The human spirit: Rabbi on skis

"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."

A Jewish prayer services in Crested Butte, Colorado, 3,000 meters above sea level, congregants praise God on skis. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A Jewish prayer services in Crested Butte, Colorado, 3,000 meters above sea level, congregants praise God on skis.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
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.
A youthful, 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.
While studying 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 the bima.”
“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 Reform.
She was a cantor first, and was only ordained by the Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute in New York, a trans-denominational online rabbinical school.
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 synagogue.
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.
The 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 through
A day of beauty, a gift from You
Mountains rise, wind calls my name
Each day renews creation – never quite the same
And I thank You for the
Beauty of the world.
The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.