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Akiva Gilbert

In 2004, upon his completion of The Jerusalem Kollel three-year Rabbinics and Jewish Outreach Program, Rabbi Akiva Gilbert arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa to launch a new, out-of-the-box Jewish education organization. Rabbi Gilbert co-founded the Outdoor Jewish Experience, the "OJE," to help Jewish college students enhance their Jewish identity through some unusual and exciting programs. The OJE offers students week-long retreats at a luxurious South-African resort featuring Torah classes and adventures into the nearby wilderness. The classes expose students to introductory Jewish concepts and the adventures expose students to ''extreme sports'' like river-rafting and abseiling (that's what ''rappelling'' is called in South Africa). Aside from being an attractive incentive for students to participate in the retreats, these wilderness trips foster a feeling of closeness and interdependence among participants and provide them with an opportunity to form new relationships with other Jews. Upon completion of each retreat, the students can become part of the OJE network of Torah classes and other events. Many students also choose to participate in trips to Israel to attend programs that continue to explore the topics they began to learn about while on the retreats.

The post-retreat events that the OJE offers its alumni are also not typical learning experiences. Rabbi Gilbert hosts, for example, a weekly Braai - the South African version of a barbeque - featuring a class, schmoozing, and plenty of good food. These get-togethers, aside from their being an opportunity for students to increase their knowledge, provide a relaxed setting for students to build relationships with the OJE staff. In one instance, Rabbi Gilbert got to know a student that regularly attended OJE events and classes. The student eventually decided to spend time studying in Israel – and his girlfriend decided to do the same. Some time later, they asked him to officiate at their wedding ceremony. The Gilberts also host regular Shabbos programs for the students in their home.

Last year, on the back of OJE's popularity among students (there have been ten programs since its inception), Rabbi Gilbert and his team diversified the organization by expanding their sphere of influence to include programming for business executives and professionals. They demonstrated that their ability to provide the best in Jewish inspiration against the backdrop of nature’s beauty and excitement extends even to the less adventurous of us as well. The first Executive Torah Experience was held at Leopard Creek, a beautiful South African golf resort, and featured South-African born Rabbi Akiva Tatz, an author and educator well-known in Jerusalem and England for his unusual depth and creativity. The resort borders the Kruger National Park, South Africa’s largest wildlife reserve, where the thirty participants were treated to an authentic African safari.

This year, Rabbi Gilbert and his crew are going global. In June, the OJE is collaborating with NCSY, the North-American teenage Jewish youth group, to host a two-week program in South Africa for sixty teens. In August, they will join up again with Rabbi Akiva Tatz to bring together student leaders from North America, England and South Africa for a special OJE experience.

The Outdoor Jewish Experience, in its relatively short history, has managed to touch hundreds of people-in a territory which, upon its arrival on the scene, was already rich with opportunities for Jewish Education. Rabbi Gilbert, in his quest to help more Jews appreciate their heritage, continues to launch fresh and inspiring educational initiatives...and expeditions deep into the African bush.