Across the globe Saturday evening, Jews observed the start of Passover, a holiday that fulfills the commandment to retell the story of their journey to freedom from the land of Egypt. The group that gathered at the Gold Bar campground did this in a way that was anything but typical.
No-frills and rooted in the great outdoors, the Boulder, Colo.- based Adventure Rabbi program, headed by Rabbi Jamie Korngold, offered an approach that resonated with those who signed up for the sold-out inaugural Passover retreat.
The rabbi, lauded by many for her "living approach to Judaism," asked departing hikers to speak about what enslaves them today and to discuss what sets them free.
For some this was their first desert trek. For others, including an Israeli family from the Negev desert, it felt like coming home.
Evie Cohen, 65, one of the older participants, was raised by Holocaust survivors who were ambivalent about religion. But Cohen said she hungered for a spiritual connection, which she eventually found in redrock canyons.
Many participants came looking for inspiration. Neil Silverman hadn't celebrated Passover in 10 years. When he moved to Colorado, he went to a few synagogue-sponsored Passover Seders, the festive meal where the exodus story is retold, but said he left feeling empty. This opportunity was one he could get behind.
So could Bill Goldberg, but for different reasons. "This is how we got out of going to the in-laws," he quipped.
Beneath the majestic red arch, instruments came out, and rituals began. They sang songs between readings from the Adventure Rabbi's Haggadah, the book that serves as a guide in telling the Passover story.
"What is it that sustains us?" asked Korngold, who invited people to symbolically put drops of water in a silver goblet while sharing their thoughts. Some mentioned loved ones or nature. One woman said she was "sustained by the knowledge that I can make a difference."
Jordy Gertner, 9, approached the microphone in his tie-dyed T-shirt and long flowing curls to announce, "I'm sustained by psychedelic rock music."
They unfurled the "backpack Torah," and a soon-to-be ordained rabbi from New York read the Hebrew and translated into English an excerpt directly from Exodus. Before heading back to the campsite for their Seder meal, 50 windblown women joined hands, dancing and singing with tambourines in celebration of the Jewish people's freedom.
Not everyone on the retreat was Jewish. The Adventure Rabbi program has appealed to interfaith couples and their children. Steve Mertz, a Catholic, said by taking Judaism outside of sanctuary walls, Korngold has created "an approachable way where people can share spiritual experiences."
The youngest hikers didn't necessarily absorb the full reality of what they were doing or where they were. Ashton Bialek-Kling, 4, said the best part of Passover was "the beach," pointing to a pile of redrock sand. But that didn't mean they didn't have lessons to teach.
When Margalit Goldberg, 5, was asked how many Jews originally wandered in the desert, she peered up through her floral sunglasses and answered, "googolplex." The traditional answer is 600,000, but she schooled at least one adult who had never heard this word.
At the campsite, the crowd sat in camping chairs and reclined on cushions along tables of blue fabric affixed to the ground. They sang, drank wine and ate Passover's symbolic foods, including matzoh, unleavened bread, to recall how Israelites fled Egypt without time to let bread rise.
Some items had been forgotten, a reality in camping, Korngold said. For instance, there was no salt water to represent tears, "but you're sweaty so just lick your hands," she laughed.
As the full moon began to rise, Noah Finkelstein, president of the Adventure Rabbi's leadership council, thought about what the group had accomplished that day and night. Whether it was "the most spiritual experience of a lifetime," he couldn't be sure, "but the experience we had, without a doubt, was unique."
They formed a community, made an exodus through the desert, sang Jewish songs and heard excerpts of the Torah amid howling winds.
Something different was exactly what Dena Singer set out to give to her 12-year-old son, her "cerebral one - who's just not sure about this God thing," she said.
"I hope this provides some nontraditional rooting in Judaism that he'll remember forever."