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Into the Outback

Barbara Bensoussan

Somewhere in our collective unconscious, we sense that young people only become adults by venturing into uncharted territory, accepting risks and surmounting challenges. Until recent times, we lived close enough to the natural world that people routinely faced the tests of survival and the elements. Today, where does a young person go to be challenged?

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Many bochurim find challenge enough in the pages of a Gemara. But others may feel the itch to prove themselves in other arenas, testing themselves against a natural world infinitely more powerful than they are. Enter the growing world of wilderness expeditions for frum youth — usually boys, but there are girls’ trips too. In these settings, teens set out on physically and emotionally demanding forays into mountains and forests, carrying nothing more than the packs on their backs. Far away from the distractions of school, city streets, and gadgets, they discover a unique opportunity to get in touch with themselves and each other. “There’s no Wi-Fi in the wilderness,” says Rabbi Tani (Netanel) Prero, who founded the Yagilu wilderness programs and has been running them in the Poconos for the past 13 years. “But the connection doesn’t get any better.”   Back to Nature Although Jews are typically identified with tent-dwelling Yaakovs rather than field-roaming Eisavs, one of the earliest proponents of wilderness and scouting experiences was a Jew. Kurt Hahn, born in Berlin in 1886, was an educator who preached the importance of developing resourcefulness, leadership skills, and physical fitness through wilderness expeditions. After being arrested and briefly jailed in 1933 for speaking out against Hitler, Hahn escaped to the United Kingdom and founded the Gordonstoun School in Scotland. Hahn, whose living room boasted a framed quote reading “There is more in you than you think,” had himself been influenced by Baron Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts. Baden-Powell’s scouting movement gained traction after the war, and not only in England and the US. Rabbi Leon Ashkenazi, an Algiers-born educator who had fought with the French during World War II and founded a yeshivah in Orsay, became a leader of the Jewish Boy Scout movement (Les Eclaireurs Israelites) in France and Morocco, taking on the scout name Manitou (“Great Spirit”). Through the Eclaireurs, Rabbi Ashkenazi exerted an immense influence on a generation of French-speaking Jews, strengthening their connection to Judaism during joyous shomer Shabbos expeditions, and inspiring many to transfer that pioneering spirit toEretzYisrael.

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