Reform, Orthodox congregations partner for pre-High Holidays hike

One of Queeny Park’s trails. Photo: Screen capture, St. Louis County Parks YouTube page

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Bais Abraham members will take their annual pre-High Holidays hike to contemplate nature Sunday in Queeny Park, but this time they’ll have company.

“Who doesn’t want the opportunity to get ready for the High Holidays?” asked Rabbi Elizabeth Hersh of Temple Emanuel in west St. Louis County, which will be joining the Delmar Loop Orthodux shul this year. 

“Who doesn’t mind an hour of outside air and a little bit of exercise with the opportunity to meet new people whose paths may not have crossed through another situation?”

That’s why Hersh’s Reform temple this year will be joining the hike, a continuation of a tradition started by Bais Abraham Rabbi Hyim Shafner about a decade ago.

“I just felt it was a way to get people focused on the main theme of the High Holidays, which is t’shuvah,” Shafner said.

The gathering, which is free, is an hourlong meditative event in which people begin in a circle, reflecting on the past year, he said. Hikers then begin walking in silence for about 20 minutes, eventually looping back to where they started.

“Then we sit back together and do another exercise to help people look at the coming year and how it can be more positive than the past year,” Shafner said.

The rabbi said he was happy to take the hike with Temple Emanuel this year because it is the sort of thing that, unlike services or certain rituals, can be enjoyed by all Jews without questions over specific ceremonies or traditions.

“It opens it up to more people, and it’s the kind of thing that really does cross denominational boundaries,” he said of High Holiday themes common to the whole community. “It is a good venue, I think, to bring together Jews of different places.”

Hersh agreed that the event is the right way for different streams of the faith to mingle.

“I thought it was a very open and inviting way of bringing together two different communities,” she said.

The idea originally began in a conversation between Shafner and Hersh.

“There has been so much talk in our community for years about collaboration and joining together,” Hersh said. “I was at a conference with Rabbi Shafner. During the conference, I got to speak with him, and he brought up that they always do this hike. I said, ‘Well, could we join together?’ ”

Hersh said the idea is appealing because the period before the High Holidays is traditionally a time of introspection and reflection to prepare the heart and mind.

“Many people find a connection with God, with the divine, through nature,” she said.

Hersh said she hopes to feel something similar. 

“I think we are all wired to our phones and our devices, and I plan on leaving everything at home and being out at Queeny Park and concentrating on where my thoughts should be at this time of year,” she said. “I’m hoping to have a spiritual afternoon where I can reflect and start to think about the year that has been and the year that is to come.”

Hersh said her congregation has responded favorably to the idea although, because RSVPs aren’t required, she doesn’t know how many people will come. Temple Emanuel has scheduled a dinner gathering after the hike for its member families with children in grades 6 through 12.

Shafner said any Jew who wishes to join the hike is free to do so. Hersh said that’s part of the idea.

“It is important to focus on what brings us together and not what tears us apart,” she said. 

Participants will gather at 4 p.m. Sunday at the American Kennel Club Museum of the Dog, 1721 S. Mason Road, at Queeny Park.