> Spirituality > Personal Growth

Lost and Found In the Great Outdoors

May 9, 2009 | by Rachel Ginsberg

Teenagers learn to reconnect with God and themselves in the wilderness.

For as long as they can remember, Jon Medved's kids were regaled with stories of their father's mountain adventures as a secular California teenager. Medved, a Jerusalem-based venture capitalist and founder of Israel Seed, has funded over 50 Israeli companies and has raised millions of dollars for start-up investments. But for all his financial wizardry, his first love is the Great Outdoors, and for years he was challenged to instill that love in his Torah-observant, raised-in-Jerusalem children.

"When I was 14 years old, I went on this fantastic mountaineering program called NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School), and it affected me for the rest of my life," says Medved. That summer Jon and his father were supposed to go backpacking in the Sierra Nevada outside his native Los Angeles, but the plans changed drastically when his father had a car accident and wound up in traction for a year, flat on his back.

"He was lying in bed and we were watching a TV program called 30 Days to Survival. It was about the NOLS program, 30 days of training in the mountains and then five days of survival at the end, where they took away your food and you had to live in the wilderness for five days with the skills you acquired. 'Son,' he said, 'if you can find your way to that program, you're on your own.'"

Never one to let technical details bog him down, Jon got in touch with the program and filled out the application, got on a train to Wyoming and went for a ride which he says changed his life.

Being in the deep wilderness does something special for the soul.

"Being in the deep wilderness does something special for the soul," Medved muses. "It's hard to describe it to someone who hasn't experienced it. Even for those of us who grew up in the wilderness and left it for a place like Jerusalem, I don't think we have to mourn the loss. I think we can still find a way to connect to the big mountains, to embrace all of God's majesty.

"Today I still maintain that that summer changed my life. I'm not going to tell you that it made me religious -- it was another 15 years before that happened. But it opened a spiritual window."

Medved grew up in a traditional family but in LA in the '60s, "Judaism" was just not on his agenda. He was intrigued by political Zionism, and after being a campus activist for the American Zionist Youth Foundation, came to Israel, found his way to hi-tech, and met his wife Jane. They went back to the States, and the Medveds became attracted to the Jewish community in Venice, California under the influence of Rabbi Daniel Lapin. He, along with his father and two brothers (one, the movie critic and radio host Michael Medved), gradually started observing Shabbat, and when he came back to Israel in 1990, he had a kippah on his head.

Wyoming or Bust

The big question: How could Medved give over his intense relationship with nature to his now-religious family? "My kids grew up in Israel, and I was always talking about NOLS and the mountains. I would reminisce, 'When I was on NOLS... blah, blah, blah...' and my kids would just become exasperated. 'Dad, stop telling us about NOLS, 'cause there's no way we're ever gonna go! How can we go to a program where they hike on Shabbat and eat treif?'

"My 15-year-old son Yossi loves the outdoors and is the most physical of my kids. Never one to give up, I kept on. Again, 'Yos, wouldn't it be great if you could do NOLS?' 'Dad, forget it! I don't want to hear about it!' So I went searching, and discovered that there is now a Shabbat-observant version of the program, created together with NOLS, called Teva Adventure. Yossi was going to be on a plane to Wyoming no matter what!"

Yael might be the only Torah-observant woman in the world who is a certified rappelling guide, mountain scaler and ice climber.

Medved also discovered that the director of this Shabbat-observant program lived just a few blocks away in Jerusalem. Yael Ukeles is a woman with a passionate vision of integrating nature and Torah. Yael, a native of New York City and a resident of Jerusalem since 1996, might be the only Torah-observant woman in the world who is a certified rappelling guide, mountain scaler and ice climber!

Yael's professional career actually began in TV production and then moved to hi-tech, where she managed projects in software and web interface design. But she says she never felt that was really her calling. Her desire for involvement in Jewish education, and her highly-skilled mountaineering background, pushed her to create an intense nature experience within a Torah framework.

"I always felt the pain of being disconnected from nature," says Yael. "I don't think Judaism was intended to be so urban. The Torah is set up to be in tune with the natural rhythm of the world, and when we separate from that, we lose touch with a vital dimension of spirituality. On this program, kids learn to reconnect. In the classroom, it's hard to talk about God. In the mountains, it's hard not to talk about Him. God is with you everywhere."

Yael put the Teva Adventure program together with the assistance of NOLS, and uses professional NOLS guides along with religious counselors. There are separate programs for boys and girls. In addition to the mountain-climbing and hiking skills acquired, there is a strong Torah curriculum, and the campers gain practical skills in Jewish law, for example setting up an eruv boundary to permit carrying on Shabbat.

"In the city, we keep Shabbat with so many layers," says Yael. "We keep our food warm on a hotplate, we use a timer to turn the lights on and off, our houses are warm. In the wilderness, you can't walk 15 minutes without the problem of techum Shabbat (the prohibition of going a certain distance away from one's encampment.) What city kid knows about that? A month on this program and a kid knows how to keep Shabbat anywhere, even atop an Alaskan glacier."

The NOLS people were given a crash-course in Judaism in order to integrate the two curricula. One of the NOLS guides in last year's program in Wyoming was a black Kenyan, whose favorite part of the month-long trek was the weekly Kabbalat Shabbat service.

Connecting without Interference

So, whatever happened to Yossi?

Jon readily put him on a plane to Denver, and there he met up with another eight boys who were to be his companions in the wilderness of the Wind River Range in Wyoming for the next month. Neither Jon nor Yossi was disappointed.

"We learned to summit mountains, cross rivers, protect ourselves from lightning and floods, and essentially how to survive," says Yossi. "For years I had heard about this from my dad. Now it belongs to me."

Night descends, and you think maybe this is how Shabbat is really meant to be.

Yossi, an articulate 15-year-old, attends Horev boys high school in Jerusalem, "where all my friends are pretty much the same. Being on the program, with kids of different backgrounds, makes you put your Judaism in perspective. There isn't much to do socially except to talk. When we were walking or hiking or fishing or resting, we just talked and talked. Everyone winds up talking about Judaism.

"I never spent a Shabbat like out there in the wilderness," Yossi continues. "You're out there by yourself, you have to create your own eruv, you can't light a fire or turn on your flashlight. Night descends, and you think maybe this is how Shabbat is really meant to be. Then with sunrise you daven Shacharit on top of a 12,000-ft. mountain. There is no traffic, no street noise, no anything -- except for snow, bears, rivers, trees and rocks. You can really connect without interference."

Three-day Survival

When Jon Medved did the trek 35 years ago, after 30 days of training, the participants were put in the middle of the wilderness, all their food was taken away, and they were given five days to survive off the land. That, Jon reminisces, was the best part. On last summer's program, Yossi had a similar experience:

For their grand finale, the hikers divided into smaller groups and were sent off to reach a certain summit by the end of the day. In order to do this, they had already mastered the techniques of building a camp and other forest survival skills. The problem, says Yossi, is that in their plan, the group calculated that they would reach the summit in three hours. But with their energy and enthusiasm, they reached their goal in just over an hour.

"We looked out over the mountain and saw what looked like a road," Yossi recounts. "Now remember, we'd been in the wilderness for over three weeks and although it was great, you kind of start to miss real life, a warm bed, good food, being able to do normal things instead of waking up at 6 a.m. and hiking for nine hours a day. So when we saw what looked like civilization, we just started running down the mountain without checking our maps."

Two hours later, there was still no road, and the boys were off course. They knew they were off track, and the thick woods prevented them from getting their bearings. Eventually they decided to do what they were told by their instructors. If you are lost, stop, set up camp, and wait to be rescued. Within 24 hours they would send air support, and it could take another 24 hours for the ground crew to arrive.

We pitched camp on the high ground, and piled trees to make a signal for air support.

Yossi: "We knew what to do. We pitched camp on the high ground, and piled up trees to make a signal for air support. Every morning we woke up at the regular time, davened, ate, and sent out scouts. After two days, we saw a plane circling and knew they were looking for us. We lit torches and jumped up and down, waving our arms frantically. Then we took out all our remaining food and had a big feast. The next morning, the guides found us."

Were the boys scared? "Even though were under tremendous pressure, we managed to keep it together. We didn't argue; instead we learned to trust each other, to make decisions together. We got this out of the course. Had this happened on the first week, everyone would have run in a different direction. We knew we had the skills to survive, to build a camp and be comfortable for three days."

For Yossi, being in the wilderness alone for three days and two nights until the group was rescued was, he'll tell you in retrospect, the highlight of his trip. When his father found out afterwards, he was actually overjoyed. "They were trained and knew just what to do," says Jon. "They found themselves badly off course in a thick forest. They weren't the greatest map readers, but they knew how to take care of themselves, with no adults and no counselors, and they passed with flying colors."

For Yossi, this made the trip. "Did it scare me? No at all. I think this shows the greatness of the program."

"I love the city. I love Israel," Jon Medved says. "But I have this drive to get back to nature. A positive voice inside tells me to get out and breathe the air, slow down, and get a perspective of myself within the universe. I think it's great that religious kids today can have such an experience."

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