For Shavuot, Bay Area Jews head to the wilderness

Most Jews around the world observe Shavuot in the relative comfort of their synagogues and homes. Not so for Wilderness Torah, a Berkeley-based nonprofit.

On May 25, for the fifth consecutive year, the group will celebrate the commemoration of God’s giving the Torah to the Israelites at Mount Sinai by creating a temporary village on a literal mountain just outside of Oakland.

Since 2007, Wilderness Torah has been organizing backcountry celebrations of Jewish festivals: For Passover, which remembers the Israelites’ leaving Egypt for the Sinai desert, they travel to a desert near Death Valley; for Sukkot, the final harvest festival of the agricultural year, they camp on a farm; and for four days over Memorial Day weekend, about 150 Jews and non-Jews will join Wilderness Torah’s staff to create what the group’s leader calls a “dynamic pluralistic village” for the annual “Shavuot on the Mountain” celebration.

Zelig Golden, a former environmental lawyer and founding co-director of Wilderness Torah, recently spoke about his organization at an event in Culver City and his hope to rekindle an appreciation for Judaism’s roots in the wilderness.

“Judaism is based in an ancient land-based culture, and our traditions, our stories, our ritual objects, they all come from a relationship with land,” Golden said. And though, as a religion, Judaism can seem to be more about books than about earth, Golden sees a need for Jews, like everyone else, to be rooted in the land.

“If we don’t follow the mitzvot,” he said, citing verses from Leviticus, “and we don’t have a relationship with the land in certain ways, like the laws of shmita, resting the land … the environment’s going to turn on us.”

Celebrating in the wilderness isn’t always easy. Participants are required to bring their own tents, their own sleeping bags, even their own dishes.

“People come because it’s challenging,” Golden said. “Because it’s out of their comfort zone.”