Mountain bikers will power up the Powerline trail on Sunday for the Temple Bat Yam's seventh annual Riding Chai Mountain Bike fundraiser. The ride is meant to raise money for the only synagogue that serves the South Shore, Carson City and Carson Valley, and it's a typical Tahoe-style event with a few Jewish twists.
To start with, there's the name of the ride. A play on words that might escape those unfamiliar with Hebrew, the word "chai" - pronounced "hi" - means life. According to the Temple Bat Yam's Rabbi Evon Yakar, the character, which doubles as the numerical value 18, is an important symbol in Jewish culture.
Often donations are given in multiples of 18, and the ride's co-founders Craig Schorr and Bob Mueller encourage Sunday's mountain bike riders to tackle 18 miles of trail. Participants can then raise monetary pledges based on the distance they ride.
Riding Chai is a fairly informal event though, Schorr said, and most people don't ride a full 18 miles. The main goal is not to exclude anyone and to welcome the community to the temple for the biblical holiday of Sukkot, or the feast of the tabernacles, with an afternoon brunch. There will be the special white fish salad - delivered from New York specifically for the occasion - and other foods to mark the end of the Book of Deuteronomy reading and the start of Genesis.
The holiday of Sukkot recognizes the fragility of life but also the opportunities that exist, Yakar said, and the bike ride is one of the ways to take advantage of some of those opportunities unique to Tahoe.
"A good percentage of this community lives here to enjoy the outdoors. With these activities were trying to not only have a community event, we're trying to met people doing what they're already doing," Yakar said.
According to a 2007 Pew U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, more than one quarter of Americans have left the faith in which they were raised, either in favor of another religion or for no religion at all. The same survey reported less than 2 percent of the country as Jewish, and the numbers keep dwindling.
The Temple Bat Yam has about 90 families as members at any one time, but Mueller said growth can be a challenge.
"The growth part is very difficult and complex. It's a struggle," he said.
The South Shore synagogue, which is part of the Union for Reform Judaism, doesn't focus on numbers growth as much as it tries to increase the amount of involvement and engagement the members have, Yakar said.
The Riding Chai event and its winter counterpart, Purim in the Powder - where participants raise money through pledges on skis and boards rather than wheels - are ways to do just that, the rabbi said.
"A lot of the challenges the larger faith communities face are different than what we face. People move here to be independent and tying down to an institution becomes not of the most palatable choices to make," Yakar said.
Yakar doesn't remember which rabbi first started to emphasize the connection between the outdoors and the religious community, but he said he knows that his predecessor had already begun services on the beach and at Spooner Lake.
Yakar manages the South Lake Tahoe branch of Adventure Rabbi, a program based in Boulder, Colo., and Tahoe that strives to create a cutting-edge model of synagogue life appropriate for the 21st century. According to the website, 70 percent of Jews don't belong to a congregation, and Adventure Rabbi tries to show skiers, hikers and other active members how Judaism can enhance their life.
"We compete with technology but more so with different activities. We have to show another reason why religion matters," Yakar said.