My first memories are of camping in Yosemite and Big Sur. I grew up backpacking in the Sierra, but when I made Aliyah, I left the outdoors behind for an observant Jewish life in Jerusalem as I studied, four years in yeshiva and then HUC in Israel. All that changed while I worked as the program director at Kol HaNeshama. Planning a weekend retreat, I made a friend who showed me how to backpack in the Judean desert. I rediscovered the place where I first felt the divine — the wilderness — and my heart knew that this is where I should be looking for God.
I had found my calling. I became a licensed Israeli desert guide a month before I was ordained in 1996. I was obsessed with understanding the intersection between wilderness and spirituality. I carried the Tanakh through Israel’s deserts and the Sinai, asking: Does the landscape make a difference in reading the text? I seriously investigated spirituality for the first time. I founded Ruach HaMidbar Spiritual Desert Trips, leading rabbis, rabbinical students, ministers, and laypeople on wilderness treks, mostly in the Sinai mountains.
Pursuing my passion led me back to the US in 1998. Unlike Israel, there were many teachers of spirituality in the wilderness, and spirituality in general. I worked part-time jobs for two years to enable a “spiritual sabbatical.” This included the first rabbinic cohort of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, four- and six-week silent meditation retreats, and several “Vision Quests,” where one spends four days alone in the wilderness, fasting from food while praying and meditating.
In 2000, I moved to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I served half time as a congregational rabbi while founding TorahTrek Spiritual Wilderness Adventures. Later I learned the I had become an “entrepreneurial” rabbi. I didn’t know the term at the time, but I certainly knew the work. I learned everything one learns in running a small business, including how to build a website.
Wyoming was a lonely place for a single rabbi, so I moved to my childhood home of Los Angeles in 2004 and married in 2008. To make ends meet, I continued to serve congregations in Wyoming and Montana as a part-time, commuting rabbi. In 2006, I went all in on TorahTrek. It wasn’t until I fully committed that the organization took off. It helped that my first book, A Wild Faith: Jewish Ways into Wilderness, Wilderness Ways into Judaism, came out at the same time.
But it was not to last. The 2008 recession nearly wiped out TorahTrek, as discretional spending in congregations disappeared. (TorahTrek rebounded two years later.) I suddenly had a lot of time on my hands. I decided to write a second book on prayer. As prayer was difficult for me, I had a lot to say about overcoming the obstacles. It also helped that I interviewed fifty people on their prayer lives.
Making Prayer Real is typical of a book in the self-help genre — here’s the problem; here’s what to do about it — but the narrative is atypically interspersed with excerpts from the interviews, giving readers a multitude of perspectives within a single approach. In the publishing world this is considered risky and difficult to pull off, but the book wrote itself in an organic flow. The whole project took four months! The book was well received, which encouraged me to think about new directions.
Earning a living is always a challenge for independent rabbis. Typically, an independent rabbi teaches around the country, connects to students and then rarely sees them again. Authors in niche markets need to monetize their books, as royalties are miniscule. I saw the internet as a way to address both problems and open revenue streams.
Building on my TorahTrek experience, I designed the Making Prayer Real website with a virtual classroom and developed a curriculum to teach the book online, so that I could continue to work with students from a distance. Eventually it turned into a video curriculum (as I reinterviewed people, this time in front of the camera) that is sold to congregations and schools. This required learning videography skills. Not what I expected, but another entrepreneurial necessity. The way I see it, other rabbis have their administrative duties, I have mine. For me, video production is better than board meetings.
My new project is an online Jewish education center called Lev Learning. I am providing other independent teachers with the online tools that I wished someone had provided me. Somewhat ironic for a wilderness guy to develop internet projects, but a key to an entrepreneurial rabbinate is adaptability.
Rabbi Mike Comins is founding director of the Jewish online education center Lev Learning, teaches The Making Prayer Real Course and Curriculum, and directs the TorahTrek Center for Jewish Wilderness Spirituality.