Finding Torah in the American wilderness
When the sun set on Saturday, Zelig Golden blew his shofar, calling more than a 100 people of all ages and backgrounds to assemble in a giant circle in Bort Meadow, a campground in Chabot Anthony Regional Park.
“All our prophets had their epiphanies in nature,” Golden, 38, told to the crowd, marking the start of Shavuot and a program that he believes could spread across the American and even world Jewish community.
If those gathered wished to receive their own revelation, he said, they had to venture into the wilderness as well.
“Revelation is not a lighting bolt that fills your head with wisdom all at once. It’s when you look at a blade of grass and say, that’s amazing. When you see the specks of green in someone’s eyes,” Golden continued.
After music and dancing, participants were invited to grab the ends of the ribbons hanging from the “Omer Poll.”
They wrapped themselves around the attached 49 strands—each representing a day between the exodus from Egypt and the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.
Throughout the weekend long “Shavuot on the Mountain” event, organized by the Bay area-based Wilderness Torah, participants were encouraged to reengage with Judaism, nature and the relationship between the two.
Golden kept his head covered with a wide-brimmed cowboy hat or a knitted head covering, never a traditional kippah. His beard, hosting a few gray hairs, would suit either a traditional rabbi or an outdoorsy type who likes to camp and to keep a warm face.
Golden is a mixture of both, and he isn’t coy about Wilderness Torah being his idea.
Raised in a traditional home in a small Jewish community in Spokane, Wash., he moved to California to attend Berkeley School of Law.
Until 2010, he worked as an environmental lawyer for the Center for Food Safety, protecting farmers from genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
He became depressed, he said, at his job, despite the positive impact he knew it had on the issues he cared about. “I lost my derech,” he said, using the Hebrew word for “path.”
His path to spirituality began with a non-religious meditation group for lawyers.
That ignited a spark. “I realized that it was something that was missing from my life and I wanted more of it,” he said.
His search eventually led him to Berkeley’s Jewish Renewal community, Chochmat HaLev, or “wisdom of the heart.”
The group partnered with Hazon, the Jewish environmentalist group, and engaged in issues of and programs on sustainability and the environment.
For Sukkot 2007, Golden and a handful of other Chochmat HaLev members organized a camping trip to the Sacramento Valley’s Eatwell Farm, their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) affiliate.
While only a few dozen people attended that first event, today Wilderness Torah is an independent organization that sees hundreds of participants in their desert camping expeditions and youth mentorship programs.
The latter include b’nai mitzvah programs that weave Jewish thought with outdoor skills.
At the Shavuot on the Mountain program, a popular joke was that Wilderness Torah events are like the Jewish Burning Man, the annual contemporary cultural held in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.
It’s another way of saying that these programs are open and welcoming, particularly to all things New Age.
In fact, both festivals aim to establish an idyllic village community in nature, leading to all sorts of creative expressions.
So it was not surprise to see someone strike a yoga pose or break out the Hula-Hoop during a Torah service that took place in the cool shade of pine trees.
But while Burning Man is partly fueled by psychedelics and clothing is optional, Wilderness Torah makes a concerted effort to be a child-friendly, family experience.
Indeed, the many kids in the “Children’s Village,” a kind of daycare where they were entertained and educated (with parents allowed to attend their activities), seemed to be enjoying playing outdoors for the entire weekend—not an Angry Bird in sight.
Most of the younger participants were asleep by the start of the night-long tikkun, or study session. It followed the 10 p.m. Shavuot celebration opening and Havdalah.
With the desert temperature dropping and the wind picking up, pages with sacred text were blowing in the hands of those who gripped them while reading by flashlight.
The adults broke into several nearby groups began their night of learning.
One, with Golden, studied writings on Shavuot in the Torah and other commentaries. Not far away, Rabbi Daniel Lev guided a group in an activity called “Shema Between the Sheets: Spiritual Intimacy at Bedtime.”
By 5 a.m., a handful of the hardiest had made it to the Shacharit sunrise services, led by Chochmat HaLev’s Rabbi SaraLeya Schely.
As that small group prayed, most people remained asleep in the tents dotting the surrounding meadow. Even Golden wasn’t in sight, maybe finally allowing himself a few hours of sleep.
Perhaps he was storing energy for what he hopes is next: Spreading the program around the globe.
Indeed, he said that process has already begun.
“What’s really exciting is that were being approached from people all over,” he said. “We get requests from Australia, the UK, Canada, Israel. We want to take what we’re doing here and spread it across the Jewish world.”