Dear TEE community,

One of the most powerful spiritual experiences of my life happened unexpectedly. I was visiting my brother at his college in Maine and he wanted to show me one of his favorite places, a lake at the end of a forest path. For some reason which I can’t remember, we went at night. It must have been around the new moon because when we got there, all that was visible in the sky was a dome of stars reaching to the horizon all around the lake. I’d never seen a sky completely full of stars in that way and the experience was both thrilling and terrifying because it seemed so unworldly. Or perhaps I should say, un-earthly. In that moment I understood how the Hebrew word for awe, norah, also implies something frightening. The feeling of moments like that are hard to put into words, but I know that what made it so significant was the sense I had of being part of something so much larger than myself and so beyond my ordinary experience.

I don’t think that it was a coincidence that this experience happened in an outdoor setting. Throughout my life I have had less dramatic but also important moments of awe in nature. And I know that is true for many of us. Two years ago, a group from TEE participated in a fellowship program to help us learn how to better meet the needs of our members. As part of that program, we interviewed a sample of members about their spiritual experiences and in these conversations the word “outdoors” came up repeatedly.

What we discovered in our own community is true throughout the larger American Jewish community. In the past decade, outdoor, environmentally focused activities have become a movement in themselves. The term used for this is JOFFEE, which stands for Jewish Outdoor, Food, Farming, and Environmental Education. JOFFEE programming includes a wide range of activities. Some take place on a larger scale, such as community gardens and food festivals, while others can be as simple as a nature walk or a cooking class. There are JOFFEE focussed summer camps, retreat centers, and educational training programs, including the Reform movement’s planned Center for Earth-Based Judaism in California.

JOFFEE programming is the fasted growing area of Jewish engagement. Research has found that it is a significant vehicle for involving younger and/or otherwise disengaged Jews. At the same time, JOFFEE programs include a diverse cross-section of the Jewish community and serve as a impetus to both professional and volunteer leadership.

TEE’s presence at the JCC gives us a unique opportunity for JOFFEE programming. Our access to outdoor space and a large natural area gives our congregation a distinctive presence in the region. Our outdoor services, both in the tent for High Holidays and in the courtyard for Shabbat, have brought an extra dimension to our gatherings. We have also made use of the nature trails and outdoor spaces for holiday related events, such as a Blessing Walk on Shavuot, games on Lag b’Omer, and a Local Lulav workshop on Sukkot.

Our congregation has now been given a wonderful opportunity to be a key player in growing JOFFEE programming in the Rochester area. In partnership with the JCC, we have been given a grant from the Jewish Funders’ Collaborative, a group of local philanthropists, to develop and implement a pilot program as a first step in bringing this movement to our area. The grant will be used to work with CLAL, a national Jewish leadership agency, to gather information from TEE and JCC members to help us design an initial project. It will also fund implementation of the program over the summer.

I hope you are as excited about this news as I am and will want to be part of growing our community in this way. If you have ever felt a special calm listening to the rhythm of ocean waves, wondered at the beauty of a tree, or tasted the sun-filled flavor of a homegrown tomato, you have already experienced the significance of this work.

There are (at least) two ways to be involved. Beginning in April, I will be facilitating a group of TEE folks to learn more about JOFFEE work, conduct interviews with our members, and then help to design this first program in partnership with JCC participants. Once we know what the program will be, there will be a need for volunteer leaders and participants. Whether you are interested in one or both of these ways of being involved, please let me know by emailing me at

I look forward to working with you as we nurture our community and ourselves in this important endeavor.

Rabbi Drorah Setel