because I knew I needed this day for rest and rejuvenation, and that kind of schedule wouldn’t have worked. But since Covid began, Shabbat is no longer an experience I choose for myself, as a halachically observant Jewish person — it has become a necessity for me. As Ibn Ezra saw “an echo of Your holy Name” in the natural world, I find these holy moments while exploring God’s beautiful creation. I find echoes of God’s presence watching my children explore the beauties of this world. I find echoes of God’s presence when I push myself to care for my own soul and well being. Who knew I would find my rest from exerting myself on what my husband claims are “moderate” hikes outdoors?

These days, not only can I rock my hiking boots, I dare say I LOVE my hiking boots. They symbolize my happy place, time, and experience with my family unplugged. It’s my Shabbat. While I do miss attending services and having kiddush in my community, nothing can replace the feeling of relief, rejuvenation, and rest I feel once we step outside, where I’m no longer concerned with juggling my kids, and making dinner, and responding to urgent emails.

When we’re hiking, my biggest concern is more appropriately “Is my husband getting us lost again?” Or how to get my son to stop identifying EVERY rock and stick he sees in our path. For me, Shabbat has become a time to refocus on what really matters. Thanks to Alltrails (an app), Columbia (my boots), and Jon (my outdoorsy husband), Shabbat isn’t only an experience that I respect, honor, and uphold. It’s also one I crave.

So get outside. Trust me. If this indoorsy rabbi mom can do it, SO CAN YOU.

Header image by Cavan Images/Getty Images; design by Grace Yagel

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