Getting out in nature can expose the higher power of hiking

On a slightly overcast Sunday, my husband and I joined the Beth Am Torah Trekkers for a ramble through the Baylands, from Mountain View to Palo Alto and back. On the way, we spot egrets, terns, flocks of geese, flowering mustard and even a Russian cargo plane from nearby Moffat Field, carrying helicopters to Afghanistan.

For some, bagels and lox and the New York Times are de rigueur on Sunday mornings. For others, it’s a hike.

“This is our sacred Sunday,” said Rachael Shea of Portola Valley. “We need this bit of Earth’s holiness.”

Ken Adler, a Palo Alto counselor, calls himself the “instigator pro tem” of the group. After he was widowed last year, he saw hiking “as part of the mourning experience.” Allan Douglas, who is familiar with local trails and wildlife, became the de facto trailmeister. Since September, the Trekkers have been meeting every Sunday, rain or shine. They converge at 9 a.m. in the Beth Am parking lot.

Ranging in age from about 9 to 70-something, the 10 or so hikers hail from a half-dozen countries, from Russia to South America. Since fitness levels vary, the group’s motto is “no Trekker left behind,” according to Adler.

Like Adler, I have found healing in hiking. Nineteen years ago, when I suddenly became single, the Bay Area Jewish Singles Hiking Club was my salvation. It got me out of myself and into nature. I also made new friends and started dating again.

Some friends and relatives laughed at my forays into the forest, saying things like “a Jewish hike is from Macy’s to Nordstrom.” Or, as a former boss teased, “Jews don’t hike.”

According to that logic, we would all still be in Egypt.

Arne Benowitz, a telecommunications professional from Sunnyvale and a 20-year participant in the hiking club, is familiar with those stereotypes. “We view ourselves as a very cerebral people, focused on the intellect rather than the physical. But look at Israel,” he said.

“While it is true that for many Jews, the most exercise they get is their little stroll for tashlich on Rosh Hashanah, for other Jews we find and take pleasure in hiking in the outdoors.”

Although the BAJSHC does not have a religious focus, “we do feel, in our own way, a physical connection to God,” Benowitz says. “Instead of subsisting in the land of cubicles, you get up there and see the trees, smell the clean air, see the beautiful flowers, getting in touch with that part of us that wants to be in nature — so that is a big draw for Jews to go out hiking. “

Founded in 1983, BAJSHC has more than 300 on its email list and lists eight to 10 events each month at www.bajshc.org.

Torah Trekkers, by contrast, is an improvisational startup. “Do you think Moses knew when he got to the Sea of Reeds what his next step was?” says Adler. “The game plan is not always laid out in advance.”

Because the Trekkers are an offshoot of a Torah group, trailside discussions may take a religious bent. Occasionally someone says a blessing, perhaps a Shehechiyanu after spotting an egret.

“We are awed by what we see. I feel a sense of strength and humility,” Adler says, recalling the words of the 121st Psalm, “I lift up my eyes unto the hills.”

James Jeffries, a founding Trekker, holds the title of “photographer extraordinaire,” according to Adler. Raised a Baptist, Jeffries has an encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible and is exploring Judaism. “Hiking with Torah Trekkers means that if someone wants to talk about Torah and the Bible, we do and no one’s offended,” he says.

Over lunch at the Lakeside Cafe in Mountain View, hikers continue to share their beliefs, along with their french fries and cake.

I apologize to the group for intruding with my reporter’s notebook. Shea tells me there’s no need to worry.

“You’re one of us,” she says. A Trekker, a Jew, a sharer of food — and ready to lift up my eyes unto the hills.

Janet Silver Ghent, former senior editor of j., is a freelance writer/editor living in Palo Alto. She can be reached at [email protected].

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is writing a memoir on her late-life romance. She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].