Nature’s sanctuary: Weekly sojourns make Shabbat more meaningful for one family

By all accounts, this is not the kind of Saturday that calls people to the woods.

No, on this particular Saturday — overcast, foggy, rainy, wet, dreary — the weather demands a sweater and a mug of tea, pajama pants and slippers. Certainly not hiking boots.

But if you are the Geduldig family, you fight the urge to hibernate, and instead don thick socks, hiking shoes and raincoats, pack an arsenal of snacks and a variety of water bottles, and load your two young sons into the Honda CRV for an afternoon outside.

Why? Because for this family, Saturday is not just Saturday. Nor is it just Shabbat.

It’s Nature Day.

Every Saturday for the past year, Laura and Paul Geduldig have taken their sons, Elijah, 4, and Gabriel, 18 months, to regional and state parks around the Bay Area in an effort to heighten their relationship to the natural world, Jewish values and each other.

“This is one of the things I feel most proud of doing in my whole life,” Laura says.

The Geduldigs’ practice is particularly relevant this week, as Jews around the world celebrate Tu B’Shevat on Feb. 9, a day marking the beginning of a “new year” for trees.

Nature Day was inspired by a series of conversations Laura and Paul had during their annual New Year’s getaway in January of last year. At Harbin Hot Springs near Calistoga, away from the harried pace of daily life, they talked about wanting to make the year different. Less stressed. More fulfilling.

“We were so overscheduled,” Paul says. “We spent the weekend running from place to place, and we’d end the weekend more exhausted than we began it.

Paul and Laura Geduldig with 4-year-old son Elijah and 18-month-old Gabriel, who is riding in a carrier on his dad’s back.
photo/stacey palevsky

The following week, they took a family vacation to San Diego, visiting Legoland and Sea World with their boys.

But something was missing from those outings. “Nature was missing,” Laura says.

Laura, a life coach, and Paul, executive director at Oakland’s Temple Sinai, both wanted to observe Shabbat more regularly, but in a way that would be meaningful for their family. They already made Shabbat dinner and lit candles every Friday, but they wanted to do something else special on Saturday.

They also agreed they needed more time and space away from e-mail, cell phones and commerce. They decided they could achieve their goals by creating — and, more importantly, committing to — Nature Day.

“We’re following the ancient wisdom of Shabbat — not to the letter of the law, but to the spirit of it,” Laura says. “Yes, we drive [to the woods], but we’re not destroying, we’re not creating and we’re not spending money, which is similar to the traditional rules of Shabbat.”

Early on, they established guidelines for Nature Day. It can be moved to Sunday only in the event of hellacious Saturday weather or a best friend’s birthday party. Otherwise, they RSVP “no” to birthday parties, trips to the museum or tickets to a kid-friendly performance.

“We had to put a wall around it, and at times that’s challenging. But it’s really worth it,” Laura says.

Neither friends nor colleagues are allowed to tag along.

Longtime friend Barbara Rosenstein initially wanted to join the family for Nature Day before she knew about their intention. “Americans today do not have enough family time, and so I can completely honor and respect that they’re trying to do this as a family,” she says.

The final rule: Nature Day is canceled only in the event of illness or some other emergency. Even when they go out of town (to visit Paul’s family in Atlanta, for instance), they find a trail there.

“If we don’t do this for us,” Laura says, “sometimes we feel like we’re splintering in four different directions.”

Laura sees the pursuit of wild spaces for her family as in sync with her work as a life coach, through which she empowers people to make big or incremental changes in their lives.

Paul also sees Nature Day as being consistent with his work at the Reform synagogue. Nature Day and synagogue life complement each other, he says. “It’s amazing to read prayers about the grandeur of creation, and then to be in the places the prayers are reminding us of all the time.”

His colleagues have been supportive, including the synagogue’s senior rabbi, Steven Chester.

“I’m not one to judge what anyone does in terms of their observance, but I do think that what they’re doing is absolutely wonderful,” Chester says.

“There is a difference between a Jewish family who goes for a walk on Saturday because everyone is free, and a Jewish family who specifically says, ‘This is what our Shabbat is going to be, and we’re consciously doing this because it is Shabbat.’”

The Geduldigs are not alone in feeling that they spend too little time outside.

California has more state and national parks than any other state. And yet, according to studies, only a small number of children here play in the wild with any regularity.

In 2007, a poll by the Public Policy Institute of California found three times as many children who use playgrounds or play sports in the summertime than children who hike or camp in the woods.

Nationwide, children today spend more time inside, with computers or other electronics, than outside. And it’s not just teenagers. Half of all toddlers watch TV daily, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Parents are less likely to let their children roam free, without scheduled activities dictating how that outside time is spent. And more and more Americans (81 percent) live in urban areas, often far from open spaces.

But in the Bay Area, nature is at our fingertips, Paul and Laura say. For them, the playgrounds near their Oakland home aren’t enough for Elijah and Gabriel. They want to expose them to the natural world in the truest sense — without the plastic  of a playground or the structure of supervised activities.

“There is a culture of fear of letting kids be free outside,” Laura says. “It’s a huge problem, and it’s really a bummer, because it means kids don’t get to run wild.”

But during Nature Day, Elijah gets to be in charge (Gabriel would help lead, but he’s not yet walking on his own).

One recent Saturday in Oakland’s Redwood Regional Park, Elijah shimmies across logs, marvels at banana slugs and wanders ahead of his parents.

While Mom helps Gabriel practice walking across fallen leaves on the damp trail, Elijah and Dad discover a narrow, shallow stream behind a big rock. “Let’s go show Mommy,” Elijah shouts.

The parents switch roles so Mom can see the hidden stream; Dad proceeds to teach Gabriel how to toss stones into a puddle. The toddler squeals in delight and shouts “More, more!” after each stone falls into the water.

“It’s amazing to see your own children be so inquisitive about nature,” Laura says.

Later, they come upon a fallen tree, unusually bright orange. Laura squats; Elijah leans against her leg.

“How beautiful, I can hardly believe it,” Laura gushes. The parents explain that fallen trees eventually decompose and become dirt “just like our compost pile at home,” Paul says.

“Ohhhh,” Elijah responds, as though he’s just realized that red and yellow make orange.

The family takes the quiet moment to nosh. They pass out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches cut in quarters, challah and hummus, carrots, apples, pears, Sun Chips, edamame.

“The No. 1 secret of Nature Day? Snacks. Readily available snacks you can eat on the trail,” Paul confides. On their first Nature Day, they brought only water. Elijah complained the whole time.

“Hiking 3.2 miles is tough for a 4-year-old, but it’s a misconception that you can’t hike with kids,” Laura says.

So far, the family has ventured to parks as far away as Davis and Half Moon Bay, and many trails in between.

“Sometimes we have a plan, but sometimes we get in the car and ask, ‘Should we turn left or right?’” Paul says. “There are so many places I’ve been that I never would have seen had it not been for the intention of Nature Day.”

The potential for Nature Day is infinite as the boys grow older, Laura and Paul believe. They might all read the Torah portion each week together, then discuss it along their hike. And they hope to expand Nature Day into an overnight camping excursion.

Laura understands that as her sons grow up, they might not always want to spend Saturday afternoons hiking with their parents. Nonetheless, she and Paul are certain that some variation of Nature Day will always be in their lives.

Perhaps they will encourage their sons to bring a friend along, or compromise on an occasional Saturday when their sons have a conflicting activity. It’s an ever-evolving pursuit, Laura says.

“This is not easy,” she says. “But because it’s so fulfilling, and because we’re so committed to it, it feels so doable. It feels so right … It’s not an option to not do it.”

Laura and Paul Geduldig are available to speak about Nature Day with interested individuals or groups. To contact them, send an e-mail to [email protected].

Celebrating the new year of the trees

Tu B’Shevat is the new year of the trees. It’s celebrated on the fifth day of the Hebrew month of Shevat (this year that falls on Feb. 9) and it’s observed in multiple ways, ranging from tree plantings to seders.

Want to celebrate the trees this year? Try any of the following:

Jewish Gateways: A Jewish Celebration of Trees for Very Young Children, 10:30 a.m. to noon Saturday, Feb. 7 at Jewish Gateways, 409 Liberty St., El Cerrito. For more information, call (510) 559-8140 or check Free.

Jewish Study Network: Tu B’Shevat habitat restoration with the Nature Parks Conservancy, 9:30 a.m. Sunday, Feb. 8 at the Marin Headlands, 948 Fort Barry, Sausalito. No previous experience is necessary.

Congregation Beth David: Teva Tips for an Eco Me, 9:30 a.m. Sunday, Feb. 8 at the synagogue, 19700 Prospect Road, Saratoga. Free and open to the community. For more information, contact the religious school at (408) 366-9101.

Chochmat HaLev: Tu B’Shevat hike and kabbalistic seder, 10:30 a.m. Sunday, Feb. 8 at Redwood Regional Park. Meet at the Skyline Gate of the park; bring your own cup for wine. RSVP to [email protected].

Tri-Valley Cultural Jews: Tu B’Shevat seder and potluck lunch, 11:30 a.m. Sunday, Feb. 8 at the Bothwell Center, 2466 Eighth St., Livermore. Cost: $5 and a dish for eight to share. To reserve a spot, call (925) 485-1049 or [email protected].

Gan HaLev: Tu B’Shevat seder and arts and crafts, 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 8 at the San Geronimo Valley Community Center, 6350 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., San Geronimo. Call (415) 488-4524 to RSVP or for additional information.

Congregation Sherith Israel: Fair Trade Fair, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 8 at the synagogue, 2266 California St., S.F. For more information, contact Nancy Sheftel Gomes, (415) 346-1720, ext. 28, or [email protected].

AJWS Eco Tu B’Shevat: Young adult seder, 6 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 8 at the Women’s Building Auditorium, 3543 18th St., S.F. Doors open at 5:15 p.m. Cost: $18. For more information, check or e-mail [email protected].

Addison-Penzak JCC: Tu B’Shevat seder, activities, games and songs, 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., Monday, Feb. 9 at the JCC, 14855 Oka Road, Los Gatos. Cost: $10 adults, $5 children. RSVP by calling (408) 357-7417 or via e-mail at [email protected].

Jewish Study Network: Lunch and learn, 12:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 9 at the Jewish Community Federation, 121 Steuart St., S.F. Bring lunch; dessert provided. RSVP to [email protected].

Congregation Ner Tamid: Tu B’Shevat celebration, Shabbat service and vegetarian potluck, 6 p.m. Friday, Feb. 13 at the synagogue, 1250 Quintara St., S.F. For more information, contact Achi Ben Shalom at (415) 661-3383.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.