The Human Spirit: Rabbi on skis
Picture this prayer service.
The temperature is -11ºC, the surrounding
peaks reach 3,700 meters. Below is a sea of dramatic peaks and valleys blanketed
in snow. The rabbi is leading the congregation in the singing of Mi Kamocha,
“Who is like You, Lord among the mighty? Who is like You, majestic in holiness,
awesome in praises, doing wonders?” This is Crested Butte, Colorado, a home rule
community in the American Rockies. Home rule means you can make your own, and
Rabbi Robbi Sherwin does.
I met her this week because she came to
Hadassah University Medical Center, clad in cowboy boots and a brown rodeo skirt
with a guitar over her shoulder, using her vacation time to sing to terror
survivors. But when she’s leading prayers at 3,000 meters up, both she and the
congregants are on skis.
A stickler for punctilious prayer, I’m trying to
work out the choreography: stepping forward and back, bowing, rising on tiptoes.
Then I think of the exhilaration of communicating with the Creator so close to
the heavenly domain, experiencing the surprisingly pleasant and theologically
appropriate sensation of being tiny in relation to God’s overwhelming universe.
Among those praying are the regular members of B’nai Butte congregation, and
tourists who have come to ski and snowboard in Colorado. Many would never walk
into a synagogue – but this mountaintop synagogue doesn’t require walking into.
“Jews hear about us and are curious.
They try out our non-threatening
services and afterwards they often stay in contact, looking for ideas to bring
home to celebrate an upcoming family event or to continue their Jewish
education,” says Rabbi Robbi, as she likes to be called.
outdoorsy 57, she’s been the spiritual leader of the Jewish community of Crested
Butte for eight years. When she’s not in Colorado, she’s a member of a clerical
team in Texas. One of America’s most popular liturgical songwriters, she also
performs with her singing group, Sababa, at Jewish festivals all over the US.
At Hadassah, we head first to neurosurgical intensive care, where she plays
and sings for a woman with a stroke, who turns towards her. Then we go to
general surgery, where several recent terror survivors are recovering. The staff
and family gather round.
“I don’t take a guitar up the mountain,” she
says. “It’s hard enough to balance.”
Before the Colorado winter moves in,
her congregation hikes up the mountain to Peanut Lake for High Holy Day
services. “On Rosh Hashana, when we blow the shofar 100 times, the elk answer
back. It’s quite a sound!” Crested Butte is a town of 1,600, with no traffic
lights and no chain stores. Ute Native Americans used to live there in the
summers, but they left when Caucasians arrived. Coal and silver drew miners to
the area in the 1860s and 1870s.
Today, mountain biking, white water
rafting, snowboarding and skiing swell the winter population with outdoor
enthusiasts; among them, Jews.
“I laminate the siddurim,” says Rabbi
Robbi of the prayer books she carries in a backpack on the slopes. “Otherwise,
the pages get too wet.”
She grew up in small-town America, following as
the family moved along with her father – an air force navigator who fought in
Vietnam and still trains astronauts.
Often she and her siblings were the
only Jews in their schools, and encountered ignorance and bigotry. As soon as
they were old enough, her parents sent them to Jewish sleepaway camp.
Rabbi Robbi plays the mandolin and guitar, and sings – a legacy from Camp Young
Judaea on the North Pacific Coast, where she fell in love with Hebrew songs.
Later, she sang in synagogues and in Hillel, when she studied at the University
of Texas. Later still, she signed up for cantorial school.
to be a cantor, she was invited to Crested Butte by Congregation B’nai Butte,
which was looking for a clergyperson with the following characteristics:
“energetic, able to connect to people of all ages, musical and can think outside
“You must mean Robbi Sherwin,” the director said. They hired
the starting- out cantor over rabbis who were competing for the mountain pulpit.
Her husband is an environmental lawyer who specializes in water conservation;
they have three children.
Rabbi Robbi isn’t associated with any
particular stream of Judaism, and keeps correcting people who assume she is
She was a cantor first, and was only ordained by the Jewish
Spiritual Leaders Institute in New York, a trans-denominational online
Okay – the prayer service isn’t going to satisfy the
halachic standards of the Orthodox among us, me included.
Still, you have
to admit that a quorum of Jews gathering close to the celestial powers, praising
God and saying kaddish for their lost loved ones has something spiritual going
for it. Maybe that element is missing in a formulaic Minha in a traditional
Just hearing about it ignites my wonder at the different
methods of religious expression, the efforts to reach out to our brethren and
extol God – and yes, the beauty of the Jewish people.
The image is an
antidote to those that have been engulfing my mind, as I met Rabbi Robbi on the
same week I was attending the first international conference on the Jewish
Community Confronts Violence and Abuse here in Jerusalem. Maybe I’d heard one
too many sordid stories of abuse among my Orthodox brethren to feel my usual
conceit about my own stream of Judaism having all the answers.
sessions I facilitated at the conference featured panelists from Australia,
South Africa, Israel, Brooklyn and New Jersey in the US, and Calgary, Canada –
oddly also in the Rockies. All the panelists were amazing, learned, devout and
dedicated Orthodox Jewish women who were presenting impressive regimens for
training teachers, parents, counselors and rabbis to protect boys and girls, men
and women, from the dangers of sexual and domestic abuse in their communities.
No matter how many times we acknowledge that perversions can happen, I can’t
help but believe in my heart of hearts that they shouldn’t be happening within a
community devoted to the rules and values of the Torah. Among the perpetrators
are those who bear the revered title “rabbi,” and those who have graduated from
the most exacting rabbinical training schools. Those of us who raise our
halachic eyebrows at other streams and their unfamiliar liturgy might benefit
from a little humility ourselves.
No, I’m not throwing away my casquette
or overriding my halachic stringency, but I recognize that Jews in other streams
have something to teach me, too. Rabbi Robbi and her rocking Rockies service are
a breath of icy but fresh air.
In Crested Butte, a local sausage
manufacturer is going kosher because of the awakening Jewish community. Rabbi
Robbi is busy preparing a three-generation bat mitzva for a girl whose
grandmother is a Holocaust survivor; it will include familiar prayers and some
of the rabbi’s own compositions.
Like me, her congregants go out humming
the familiar prayers and some of Rabbi Robbi’s harmonies. One of my favorites is
on the prayer for beauty, Shekacha lo, b’olamo:
Clouds lift, sun breaks
A day of beauty, a gift from You
Mountains rise, wind calls my
Each day renews creation – never quite the same
And I thank You for
Beauty of the world.