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In the California Desert, Wilderness Torah Takes Judaism Back to Nature

Founder Zelig Golden, an environmental lawyer turned rabbi-in-training, tries ‘to reconnect the Jewish people’ to the earth

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Zelig Golden, 2013. (Eli Zaturanski)
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Wilderness Torah held its first Passover in the Desert in 2008, in California’s East Mojave, with 40 people gathering for a weekend of camping, eating, and an outdoor Seder. “Later, though,” explained Golden, “rather than tell the story, we created experiences where we could be in the story. Instead of creating your traditional Seder with your haggadah, we sent people out into the desert like Moshe to create personal experiences of liberation.” Rabbi James Brandt, CEO of the East Bay Jewish Federation, attended Passover in the Desert last year in California’s Death Valley and described it as “reminiscent of the days of the mishkan, the desert wandering people.”

By 2009 Wilderness Torah became an incubation project of UpStart Bay Area, and soon thereafter Hazon, an organization that helps create environmentally sustainable Jewish communities, became its fiscal sponsor and helped it pilot the first nature-component to a bar/bat mitzvah program. This was so successful that by 2010 it became B’Naiture and also B’Hootz, a “purely experiential” Sunday school. For example, for Sukkot they built forts while talking about the holiday, yielding “their own primitive sukkahs.”

“What they are doing with education work is where they are breaking new ground,” said Rabbi Mike Comins, founder of Torah Trek, another Jewish outdoor adventure program, who has attended Passover in the Desert the past three years. “Being 57 and part of Jewish life for many decades, and to see that many people under 40 gather and as many men as women gather at a Jewish event was a fantastic thing to see for the Jewish community. The idealism was there.”

Brandt recalled his own Wilderness Torah experiences: “I have a wilderness background, so it was very powerful, recapturing the camp experiences of my youth, Havdalah under the stars instead of in a social hall. The breadth of people’s experiences—a qi gong meditation group, a Sukkot retreat—the richness of our contemporary Jewish community.”

Brandt contextualized Wilderness Torah within a shifting trend toward autonomous Jewish expression. “A movement started in the ’70s with the publication of Michael Strassfeld’s The First Jewish Catalog,” he explained in a phone interview. “It was a new movement, a new perspective. There was the chavurah movement, Havurat Shalom in Somerville, Mass., the Aleph network. It was all saying, ‘We don’t need the traditional institutions to do Jewish, we can do Jewish ourselves.’ ” This is how he sees the innovation of Bay Area groups like Kevah, a Jewish studies and leadership organization, Urban Adamah, and Wilderness Torah. “What has happened since,” Brandt continued, “is that many young people are forming their own organizations with their own experiences. If people wanted to have a wilderness-based program, they would create one.”

For the first few years of Wilderness Torah, Golden gathered everyone at his home for Hanukkah. The organization likes to celebrate, to gather, to give thanks, and the Dec. 5 hoedown, among other things, is a formal excuse for a party—only it is too big now for in-house gatherings. The upcoming event is an important turning point for the organization. As Wolk transitions to board member, the team has brought on new Managing Director Nancy Shaw, who was hired to help grow the organization from its start-up stage to the next-growth stage. Like Golden, Shaw wears a number of vital hats, emerging from the Craigslist Foundation and the Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund and holding an MBA in sustainable business. She is also the founder of the environmental responsibility program at Blue Shield of California. “Wilderness Torah is ready to grow to its next stage and have even more impact in the Jewish world,” Shaw said. “I’m focused on building the organization so that Wilderness Torah continues to realize its vision of revitalizing Jewish life by reconnecting Jewish traditions to the cycles of nature.”

Golden, who has since transformed his own life “to support this reconnection” to the earth and to the Jewish people, began his training to be a rabbi via the Renewal movement’s Aleph ordination training this year and is also in his first year of an MA in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. “In order to support the leadership of Wilderness Torah,” he said, “I need a deeper understanding of the Jewish tradition.” In the meantime, he will be at this week’s Hanukkah event celebrating along with the community.

“We just love to gather people that time of year,” said Wolk. “It is a celebration of gratitude of where we come from and where we are going.”

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In the California Desert, Wilderness Torah Takes Judaism Back to Nature

Founder Zelig Golden, an environmental lawyer turned rabbi-in-training, tries ‘to reconnect the Jewish people’ to the earth

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