Chevrei Tzedek takes Chanukah outdoors with a hike

Rabbi Rory Katz
Rabbi Rory Katz (Cobalt Photography)

While many celebrated the Festival of Lights with traditional latkes, dreidels and gelt, on Dec. 5, members of Chevrei Tzedek Congregation switched things up with the synagogue’s first- ever Chanukah hike at the Cylburn Arboretum.

“The Chanukah hike is an opportunity to get together and to hear some stories of Chanukah, some familiar, some unfamiliar, while going on a little hike together,” said Chevrei Tzedek Rabbi Rory Katz, speaking prior to the event. “The idea behind the hike is that there is a whole outdoor element to the story of Chanukah that we don’t always explore, because we’re busy being cozy, eating latkes, giving presents, lighting candles inside. But there’s key pieces of the Chanukah stories that take place outside.”

Katz came upon the notion while brainstorming new ideas for outdoor programming, she said, something the ongoing pandemic has strongly encouraged.

“I feel like there’s this kind of new flexibility that’s come up around the pandemic, with people being more interested in embracing outdoor activities, even in the chillier months,” Katz said.

As an example of Chanukah’s connection to the natural world, Katz noted how the Maccabean revolt largely took place outside in mountainous areas. She also recalled the story of how, upon reentering the Temple and finding only a small container of oil, some Jews ventured out to find more, a perilous eight- day trip through ancient Israel’s outdoors.

“It’s this voyage that takes place outside and is precarious,” Katz said. “This sense of precarity, we feel it a lot more when we’re outside than when we’re inside.”

Because the hike was meant to be a relatively relaxed excursion, Katz elected to hold it at the Cylburn Arboretum, which she described as consisting of relatively flat terrain. As such, it was accessible to a wide range of ages who enjoy being outside and listening to stories.

In addition to its accessibility, the Cylburn Arboretum was chosen due to its proximity to the synagogue, Katz said, as well as for its beauty.

Katz expects the synagogue may have more hiking events in the future, noting that many in the congregation enjoy hiking and that Tu B’Shevat, with its emphasis on trees and nature, could be an excellent time to have another.

Katz hoped that participants gained a degree of spiritual nourishment from the hike, along with a greater appreciation of nature and of Chanukah traditions, she said.

“We’re trying to access the wildness and unpredictability that’s at the heart of the Chanukah story, even though we already know how the story’s going to end,” Katz said. “So in the same way, we’re going into a little section of woods that you can feel really lost in, even though it’s not that big of an area. We’re hoping that people can get a little sense of that sense of being lost and disoriented, and that will help them get more in touch with [that] kind of uncertainty, and … being kind of really present in the Chanukah story.”

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