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Article about Wilderness Torah at

To celebrate Shavuot, up all night on Mount Tam
Thursday, June 4, 2009 | by stacey palevsky

The sound of the shofar pierced the early morning air at 5:30 a.m. It was time to pray.

A group of tired but inspired people stood on Mount Tamalpias and sang morning prayers accompanied by an acoustic guitar. They had arrived in a small clearing just as the morning fog settled over the redwoods and surrounding hills.

Those 18 people had not yet slept. They had stayed up all night studying, singing and meditating as part of Shavuot on the Mountain, an all-night study session May 28 organized by Wilderness Torah, a new group based in the East Bay that seeks to connect Jewish ritual to nature.

About 75 people attended: Jews, converts, seekers, toddlers, children, young adults, seniors. Only one-fourth managed to stay up all night, as a majority went to sleep in their tents at various points of the night and woke up at 8 a.m. for a communal breakfast.

“We are building community through reinvigorating the earth-based traditions that have by and large been hidden from us,” said Zelig Golden, one of the three founders of Wilderness Torah.


Berkeley resident Deb Massey, and her son Ari, eat breakfast.

Shavuot commemorates the day God gave Moses and the Israelites the Torah, and it is a Shavuot tradition to stay up studying all night. People often gather in homes or synagogues to do so.

But because the Israelites experienced the Torah revelation in the desert at the base of Mount Sinai, Wilderness Torah wanted its all-night study session to also be outside in the elements.

“Being outside brings an authenticity to Judaism,” said Joti Levy, a participant from Oakland.

The event began at about 8 p.m. at Alice Eastwood Group Campground with an evening service as the sun set. When the sky turned an inky black, the learning sessions began.

Classes, or offerings as they were known on Mount Tam, were diverse and ranged from the cerebral to the physical. Offerings included a discussion about counting the omer; a lesson in drumming to accompany songs and prayers; a session on Chassidic folk tales; silent meditation walks; and even 4 a.m. yoga because, well, “Have you ever done yoga at 4 a.m.?” joked Julie Wolk, another co-founder of Wilderness Torah.


The campfire served as a central meeting place throughout the night.

Each offering aimed to promote growth, be it spiritual, communal or creative.

At midnight and after two workshop sessions, most of the participants got back together, now bundled in parkas and wool blankets. The air was cold and it was quiet, save for the crackle of the fire in the center of their circle.

Shulamit Wise Fairman, the music director at Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont, chanted the Sinai story in Hebrew and English. Her sweet voice danced in the night air.

After that, Golden led a guided meditation while playing a hand drum and Aharon Wheels-Bolsta played a bansuri, an Indian bamboo flute with a soothing sound. When they finished, the group fell silent for a while, sitting and standing around the campfire. Then someone began to play a guitar, strumming so tenderly and softly that people closed their eyes, hugged their neighbor, swayed gently.

“The conditions were perfect for me to have a deep, reflective inner journey,” Fairman said. “I prefer to learn and pray and build community and do my own spiritual work in nature.”

In keeping with a natural approach, organizers of Shavuot on the Mountain didn’t set in stone a lineup of workshops. Instead, they asked participants for suggestions, and the night’s schedule emerged in the days leading up to the event.

“There is so much brilliance in the Bay Area, we trusted that people would volunteer great teachings,” Wolk said.

Rabbi Sydney Mintz of Congregation Emanu-El was one of many participants that volunteered to teach a class. At 9 p.m., about 25 people gathered around wooden picnic tables to hear her talk about the Israelites at Sinai and how similar (or not) they are to the Jews of today.


At 5:30 a.m., people gather for a morning service to conclude Shavuot on the Mountain. photos/stacey palevsky

She passed out excerpts from the Torah, but before digging into the text (legible only by the glow of a votive candle or by the headlamps people wore) she asked, “What kind of Jew are you?”

The various answers: Connecting, determined, frustrated, yearning, thoughtful, singing, dancing, happy, earthy, alive, seeking, wandering, dynamic, evolving.

After everyone had answered the question, Mintz pointed out that no one described himself or herself as a “certain” Jew, that is, one who is certain about their religious beliefs and how to live a Jewish life.

“We must ask: Who is God? How do we define Judaism? If we didn’t ask these questions all of the time, we wouldn’t be an enduring community,” she said. “With a questioning heart and spirit, we’re able to still stand at Sinai.”

Spirituality even was inserted into breakfast preparation, when chef and participant Avishai Perlman led a meditation session before orchestrating the cracking of dozens of eggs and the sautéing of fresh chard, potatoes and carrots.

“It was an amazing experience to prepare food as the birds were waking up,” Perlman said.

Soon the scent of garlic and butter wafted into the dewy morning air. People emerged from their tents to gather for motzi and a final meal on the mountain. They sat around the campfire nibbling on fresh scrambled eggs and organic produce from local farmers.

“I hope this was not just a sleepless night,” Golden said during the closing ceremony, “but one that will bring a deeper wakefulness as well.”

For more information, contact Wilderness Torah at

More images for this story are available here:

For more about Wilderness Torah, read this week’s j. editorial:

Planting our Jewish roots outdoors is a great idea

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