BOYLSTON — Rabbi Katy Z. Allen and her tiny congregation make their way through the woods on a windy autumn morning, stopping now and then to sing and pray portions of the Shabbat service.
They reach the Wachusett Reservoir and spread out along the water’s edge to collect wild cranberries, slowly filling their buckets. A meditative quiet settles in.
“You can think of your picking as part of your prayer today,” Allen tells the group as they begin. “As we prepare to harvest the bounty of the earth, let’s take a moment to feel the earth beneath our feet, and enjoy the warmth of the sun on our faces and our backs.”
Many congregations from across the religious spectrum hold the occasional outdoor service, but Allen’s gathering of Jewish environmentalists and nature lovers almost always worships outside.
Allen calls her congregation “Ma’yan Tikvah,” or “a wellspring of hope” in Hebrew. In May, she organizes a bicycle Shabbat, with stops for prayer and picnicking. In August, she holds a potluck Shabbat dinner, then everyone heads outside to watch the Perseid meteor showers. High Holiday services happen in the woods.
Praying outdoors adds another dimension to just being outdoors, Allen says, and being outside adds another dimension to the prayer.
“There’s an openness, an endlessness,” she says.
The group is more a gathering than a formal congregation; its size and makeup fluctuates. On this day there are just eight people, but High Holiday services can draw as many as 50. Some people come regularly, others just once a year — but that, Allen notes, is no different from any synagogue. She tries to keep in touch now and then with those who drift in and out.
“I like the small group, I like that I’m with friends every weekend when I pray,” says Robyn Bernstein of Bolton, who attends most of the group’s two or three outings a month. “It’s an entirely different experience than being in a building. Of course, in the winter I miss the heat a little bit. But we dress warm and we pray faster.”
If Ma’yan Tikvah is a little unconventional, so is Allen, 62, who also works as a chaplain at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
She grew up in Wisconsin, in a family that loved being outside. Her father was a botanist who grew up on a farm, and her mother’s undergraduate degree was in biology. They camped and hiked together, and spent summer vacations in rustic cabins in the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Love of nature, Allen says, “was in the air.”
But she had little experience with religion, except for a couple of years during middle school when she attended a Unitarian Universalist church. Allen remembers having intense conversations with the minister’s daughter — who later became a Lutheran pastor — about whether God existed.
She put aside spirituality as a young adult. She married, taught high school biology and general science outside Boston, had children. When her son began asking questions about God, she began searching for ways to help answer them.
Her then-husband was Jewish, so they began with a havurah — a Jewish group that meets for prayer, learning, and celebration of holidays. Later, they brought their children to the Sunday School for Jewish Studies in Newton, a Hebrew school for children and families that meets Sunday mornings. A turning point in Allen’s spiritual life came during a High Holiday service at the school.
As the congregation prayed together, she recalls, she realized that “I’m not the only one searching here, and trying to find meaning.”
They joined a reform synagogue. When Allen and her husband divorced, she moved to a conservative congregation in Wayland. She loved the Hebrew portions of the service, even though her comprehension was limited.
“There is a power in the ancient language,” she says. “Sometimes, understanding can get in the way of the experience. It becomes this intellectual thing, rather than opening your heart and letting it flow through.”
Still, she wanted to learn more. She was working in educational publishing, writing, and Jewish education, but as the years passed, she had a nagging feeling that did not go away: She wanted to become a rabbi.
In 1999, 11 years after she converted, she began attending rabbinical school part time at the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York. When she finished in 2005, she worked at a synagogue in Winthrop, but it was not the right fit.
Allen’s current partner, Gabi Mezger, asked her what she would do if she could do anything she wanted.
“I said, ‘I would pray outside,’ ” Allen says. “ ‘She said, ‘Go for it.’ ”
Allen began with occasional Shabbat services in fall 2007; the following year they became more regular and organized, and she led her first High Holiday services in the woods. Now, the congregation has established some traditions, like the Cranberry Shabbat; Bernstein makes cranberry sauce and cranberry bread with the harvest and donates them to a veterans shelter in Worcester for Thanksgiving dinner.
“This combination of nature and Judaism . . . brings together pieces of me,” Allen says. “It feels like where I belong.”
The people who come to Ma’yan Tikvah feel much the same way. Elan Riesman of Acton loves to hike. The Blue Hills Reservation is a favorite spot, and so are the White Mountains in New Hampshire. He has joined Ma’yan Tikvah for Shabbat outings on a several occasions.
“The people are really nice,” he says as he hunts for garnet-red berries amid thick green scrub. “I love nature, and meditation.”
Praying outside, he adds, feels “more intense, more spiritual.”
Keenly aware of climate change and other issues threatening the environment, Allen makes time to participate in environmental education and advocacy work, efforts she also sees as faith-driven.
As unusual as some of the settings may seem for worship, none is very far from home. Allen says she wants to keep the outings accessible and affordable, and to make a larger point. “What I’m trying to do is say, ‘Right here, where we live, we can have experiences of healing in nature, no matter where we are,’ ” she says. “Even in the city, you can always look up and see the sky, feel the wind on your face.”
Lisa Wangsness can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.