Oakland man paddles back to Judaism, wins grant

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Gabriel Crane rediscovered Judaism in a canoe on the Mississippi River.

“Canoeing all day and being immersed in nature was a meditative experience,” Crane, 23, recalled of how he spent the summer after his sophomore year of college.

A religious skeptic before the canoe trip, he returned to school at the University of Pennsylvania and started reading about Zen Buddhism. Simultaneously, he began to look at Judaism from a new perspective.

“I realized that the trip was so powerful for me because it connects to a larger world tradition outside of my own personal experience,” he said. “And I gained a newfound respect for spiritual tradition and religion.”

Gabriel Crane spent Passover with Wilderness Torah in the Mojave Desert’s Panamint Valley.

Crane, raised in Berkeley and now a resident of Oakland, will soon take his new interest in and connection to Judaism on the road to Israel, thanks to a $20,000 grant from the Jewish Community Endowment Fund.

The Haas/Koshland Memorial Award supports a year of study and personal development in Israel. The award is open to undergraduate and graduate students who are from the Bay Area or attend school here.

“Gabriel stood out because of his willingness to take risks and meet challenges along the way to reaching his goals,” said Frances Geballe, chair of the selection committee for the Haas-Koshland Award.

Crane grew up attending Congreg-ation Beth El in Berkeley, but he recalled being “pretty disillusioned” about all religious institutions, not only Judaism. The canoe trip helped change all that, and upon revisiting his religion, he found it was “surprising to see a lot of truth uncovered from the Jewish tradition.”

When he arrives in Israel in December, it will be his second time there following a Birthright trip two years ago.

A 2008 graduate of Penn, with a degree in English and creative writing, Crane plans to spend a few months studying at Pardes, the pluralistic, progressive yeshiva in Jerusalem. He will then go to another yeshiva, Simchat Shlomo, where he’ll participate in a month-long eco-activist beit midrash.

That leaves him another six months to play with. He definitely wants to do some environmental work but isn’t sure yet where he’ll land.

“I’m still trying to figure out the right place for me,” Crane said. “I’ve put some feelers out there, but I’m also leaving space in my plan to see what happens when I get there, and to see which experiences move and inspire me.”

His background, aside from being a wilderness trail guide, is in gardening, landscaping and permaculture.

Based on this experience, he’s considering spending a semester at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, which brings together Jewish and Arab students to confront environmental challenges.

He’s also interested in working for the Jerusalem Urban Field School, which is restoring dormant water cisterns (rain catchers) that were used 2,000 years ago.

“My goal is to open myself up to what the Jewish tradition has to teach,” Crane said, “and to put myself to work practically in the way I believe in, which is engaging with the earth.”

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.