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Bay Area Jews head to the desert to reclaim their Biblical roots

Tom Levy

I’m Jewish.  I feel a strong affinity for Judaism – the beauty of its rituals, teachings and music. But it can be hard to relate. 

The Old Testament has a demanding God and strange customs, like animal sacrifices. Then there’s Jewish law, called “halacha,” with its crazy complicated rules about how to run your life: what foods you can or cannot eat; what clothes you can or cannot wear; and how you observe the holidays.

Late last year, a study from the Pew Research Center captured an identity crisis among American Jews. It found more people who, though born Jewish, are not identified with the religion.

What the Pew report didn’t capture is a reverse trend – people who are turning back toward their religious roots. Innovative organizations are popping up all around the country: Jewish afterschool programs, Jewish farms, Jewish LGBTQ and environmental groups, all building bridges between ancient and contemporary cultures. 

Berkeley-based Wilderness Torah is one group that’s trying to bring new meaning to the old tradition. Intrigued, I tagged along this past spring for their annual Passover in the Desert festival, a gathering of about 150 people held in a remote spot in the Panamint Valley desert, eight hours south of the Bay Area.

Passover is one of the most important holidays on the Jewish calendar. Traditionally, you tell the story of the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt over an elaborate family meal. Wilderness Torah takes the story to the desert.

Gathering in the desert

As we arrive to our destination, a warm wind swirls dust in our faces. A friendly woman in her 30s dabs our foreheads with a wet cloth.

Her presence is a welcome relief. It’s hot. Really hot. The desert feels big and suffocating. I think of the Israelites and the Passover story. In Egypt, they were slaves. With the help of God, Moses, and a few miracles, they escaped, crossing the Red Sea into the desert. Then they got scared and wanted to turn back. It’s easy to see why.

Before going to the desert, I interviewed Zelig Golden, the founding director of Wilderness Torah.

“Wilderness Torah is a project of remembering,” Golden says. “It’s a project of remembering something very, very ancient about being an ancient indigenous people, while contextualizing that for our modern time.” 

A decade ago, Golden was an environmental lawyer. Like many American Jewish kids, after his Bar Mitzvah he became less involved with Judaism. But then at 30, something changed.

“Really, I caught fire. And all of a sudden, I had to learn the ancient traditions. I had to learn the ancient language. I had to begin to understand what our ancestors had passed down to me,” he says.

Golden was also interested in Native American traditions. An avid outdoorsman, he went on a three-day vision quest in 2007. There, he says, he heard a message: reconnect your people to the natural world. Soon after, he organized the first Wilderness Torah festival, which was for Succot, a fall harvest holiday.

“Within the sacred texts are embedded powerful lessons about how to relate to each other, how to relate to the Earth, and how to walk in a sacred manner on this planet,” says Golden.

A smorgasbord of Jews

In the desert, all around us are signs that this is a uniquely Jewish experience: the strictly Kosher kitchen, Hebrew words tossed casually into conversation, and the big sound that calls us to activities, which comes from an ancient instrument called a shofar, made from the long, curved horn of a ram.

Dinner is held in a large open-air tent decorated with colorful tapestries. As we eat, I look around. The people here are a smorgasbord of Jews. They grew up Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, or nothing at all. Some go to synagogue, or keep Kosher, and some don’t. Wilderness Torah attracts a lot of young people in their 20s and 30s. You could say they are earthy, hippy types. But there are others who are in their 40s and 50s. Families are drawn to the special programming for teenagers and kids.

I talk to the Yusim family, originally from Ukraine, now living in San Jose. Irene Yusim tells me they’re in the desert because she wants her children to know their heritage.

“I don’t want them to grow up and say, 'Mom, you didn’t tell me I was Jewish. You didn’t tell me we have traditions and holidays,'” she says. “So I’m doing what I can. I don’t know a whole lot myself, but I want them to know that this is what it is, and there are all kinds of people who celebrate in all kinds of ways.”

I ask other people about their relationship to Judaism. Many tell me they feel connected -- but they struggle in various ways. They tell me their relationship to Judaism is complicated, or they’re not sure how to define it. A few tell me they rejected their heritage when they were younger, but have now come back to it.

“A lot of the people in my family didn’t believe in God, but they said you must follow religion, or Judaism. But there was no meaning to it for me and I found that hard,” JudythGreenburgh says.

“So I sort of went 'bleh,' and left it all and married a Catholic and just went away, but I still felt I missed some sense of belonging that I needed.”

Seeking and finding insight

On Friday, my second day in the desert, I talk with Jaclyn Marks in the early morning.

“It was wonderful waking up this morning. I slept without a sleeping bag it was so warm. I woke up to the sun rising and music, a few people shuffling around, very peaceful,” she says. “Our tent is right next to this beautiful mountain range. Literally right next to our campground, black and white and red. It’s very unique spot.”

In the afternoon, I meet Ted Riter, a rabbi, who is off-duty now and a seeker just like the rest of us. I still press for his insight on the desert and its significance in Jewish tradition. He says it is a raw and empty place where transformation is possible.

“Moses was out in the desert. Elijah was out in the desert. In the Christian tradition, Jesus was out in the desert. It was there that they found answers to questions they weren’t even asking,” Riter says. “What is it that we’re trying to leave behind so that we can have our own freedom? So that we can have the expanse that’s out there for us? That’s really out there for all of us.”

Saturday is Shabbat, the Sabbath, the day of rest. Traditionally, people pray and study at the synagogue. We gather in the meeting tent. We sing songs and say Hebrew prayers, and read from a Torah that survived the Holocaust, though its original owners did not. Its presence brings up what some people say they think about a lot: they feel responsible to ancestors who suffered or died for their faith.

An irony is apparent. Today, American Jews are free to practice without fear, perhaps more so than any other time in history. And yet, precisely because there is so much freedom, it requires a deliberate choice if you’re going to stay involved. 

In the wilderness

After the service, Wilderness Torah director Zelig Golden tells us each of us will go into the desert by ourselves. We will stake out an isolated spot and sit there for a few hours. We’ve talked a lot about the Passover story. Golden says it’s now time to embody it.

“There is some mystery here. You go out on the land to be by yourself. It might be a nice walk in the sunshine, in the wind, and it might be a lot more,” he says.

I walk northeast for a ways. Sitting by a creosote bush,  I crumple desert dirt in my hands, pick up a rock, look up at the vast sky and ponder the questions of my life. No ready answers come, but I feel joy. The desert is special. It’s quiet.

When we come back, it’s getting dark. After eating in silence, we gather around a fire and Golden asks for people to yell out a word or phrase about what they brought back from their wilderness encounter.

“Just listen...Be like the wind...Call for what you want, even if you don’t know who’s listening...get down on the ground...Stand on your head...There’s Torah in the wilderness?”

The group celebrates with a ceremony called Havdalah, and then sings and dances for hours. The late night moon is rising when I sit down with Jaclyn Marks again.

“What I love about Wilderness Torah and these types of immersive retreats, they’re full of so much song and music and prayer and teaching. I think there’s a lot of magic that happens here,” she tells me. “And I have not found such a deep spiritual connection to Judaism and to God in other places.”

With the multitude of stars over our heads and the thin pounding of drums in the distance, it’s hard not to agree. In the morning, I will return to the Bay Area, happily connected to my heritage and ethnic birthright. It is a powerful feeling knowing that among seven billion people on the planet, you belong somewhere.

Wilderness Torah’s next visit to the desert departs this Thursday, April 28th.

This piece originally aired on July 22nd, 2014  

The Spiritual Edge is a project of KALW and the Templeton Religion Trust. You can find our stories, blog and other links, like music from the Wilderness Torah Passover trip, at thespiritualedge.org. Also, we’d love to hear your suggestions on what we should be covering. Leave us a comment or call the KALW news line at (415) 264-7106.