One by one, I saw their heads dip below the shifting surface and then emerge to offer up a blessing. It was a mighty sight to behold.
[The following article is offered as a partnership between eJP and Clal’s CLI program. The Clergy Leadership Incubator (CLI) is a two-year program to support and encourage early career congregational rabbis in the areas of innovative thinking, change management and institutional transformation. CLI is the newest program in the Rabbis Without Borders (RWB) family of programs under the auspices of Clal and is directed by Rabbi Sid Schwarz. Each month CLI offers a column called “Innovation and Institutional Change: What it Took; What we Gained.” Previous columns can be found here.]
By Rabbi Michael Lezak
Sixty 15 year-old Jewish campers from L.A. are on a three-day hike through the Santa Monica Mountains. No mattresses. No stereos. No showers. No hair dryers. Not an easy task for these pampered kids from the Valley and West L.A. It’s their last summer as campers. The summer before they become Counselors-in-Training. They stay up late. Telling silly stories around the campfire. Singing their favorite camp songs. Eyeing that summer’s crush. On the last night, these campers and their beloved counselors sleep on a beach in Malibu as the sounds of the waves crashing help them to feel profoundly alive. They wake up, dip their feet in the ocean and walk en masse along Pacific Coast Highway back to camp. As they amble into the dining hall, hundreds of younger campers serenade these grimy pilgrims in raucous song. It is a moment of great exaltation. On some subterranean level, these fifteen year olds are processing the fact that they are growing up.
Fast-forward ten years. Eight rabbinic students are finishing up their first year in Israel. They take a series of buses from Jerusalem to Achziv beach five kilometers south of the Lebanon border. They dip their feet in the Mediterranean, close their eyes and take inventory of this pivotal year abroad that will soon come to a close. They walk out of the waters, don their hiking boots and heavy backpacks and set out on the Sea-to-Sea hike, a three-day hike across the width of the State of Israel. Days are spent traversing dry creek beds and steep mountain trails. Nights are spent under the stars, sharing stories about how this immersive year in their ancient homeland has grown their souls in the most profound ways. Three days later, these Jewish leaders-in-training arrive sunburned and exhausted at the Sea of Galilee. They triumphantly put their packs down, take off their boots and walk into the refreshing waters of the Kinneret. This transformational year has come to a close. They are heading back to the States, feeling deeply connected to their land and their people, ready to share these connections with the broader Jewish people alive, ready to rise further into leadership.
For decades now, I’ve thought about how these hikes I took were more than hikes for my friends and me. They were pilgrimages, journeys of spiritual discovery and affirmation made at pivotal moments in our lives. As a rabbi, as someone who thinks all the time about how to cultivate such transformational moments, I’ve long dreamt of creating a sea-to-sea hike for high school graduates here in Marin County, CA.
As luck would have it, we hired an amazing Youth Group Director (Brandon Brown) this past year. At last, we had the staff bandwidth to make it happen. This past May, Brandon and a minyan of our high school graduates gathered on a shabbes afternoon at a campground at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. They spent the afternoon recounting peak high school moments, pondering the impending changes in their lives, and writing blessings for their parents. As the sun set over the San Francisco Bay, Dan Nichols, Rodef Sholom’s Artist-in-Residence, showed up at the campground, surprising our high school graduates with a box of Johnny’s Doughnuts. Together with Dan, they sang songs, made havdallah and talked about their hopes and fears about the impending transitions in their lives.
Early the next morning, our graduates set out for Rodeo Beach, three hills to the north from where they had camped. At 9 am, I showed up at the beach with warm croissants and a giant blanket. Sitting on a log, a couple of yards away from the ocean, I awaited their arrival. The fog was thick. The waves were large and loud. And the group was a half an hour late. Was I at the right beach? Were they lost?
And then, like a mirage, I saw them emerge from the fog, walking arm in arm along the shore. Their ebullient faces lit up the beach. We gathered in a tight circle on my blanket. They shared delicious stories from their night under the stars. And about their fears of their impending immersion in the icy Northern Californian waters. I asked them to turn their eyes toward the water; and talked to them again about mikva; and about how we Jews aim to sanctify the biggest moments in our lives. I reminded them that once they leave the blanket, there would be no talking until they all return to the blanket. Only silence and three intentional immersions: The first for the journey up until now; the second for the gift of today; and the final one for the promise of the pathway ahead. They were to recite a short Hebrew blessing following each immersion. And then, like pilgrims at the kotel, they were to walk quietly backwards, away from the ocean.
The time had come. I pointed to the water and sent them on their holy way. I watched as they made their way slowly and nervously into the water, waves crashing, wind blowing. Soon enough, they were in waters deep enough to immerse. And one by one, I saw their heads dip below the shifting surface and then emerge to offer up a blessing. It was a mighty sight to behold. Eighteen year-old Jews, perched between childhood and adulthood, preparing to leave high school behind and enter a bigger, scarier, more daunting world. For that momentary time in the Pacific Ocean, they slowed down and utilized this ancient ritual to mark and sanctify this most holy moment. As they started to move away from the ocean, the group drifted toward one another and once again, gathered arm in arm, walking backwards together, slowly and silently back toward the blanket.
Back in the circle, I wrapped them in towels and invited them to reflect on their ocean immersion. One of the boys remarked, “Rabbi, you heard me before we went in the water. I was really afraid of how cold the water would be. By the time I got to my third immersion, the cold didn’t bother me anymore. This morning, I realized that I could conquer any of my fears.” Mission accomplished.
Due to the resounding success of this experiment, we’ve already scheduled our second Sea-to-Sea hike for this coming May. And on a Sunday morning this October, we’ll gather our Kindergarteners and First Graders by the shores of the Bay for our first-ever seaside Consecration, a sacred welcome to their path of Jewish learning. We’ll have them dip their toes in the Bay with their parents by their sides. Our 12th graders will be on hand that morning to provide both perspective on time passing and inspiration to claim a lifelong path of Jewish living and learning. Our hope is to help the families with younger kids envision a vibrant Jewish path ahead. We hope to give our 12th graders an appreciation for this stage in their lives that will soon be coming to an end. In that way future 12th grade immersions in the Marin Headlands will complete a full Sea-to-Sea cycle.
As I drove home from the beach that Sunday morning, I thought back to my hikes through the Santa Monica Mountains in high school and through the mountains of Northern Israel at the end of my first year of rabbinical school. I thought about how such pilgrimages help to frame these pivotal and powerful moments in our lives. Such life passages, properly marked, gift us with time and perspective, to offer gratitude for all the blessings in our lives and to summon wisdom and courage for the path ahead.
Michael Lezak is a rabbi at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, California. In conjunction with the Marin Organizing Committee, Lezak developed a new partnership between Venetia Valley School and Rodef Sholom, resulting in an increase in staff, funding and programming for the under served school. He is married to Rabbi Noa Kushner and is the proud parent of three daughters.