Forget the synagogue walls or the Torah ark. Rabbi Evon Yakar’s services leave traditional religious confines in favor of a more Tahoe-centric setting — the great outdoors.
Yakar, the rabbi at the South Shore’s Temple Bat Yam, launched Adventure Rabbi in South Lake Tahoe 18 months ago. It’s an offshoot of a program founded by a Colorado-based rabbi who wanted to put meaning back into Judaism and meet people on the trails or the slopes instead of inside a temple.
At the South Shore, Yakar leads Shabbat services at Heavenly Mountain Resort and morning hikes in the summer around Kahle Community Park and Castle Rock. For the first time, Adventure Rabbi will offer a three-day Seder in the Sierras program to celebrate Passover this weekend. More than 40 people from Mexico to San Diego have signed up for the celebration that includes hiking and downhill skiing and Yakar hopes to continue the program in the future.
It’s a way to draw young blood into what was a shrinking congregation, Yakar said.
“There are people who didn’t come to Temple Bat Yam because they didn’t think institutional religion was for them,” Yakar said. “I do the same things on the trail that I do in the synagogue. It just looks, feels, tastes, different.”
Yakar said he knows at least four people who joined the congregation partly because of Adventure Rabbi. Temple Bat Yam Membership Chairman Craig Schorr said he thinks the approach has attracted more people.
“It’s brought more people in, especially younger members. It’s the concept of a temple without walls,” Schorr said.
According to a 2012 Pew Global Religious Landscape study, Judaism tends to have an older average population compared to other major religions. The study found that, at 36 years old, Jews have the oldest median age of any group. Another recent Pew report found that more than 16 percent of the U.S. population is unaffiliated with religion.
While Adventure Rabbi changes how the congregation looks at Judaism, it doesn’t change the religion itself, Schorr said.
“When you have a religious service outdoors, the readings are no different. But it seems to be more spiritual,” Schorr said. “Excuse the pun, but there’s been a rejuvenation of the temple because of the participation of young people. We get a lot of people skiing with us, and that’s at least a start.”
Seventy percent of Jews don’t belong to a congregation, according to a statistic from the Adventure Rabbi website. The website champions the outdoor-centric program as a way to make Judaism relevant, meaningful and accessible in the 21st century. And for people who live in South Lake Tahoe or Boulder, Colo., taking advantage of the natural environment makes sense, Yakar said.
“Religion in 2013 isn’t a given. We want people to join up,” he said.