Published on January 16th, 2014 | by Robyn Purchia1
Ma’yan Tikvah: A Congregation Without Walls
In December the Boston Globe ran an article on a small, Jewish congregation in Wayland, Massachusetts known as Ma’yan Tikvah – A Wellspring of Hope. The article focused on the congregation’s unconventional practice of worshipping almost entirely outside in nature. (And, yes, that means it worships outside – even now – in the cold of winter.) But thanks to the hard work of its leader, Rabbi Katy Z. Allen, Ma’yan Tikvah’s unique connection to nature goes beyond just simply where it worships.
Allen is a “nature chaplain” – a term she invented. In a broad sense, nature chaplaincy can mean anything having to do with the earth. But at its core, a nature chaplain helps people make a connection between religion/spirituality and the environment.
“I feel like the two really compliment each other and enrich each other,” said Allen. “It’s not like you can have one and not the other — they’re all part of the same thing.”
As far as she can tell, Allen is the only religious leader practicing nature chaplaincy. Her work is essentially divided into two parts.
The first part is getting people outdoors. Allen does this through both Jewish and more interfaith/spiritual nature walks. On the interfaith walks, participants engage in various activities, like sitting quietly and counting all the things they hear and matching paint swatches to natural colors in the environment. These experiences, combined with readings Allen brings, help people connect to nature in a more visceral way.
“I don’t have to do very much. The natural world does it. I just have to open little doors and people walk right through,” Allen admitted.
But sometimes people walk through the doors, feel a connection to nature, and become overwhelmed with all the negative news – climate change, water pollution, extinction – that faces us every day. It’s hard to love something you feel is dying before your very eyes.
Allen recognizes “earth grieving” as a very real emotion, and holds workshops for people who are very anxious, scared, and overwhelmed about the state of the planet. This is the second part of her nature chaplaincy.
Allen’s workshops are a safe space for people to share their negative emotions. In one workshop someone was in tears within five minutes of starting. Another admitted to not feeling joy or happiness when looking at babies. The feelings of despair and fear are held by the members of the workshop, and then let go as Allen guides them towards feelings of faith and trust.
“You don’t know what’s coming,” said Allen. “You just do your work to the best of your ability and trust that it’s enough. How we go through whatever the future is going to be — that’s really most important. How we go through it, whatever it is.”
On Shabbat, Allen says the prayer Barukh she’amar: Blessed is the one who spoke and brought the world into existence.
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