Finding Jewish connection on Lost Coast backpacking trip

A little over a year ago, my favorite professor at U.C. Berkeley, who taught “Thinking About Not Thinking: Approaches to Buddhist Meditation,” thought it necessary to dispel our preconceived ideas of what Buddhism was in one fell swoop. “Therefore,” he said, “I cannot urge you enough to wrap your mind around the notion that there are as many Buddhisms as there are Buddhists.”

I believe the same statement holds true for Judaism, and for all other religions, for that matter. So when my Hillel supervisor asked what made my recent backpacking trip to California’s Lost Coast Jewish, I floundered for an easy answer.

To get at the heart of it, I had no choice but to reference my past, 21 years of evolving Jewish-hood and lots of opinions to boot. For nine of them, I attended a Jewish day school, was bar mitzvahed and went to Jewish summer sleep-away camp. My dad being Israeli, I also had been to Israel many times visiting family.

This formative period undoubtedly set a foundation on which my current connection to Judaism rests, but by the time I reached public high school, I was severely nauseated by the word “Jewish” and decided I needed something “Newish.”

Not once in the following four years did I go to temple, celebrate Shabbat or wear a kippah. When questioned, I happily informed people that I was not Jewish, though when pressed to the point of exhaustion I finally allowed that, yes, my very recent heritage on an evolutionary timescale happened to fit the commonly understood conception of whatever it means to be “Jewish.”

It was not until after my first year of college, when I returned to be a counselor at that most special of Jewish sleep-away camps, Tawonga, that I began to form a brand-new Jewish identity — what I now consider to be my first self-chosen Jewish identity.

The familiar humdrum shul was replaced by Makom Shalom, an outdoor temple overlooking a panorama of cedars and pines. With fresh air and benches bathed in brilliant sunlight, the service was turned into a live concert of sorts. Jubilant prayers like Oseh Shalom were accompanied by joyous dance in the aisles, whereas solemn prayers were tempered in tone, just as concertgoers might be for Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven.” Torah portions were acted out by so-called “parashah players” who harnessed the oft-overlooked powers of beat-boxing and full-bodied jumpsuits to keep millennia-old stories fresh for the new generation.

The blessings of my first summer working at Camp Tawonga were many, but one of the most phenomenal changes I witnessed was my growing comfort with being identified as Jewish. My associations with the word were becoming intertwined with a sense of community, a connection with nature and an overall feeling of being at home in the world.

So I finally answered my Hillel supervisor, Oren, about my backpacking trip to the Lost Coast, along a 20-mile stretch of Humboldt County coastline unperturbed by human development: How was my trip not Jewish?

I had gone on a journey with 12 amazing humans, all of whom were as breathlessly overtaken by the roar of the sea as by a dying baby harbor seal. We were rendered speechless at the fiery setting of the moon overlaid by the streak of a shooting star, a wayward stingray washed ashore, the incessant rain, the rolling pastures of green California lushness with a sprinkling of golden poppies mirroring the sun when it finally broke the gray murk above.

By the end of our week at the Lost Coast, we were a group bound in a lasting way. There was and remains a shared understanding of the holiness we experienced together. It was as spectacular — as Jewish — as life gets.

Elan Lavie is an undergraduate physics student at U.C. Berkeley who is passionate about communal living, nature and kids.