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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

Merissa Nathan Gerson
December 03, 2013
Eli Zaturanski
Zelig Golden, 2013.Eli Zaturanski
Eli Zaturanski
Zelig Golden, 2013.Eli Zaturanski

Shortly after he finished law school in 2007, Zelig Golden went on a “vision quest” in California’s White Mountains with Rites of Passage. Although it was “a religiously universal program,” Golden said, he had “what turned out to be a very powerful Jewish experience.”

It began as a 10-day group trip in the wilderness, at an altitude of 10,000 feet in the high desert, but the focus was on preparing for three days and nights Golden would spend alone afterward. “I was guided to go spend three days and three nights fasting and praying,” he recalled. He intended to reevaluate his “work in the world” because he’d decided that being an environmental lawyer wasn’t satisfying enough. “I came back with a very simple vision,” he said. “I wanted to connect my people to the earth.”

By “my people,” Golden meant the Jews. Two and a half months later, he turned his vision into reality, organizing the first “Sukkot on the Farm” in Dixon, Calif. “It was a little festival,” he said, “not so organized but well-intentioned.” A small, informal group of Bay Area Jews camped out at the edge of a vegetable field, where they prayed, built a sukkah, learned Torah, and toured the farm. Out of this festival, Wilderness Torah was eventually born—a Berkeley-based group Golden calls “a manifestation of this vision to reconnect the Jewish people to this thing we were once deeply connected to.”

Wilderness Torah has developed from a small gathering of campers to a full cycle of outdoor festivals tied to Jewish holidays—Sukkot, Passover, Shavuot, and Tu B’Shevat—as well as other back-to-nature wilderness quests for adults throughout the year. The group has also created a nature-mentorship b’nai mitzvah program called B’Naiture for 11-to-13 year-olds, and an outdoor-education program called B’Hootz that takes younger kids camping, hiking, and into the wilderness to learn Torah through outdoor experience with mentors.

Wilderness Torah’s numbers are rising. That first Sukkot on the Farm festival in 2007 drew 35 people; this year’s now-annual event drew 300 campers to Green Oaks Creek Farm in Pescadero, Calif., featuring organic kosher meals, a talk by tracker-author Jon Young, lessons from the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, music by the band Tevat Teva, kids’ activities, meditation, and more.

As Hanukkah winds down this year on Dec. 5, Wilderness Torah is partnering with Urban Adamah, a Jewish urban educational farm and community center also in Berkeley, for a “Hodaya Hoedown”—hodaya meaning “gratitude” in Hebrew. The fundraiser will be held on the Urban Adamah farm with live “Jewgrass” by the band Shamati. “People’s interest in food and nature is burgeoning in the Bay Area right now,” said Adam Berman, a board member of Wilderness Torah and the founder and executive director of Urban Adamah. “Twenty years ago there was not a need, desire, or passion for this type of connection.”

Growing up in Spokane, Wash., Golden was active in the Jewish youth group USY in high school and attended synagogue regularly. But, he said, “in college I was more focused on exploring the natural world so that synagogue life and traditional Judaism took a back seat for a while. I studied ecology. I became obsessed with the environment. I was a serious mountain climber and hiker.” The quintessential environmentalist, he was later a botanist and a park ranger in the back-country Alaska wilderness, lived on organic farms, and worked as a guide for Colorado Outward Bound.

In 1998, two years after earning a B.S. in ecology at the University of Washington, his Judaism and environmentalism were fused when he served as the first program director of the Northwest Jewish Environmental Project in Seattle, an affiliate of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life. “To bring these two parts of my identity, of myself—my passion for Jewish heritage and the natural world—to bring these together and to teach about these things was like a dream come true,” he said. “At that time it was just a dream I didn’t know I had.”

Golden went on to earn a J.D. from the Berkeley School of Law, intending to become an environmental lawyer on behalf of the “organic agriculture, GMO-fighting industry, protecting the organic food industry.” In 2004 he finished law school, started a law fellowship “suing oil companies to clean up the environment” and began a maggid training program at a small synagogue in Berkeley, which trained him as a spiritual leader and storyteller. “As a lawyer,” Golden said, “I was also asking the deeper existential questions: What is the deeper value of this work?” He knew something was missing: “I was feeling called to re-evaluate my work in the world.”

That led him to the Adamah Jewish Farming Fellowship at the Isabella Freedman Retreat Center in Connecticut in 2006. After the farming season, he started his first job as a lawyer for the Center for Food and Safety back in San Francisco, where he worked on behalf of organic farmers and food producers, as he said, “to keep GMOs honest.” But again, practicing law proved to be not enough for Golden. He was still searching. That was when he went on his vision quest.

The notion of once again putting Jewish practice in a natural setting was one thing, but bringing it down to earth was a whole other matter. “There was a beautiful moment on my vision quest,” Golden recalled. Mike Bodkin, the Jewish man who led the quest and later became Golden’s mentor, told him: “When we have a clear path set before us, we have to go home and slowly integrate and take one step, one step—really walk the vision in human time.”

A few months after the first Sukkot on the Farm, Golden joined forces with Jonathan Rosenfield, whom he calls “a Ph.D. fish biologist conservation guy,” and Adam Edell, “a garden and food educator in the Berkeley school system.” “It wasn’t Wilderness Torah then, it was just some volunteers creating experiences,” Golden explained. Julie Wolk, an environmental and community organizer who attended that first event, joined with Golden, Edell, and Rosenfield and stepped up to the role of founding co-director in the years that followed.

“Human beings are disconnected,” said Wolk. “Adam [man] comes from adamah [earth]. When we disconnect from that source, from the earth—we are disconnected from ourselves, our community, we are ungrounded. We can see it all over society how people are longing for connection.” By taking Jewish community out of the synagogue and placing it in community camping, hiking, and prayer experiences outdoors, Wilderness Torah hopes to re-forge that connection.

“That’s where the path was leading,” said Wolk. “I am the poster child for the wayward Jew who re-found Judaism through somewhat radical practice—which is what Wilderness Torah is doing.” Raised on Reform Judaism and summer camp, she became interested at a young age in science, environmentalism, and earth-based spirituality. But like Golden, she pursued these interests through her college years without connecting them to Jewish practice. She wanted to get back to Judaism. “I am not unique,” she said. “There are tons of Jews looking for ways to connect in alignment with their values.

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.”

Merissa Nathan Gerson is a writer, sex educator, and rape prevention advocate. She teaches Alternative Journalism at Tulane University in New Orleans.