Burning Man Meets Passover

About a half-hour before you reach the site for Passover in the Desert, an annual event put on by a nonprofit called Wilderness Torah, you pass through a series of valleys encrusted with the salt of evaporated lakebeds and the residue of mineral mining.
April 23, 2015

About a half-hour before you reach the site for Passover in the Desert, an annual event put on by a nonprofit called Wilderness Torah, you pass through a series of valleys encrusted with the salt of evaporated lakebeds and the residue of mineral mining. The desolate town of Trona, Calif., which lies southwest of Death Valley and 170 miles from Los Angeles, is the last indication of extant civilization. A few more miles, right onto a dirt road, past the ghost town of Ballarat, past a variety of RVs and four wheelers, left at Indian Ranch Road, right onto Surprise Canyon, and you’re there.

The dust settles to reveal a long line of cars, an assortment of tents and other temporary structures, and the rugged Panamint Range. A dozen or so figures hover around a small tent — a few talking, one playing a drum, another dancing. They welcome you one at a time.

“It’s beautiful to meet you,” one of them says.

“Likewise,” I respond, a bit apprehensively.

A dancing woman approaches and gives me a warm hug, instructing me to pass through “a transformative labyrinth” — essentially a path of rocks leading to the bottom of a small indentation in the light brown dirt, where a flower and a branch have been delicately placed. Walking slowly through, I try to center myself — to leave L.A. behind, to forget about my phone (now locked in my glove box), to release myself of expectation.

After completing the welcoming ritual, I set up my tent and explore the various communal structures which, over the next four days, will be my home and the home of 142 others: the Tent of Meeting, the Healing Hut, the Beit Midrash, the Sanctuary and the Hearth. The farthest structure, I later find out, is the Red Tent, or women’s tent. It is midafternoon on Thursday, April 9 — the seventh night of the eponymous celebration, but the first of the festival. It is not too hot, maybe in the low 80s, but the sun is strong. Each place I go, people introduce themselves, some with handshakes, most with long, intimate hugs.

Returning to the welcoming tent, I sit and listen as people socialize, play various instruments, sing in English and Hebrew, dance and welcome new neighbors. The woman who was first to hug me when I arrived reminds me to make a “name cookie” (a cross section of a small tree branch with a hole for string) using glitter and an assortment of markers. A grinning 20-something with payot and wearing tzitzit approaches and sits next to a woman, probably a decade older, with long, dark dreadlocks, who is playing a small drum. A little boy walks by with his mom. Two men, both bearded and wearing straw hats, chat in the distance. An older man with a white mustache walks out of the Sanctuary, pauses and looks out into the distance.

Retuning to the desert
The first evening passes quickly. As the sun sets, a shofar is blown three times to call us to dinner. We gather in a large circle, say prayers together, and are rewelcomed by various Wilderness Torah staff and community members. The next morning, someone announces, there will be yoga at 7 a.m. and Shacharit (morning prayers) at 8 a.m., for anyone interested.

Still feeling somewhat skeptical, I find myself a place at a low table in the Tent of Meeting with two other first-timers and Jon Mitchell, who is returning for his second year. I ask Jon why we come here to celebrate Passover in self-imposed exile. “In the end, you have to turn to the landscape, to the desert,” he tells me, alluding to the fact that our surroundings resemble those that Moses and the Israelites entered after he freed them from Egypt, and, with God’s guidance, led them through the narrows and across the Red Sea.

After dinner, people socialize and sit around a fire, playing and listening to music. Tired from an early morning, I retire to my small backpacking tent, which I have set up about a hundred yards from the center of camp.

Diversity leads to resiliency
“In the wilderness, come close to the One,” Zelig Golden, the founding director of Wilderness Torah, says at an opening circle the next morning, introducing the theme for the 2015 Passover in the Desert Festival.

This is when I am able to confirm what I had sensed upon arriving at the “village,” as it is affectionately called, the previous afternoon — that diversity is a central tenet of Wilderness Torah — in terms of age, religious identification, sexual orientation, gender identity and racial diversity. Make no assumptions, Sarah Moser, the fundraising and operations assistant and avodah (work exchange) manager for Wilderness Torah, urges the group.

Later, I ask Zelig, 41, about the organization’s attention to diversity. “Think of how the ecology of a forest works,” he tells me. “When there is diversity, there is resiliency. When there is a lack of diversity, there is a weakness and a lack of resiliency. Well, the same thing is true of communities.”

The organization adapts to its evolving community. The focus on gender nondiscrimination, for example, arose from a series of conversations among active community members a few years ago. Ariel Wolpe, a first-year rabbinical student at American Jewish University (AJU), tells me that she likes to think of Wilderness Torah as “an experiment” — not in the sense that it has an end date, but in that each festival is an adaptation or adjustment of the one that preceded it. Zelig said he prefers to call it “long-term training.”

After the meeting, we divide into our “tribes,” or subgroups, each named for one of the sephirot (the 10 emanations of the divine in kabbalah). Mine is “chesed.” Under the guidance of Joseph Shamash, another first-year rabbinical student at AJU, we introduce ourselves and describe what we hoped to gain — emotionally and spiritually — from the festival.

In that discussion, and in others throughout the day, I begin to notice similarities in the stories of why each person has come to the event. Many festival participants — though far from all — grew up in religious Jewish households, became disaffected by the customs of their upbringings and so sought out spiritual connection in nature and in other religious traditions, and then returned to Judaism on their own terms.

Zelig’s story fits this narrative: Raised in a Conservative household, he left Judaism behind in college. Afterward, he worked for Outward Bound and other nature-oriented organizations. He eventually received a law degree from UC Berkeley and, for a decade, worked as an environmental lawyer. Having slowly regained interest in Judaism, he became involved with a few Jewish organizations. After a solo “vision quest” in 2007, he decided to make it his mission to merge his love of the outdoors with contemporary Jewish practice. With three friends, he organized a wilderness excursion to coincide with Sukkot. Two years later, he left his career in law to found Wilderness Torah. Heavily influenced by the teachings of the late Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Zelig is now a rabbinical student at ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, which aims to continue the rabbi’s vision.

“The Jewish people are rooted in an ancient Hebrew people that [were] once deeply connected with the land, and with an oral tradition connected with that land. We lived as indigenous people. … Because of historical facts, we became deeply disconnected from that land,” Zelig tells me. “We are recovering the indigenous relationship of our ancestors to live as healthy people on the planet.”

That afternoon, in preparation for Shabbat, a few of us hike up into a nearby oasis called Surprise Canyon. On the way up, I trade stories with Jeff Zimerman, a jovial Angeleno attending his fifth Passover in the Desert event, and Rachael Martin, the Los Angeles project manager at InterfaithFamily, who was also attending her first festival.

On our way down, we run into a larger group of Passover in the Desert folks immersing in the mikveh — a mountain stream. We join in. Dipping one at a time into the pool for those who identify as men, we each say the mikveh blessing. Before each subsequent dip, we offer one hope for our time in the desert: something to leave behind, something to take in and something for the community.

We return just in time for services in the Tent of Meeting — celebrating the last night of Passover and the start of Shabbat. Before turning over the proceedings to a group of staff and active participants, Zelig points out that, at this point in the Passover story, the Israelites had arrived at the banks of the Red Sea, Pharoah’s army was in pursuit, and Moses was seeking guidance from God.

Later, we eat dinner, followed by music around the fire, a game night in the Tent of Meeting and a service in the Sanctuary.

A brief aside: What Baruch Schwadron, the chef at Passover in the Desert (and a staff member for Wilderness Torah’s teen B’naiture program), pulls off, given the restrictions placed on him, is a truly impressive feat, cooking for 143 people with different dietary needs — vegetarian, vegan, gluten free, kosher for Passover, etc. Dinner Friday, for example, consists of fire-roasted lamb, mashed sweet potatoes, matzah ball soup, green lentils, green salad and macaroons, not to mention that there were often multiple versions of each dish.

Gaining perspective
The following morning I wake at 6:30 because it is chesed’s turn to assist Schwadron in the Hearth. Many others are rising for morning yoga. While the rest of our group prepares hundreds of boiled eggs to be made into deviled eggs, Shamash — one of the rabbinical students — and I do prep for lunch and dinner.

After breakfast, a handful of people walk over to the sanctuary for a more traditional liturgical service, while the rest of the village gathers in the Tent of Meeting for a song-based renewal service. Midway through the main service, I decide I have had enough for the morning and venture outside. Although I care deeply for the traditions, the prayers and the history, I am a secular Jew — albeit one with a proclivity for spiritual communion. As I feel a bit shy about simply walking out, I am pleased to discover a dozen or so people outside doing their own thing — praying on their own, doing yoga or simply sitting and enjoying the scenery. What might have been awkward immediately becomes less so. I go over to the kitchen, where I find a small group standing around or helping Schwadron and his team. At some point, the two services unite for a reading from the Torah. I spend that time chopping potatoes and onions.

After lunch, we break off into our tribes to prepare for our “wilderness encounter,” essentially a half-day solo in the desert. About 20 Passover in the Desert attendees had arrived two days early for a 24-hour vision quest (which multiple people told me had been a transformative experience), and now we each are to walk away from camp for an abbreviated period of time — to introspect, to converse with nature and perhaps to encounter God. “Bamidbar,” the wilderness, “also means to speak, because this is where the voice of God is most easily heard,” Zelig tells us beforehand.

Zelig later tells me: “Throughout the Tanakh, we see our sages, our prophets, go out into the wilderness alone to bring back wisdom, to bring back insight, to bring back guidance for their work in the world.” Moses and the burning bush; Isaac after the Akedah (binding), he suggests.

I find a large, jutting white rock to shade me from the sun, and sitting beneath it, I consider what it took to bring that rock down from the adjacent mountains over millions of years, bringing it there, to that precise spot, different in color and scale than almost all the other nearby rocks. At first I laugh at myself for having this thought — it seems juvenile or dope-headed — but over time, as the self-critical part of me dissipates in the heat, I allow myself to sink into it, to deepen the idea, to genuinely marvel at the mundane. The next thing I remember is waking up, a spider crawling across the back of my neck.

Before dinner, Zelig announces that there will be an “ancestral healing ceremony” later in the evening for anyone who wishes to participate. Washing my dishes, I end up in conversation with Shawn, another of my chesed mates. He tells me a bit about why he came to Passover in the Desert. Once a professional cyclist, a heart disease he did not know he had prematurely ended his career. Having spent much of the past year mourning his identity as a cyclist, it was his sister who brought him to the festival. He is searching for a new sense purpose, he tells me, and says he has gained some perspective.

Healing cultural trauma
On the third night, I awaken in the middle of the night to the sound of a shriek. At first, I think someone has encountered a rattlesnake or scorpion, but then I remember the ceremony. I decide to go observe. I walk to the Sacred Fire, our natural fire on the altar, where I run into Brian, also watching. Thirty or so people are huddled around the fire, some quiet, others praying in Hebrew, a few in the throes of emotional upheaval.

I later ask Zelig why he thinks ancestral healing is necessary for the Jewish people. “Judaism as a cultural tradition has a long history of cultural trauma connected to it,” he tells me. “We can see that in the way we were affected in World War II and the Holocaust, we can see that in the destruction of the Temple and being cast out of the land of Israel, and we can see that in many historical moments between. And we know that these traumas are carried generation to generation and have real impacts on people’s lives.

“Wilderness Torah is providing a Jewish place for people who are drawn to indigenous teachings and indigenous wisdom, and we are providing a place for them to express their indigenous self so that they don’t have to leave the tradition,” Zelig says.

On Sunday, I spend much of the day talking with people as they rest in the Tent of Meeting: Marley, Emily, Aaron, Mikhael, Naomi, etc. At one point, a water truck comes to refill us, and a dance party breaks out under a fountain of extra water the driver needs to drain for safety reasons. People grab drums and run from all over camp, and for about an hour everyone dances passionately under the hot sun. Later, some people take time for themselves, some go on a hike up Surprise Canyon, and others join Zelig in the Beit Midrash for text study.

In the late afternoon, everyone is called to the Tent of Meeting to discuss the previous night’s healing ceremony, which has become a topic of conversation in the village. A few people who did not participate are unhappy about having been awakened by the screaming, and about the effect of the timing of the ceremony on village cohesion. Zelig offers an apology, promising that the Wilderness Torah leadership team will take the feedback to heart. Many of the participants, however, speak of experiencing a transformative, even revelatory experience — of having begun to heal the ancestral burdens they had long carried.

“I’m still processing that,” said Danny Berchenko, 32, when I ask him what he gained from the ceremony. “But I will say that I feel much lighter, much more at peace, much calmer, much more open. My heart feels open. I experienced release in that ceremony, release of a lot of stuff that I was holding that no longer serves me.”

At dinner, I ask Wolpe, the other rabbinical student, about a more general need to reincorporate nature into Jewish ceremony. “I believe that we have traditions that we’ve lost,” she said. “We used to have a completely different lifestyle, an Earth-based lifestyle. I don’t think anyone can contend that that’s not true. I think the question is, how can we bring back those practices in an authentic way, considering the fact that we don’t have them recorded, considering the fact that they haven’t been passed down?”

In the evening, we sing and play music around a fire, bellow happy birthday to two members of our village, and take in our final hours together.

The next morning, when I wake, I pack up my stuff and walk over to the Tent of Meeting. People are beginning to leave, and there is a solemnity in the air.

At breakfast, I ask one of my chesed brethren, Benji Elson — the only community member with payot — why he comes to Passover in the Desert. “Coming out of Egypt, we weren’t a people yet. Coming out of Egypt, we were 12 tribes, and very different tribes. And we became who we were in the desert, traveling and camping in the desert,” he said. “And I feel in a very big way that Pesach in the Desert is a place for tribes of today to join and reconnect and become the Jewish people again. To heal the Jewish people.”

At a closing circle later in the morning, Jerry Falek, one of the community elders, speaks of a need to continue building spiritual community through an improved relationship with the entire Earth, and not just the holiest sites.

“All land is sacred. All land is holy. We come to this place because the distractions aren’t here,” he tells us.

“There is room in this temple for everybody.”

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