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Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Indigenous Judaism, Not Biblical Judaism

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

A response to the Forward article from Rabbi Sarah Etz Alon:

This was a great article, Julie, mazel tov on all your great work with WT. The part about polygamy though, is unfortunate, as it stems from an incorrect assertion in this article that “Indigenous Judaism” is the same as “Biblical Judaism” which it most definately is NOT. Indigenous Judaism or Indigenous Hebraism, are the Ancient Hebrew Earth Based Shamanic Wisdom Paths of the Jewish people, which preceded the “biblical period” and continued forward through every age of Judaism to this very day.

Too bad the article missed this point, as a return to “Biblical Judaism” is ridiculous in today’s world context, whereas a re-integration of our Earth Based Wisdom Paths and Indigenous Mind is EXACTLY what the world needs today, perhaps as the single greatest imperative we are facing within the Jewish People and Global Humanity in this moment now.

A lot of people would be questionably leary of participating and investing in an organization that promotes a return to “biblical judaism” but Earth Based Torah is another matter entirely, and I think will be the biggest movement within Judaism, after the Haredi movement, in the years to come. I’ve been wanting to clarify this ever since I read this otherwise most excellent article.

You can read more about Rabbi Sarah’s work here.

Wandering Jews, This Time With a Purpose

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

By Jo Ellen Green Kaiser for the Forward:

Passover in the desert. Shavuot on the mountaintop. Sukkot on the farm. The three primary festivals of the Jewish calendar weave their rituals and stories around very particular settings. How would our understanding of Judaism change if we made these spaces, as well as these times, holy? This is the question that Wilderness Torah, a new California-based Jewish organization devoted to both spiritual and ecological rebirth, seeks to answer.

Lighting a Fire: Zelig Gordon (left) and Julie Wolk at the closing ceremony of last year’s Shavuot on the Mountain.

On Shavuot, the evening of May 18, Wilderness Torah will gather 75 Jews at Mount Tamalpais in Marin County, Calif., to celebrate bikkurim, the harvest of the first fruits. Participants will build an altar on which they will lay some barley to celebrate the end of the counting of the omer, a Torah-based agricultural instruction to count 49 days between Passover and Shavuot, the time of the barley harvest. They will then build a bonfire, pray the evening service together and hold an outdoor tikkun leil shavuot, an all-night study session. At dawn they will be joined by worshippers from the communitywide all-night study session hosted by the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay. These worshippers will bring a Torah up to the mountain so that the combined group can pray and can read the Ten Commandments.

Shavuot on the Mountain, like Wilderness Torah’s signature event, Passover in the Desert, combines contemporary Jews’ search for a personal, more spiritual Judaism with an ancient communal tradition in a setting where the focus will necessarily be on the natural world. Wilderness Torah’s goal is to ask what ancient Jewish tradition can tell us about the earth and how we can return to a land-based, sustainable living system.

“I personally had been looking for a way into Judaism that felt authentic to me… and I’ve always felt more spiritually alive outdoors,” explained Julie Wolk, Wilderness Torah’s founding co-director. “So for me, to discover the earth-based roots of Judaism and put them into practice in a modern context was life-changing. So much so that I’ve been inspired to bring this work to others who might also connect to Judaism through the earth, and connect to the earth through Judaism.”

Wilderness Torah
Great Outdoors: Participants of Passover in the Desert make lunch at the Ibex Wilderness in California.

The Bay Area attracts those who, like Wolk, want both to live in a city and take a day trip to beach, woods or mountain. That’s why Robin Braverman, coordinator of the East Bay community tikkun leil shavuot, decided to break with tradition and find a way for those who had studied all night in Oakland to take the 45-minute drive to Mount Tamalpais. Braverman worried that if she didn’t facilitate such a connection, Bay Area Jews would choose the mountain rather than the city.

Not every city has a mountain nearby, but this emphasis on reconnecting to the environment is not only a Bay Area phenomenon. The Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center offers Adamah, a three-month fellowship that integrates organic farming, Jewish learning and contemplative practice. The Teva Learning Center hosts Yitziah, a Jewish teen wilderness backpacking trip. In Denver, Rabbi Jamie S. Korngold offers a Shabbat on Skis event that combines experiencing the natural world with Jewish spiritual practice, while in Arizona, Rabbi Mike Comins runs the TorahTrek program, which, its Web site tells us, “explores the connection between inner and outer geography.” And a number of writers, particularly Ellen Bernstein, have suggested that Judaism cannot be understood outside of an ecological framework.

Nor is an emphasis on “back-to-nature spirituality” new. The idea that we can find religious inspiration in the natural world dates to William Wordsworth and the Romantic period. In the United States, Native American traditions often form the basis for belief that nature gives us the best access to God. In Ashkenazic Judaism, the 18th-century founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov, is known for wandering in the wilderness, feeling a special closeness to God when he was in the natural world.

Where Wilderness Torah departs from both its predecessors and its contemporaries is in the organization’s emphasis on what Rabbi Gershon Winkler has termed “indigenous Judaism,” a Judaism drawn explicitly from the biblical era. What drives Wilderness Torah — unlike other Jewish environmental movements like Hazon or the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life — is co-founder Zelig Golden’s belief that to revitalize both Judaism and a Jewish ecological awareness, Jews need to reach all the way back to biblical times: “When the rabbinic period began, we became disconnected from the land; we became the people of the book. While cherishing and learning from our written tradition, in this time of growing concern about the land,” Golden told me, “we need to reach back to our deep roots to the land and bring that forward to the concerns we have in the modern world.”

It’s not clear what living biblically would mean to Golden. Should Jews return to polygamy and monarchy? Abandon the professions and become nomadic herders (Genesis) or farmers (Deuteronomy)? It’s easy to dismiss the idea of a return to biblical Judaism as mere nonsense. Yet the effort to marry Jewish religious practice to a wilderness environment is also more than Camp Ramah for adults. By insisting so firmly on the connection between nature and Jewish practice, Wilderness Torah may pose a challenge to synagogue-based Judaism.

Though Wolk and Golden contend that their programs supplement what happens in a synagogue setting, their vision is of a Jewish practice inseparable from the earth. Taking their arguments a step further, Jews — even those outside Israel — would welcome the new moon standing under a dark sky, end the Sabbath with a blazing bonfire, and celebrate Sukkot on a farm where the participants have themselves worked the land and harvested the fruit. In their dreams, the creators of Wilderness Torah would go backward to go forward, returning Jews to an ancient land-based past in order to create a more ecologically aware and more spiritually alive Jewish present.

But first, they will climb a mountain.

Contact Jo Ellen Green Kaiser at

Avigail on Passover in the Desert

Friday, April 9th, 2010

There’s an organization based in Northern CA that organizes big “festival” camping events for the main Jewish Pilgrimage holidays. This year, with so much vacation around Passover, I decided to join a couple of friends of mine and 85 other people I didn’t know at all in the desert. We camped for 4 nights and 5 days in the Panamint Valley (right next to Death Valley). I traveled from Brooklyn to Berkeley on Wed (after the seders were over) and my cousin Anne picked me up from the airport, took me to a lovely chametz-free dinner  and then helped to outfit me with gear. The next morning I drove with some old friends and some new, the 8 hours it took us to get to our destination. We drove most of the way down the 5, and then traveled east of Bakersfield to about half-way to the Nevada border.


If you look at the photos you’ll see just how starkly beautiful the landscape is click here:

The mountains that surrounded us were wrinkly and bald, sort of like elephants. The sky was generally clear and huge, especially in the morning. This part of the desert is DRY – with fewer bushes than there are buildings, much less people, in NYC. That was probably the starkest thing for me — being with only 90 people, and so spread out! That, and the power of experiencing Passover, in the wilderness — being called to meals with a shofar blast, and moving from the “tent of meeting” to the sanctuary, to my own tent, all the while realizing that without careful management, water and waste would become problems for our survival — and this desert was without manna. We did, of course, eat well. I consumed lots of avocado and labne on matzah, with plenty of charoset and nutella thrown in for good measure. We had lovely green salads and big hearty soups as well.

Each evening a big dust storm would kick up and blow a lot of dirt around. That made it pretty uncomfortable at times, but the mornings were calm and clear and beautiful. Highlights for me included: davenning Kabbalat Shabbat with 3 friends in the pitch black night by headlamp, singing the Indigo Girls at the camp fire, seeing Orion and the dipper so clearly, finding pieces of “fire glass” and meeting many good people who were all interested in reliving the Exodus and leaving the narrow places of Mitzrayim (Egypt, but only sort of) together. My colleague Renna and I taught a little session on the Omer, that was also fun.

We drove back North on Monday, I flew home to Brooklyn Tuesday and have been doing a lot of thinking about keeping the energy and purpose I found in the desert alive while I’m back in the daily grind in NYC.

Thanks to Avigail Hurvitz-Prinz for this post!

Until the Two are One

Monday, March 8th, 2010

My first experience with Wilderness Torah was with this year’s Tu b’Shevat Seder, which took place in a lovely little redwood grove up in the Oakland hills.  It was a wonderful celebration, with an excellent balance of music and meditation, mystical teachings and earth-based ceremony.

Our Seder’s readings and chants, teachings and blessings were deeply inspiring…so that when we were sent out on our experiential exercises, it was easy to enter into a deep place of reverence and awe, stunned to inner silence before the beauty and power of creation.  A high point for me came in simply hugging the trunk of a small tree, doing it consciously, sensing the sap rising.  Such an embodied experience of the essence of the festival! – to feel the life force rising up out of the earth, through the tree’s roots and tender trunk, even as its branches and leaves stretch toward the sun in our sky.  For me this was such an embodied experience of the essence of the festival:  to embrace this tree was to embrace the Holy One herself, and my own inner juices rose up strongly in the process.

In the very first Psalm, we find:  ‘Fortunate is the person…whose desire is for Torah…for he shall be like a tree deeply rooted alongside brooks of water, that yields its fruit in its season, and whose leaf never withers; and all that he does will succeed.’ (Psalm 1: 1-3)  This is such a beautiful promise of perpetual renewal:   through imbibing the living waters of Torah, even as the body ages, the soul itself continues to flourish, and in this way, brings forth benefit – delicious fruits – for others to enjoy.

The Torah itself is considered a miraculous tree:  the Tree of Life, its roots growing through our skies – beyond, beyond.  So…two trees:  one rooted in the earth, flourishing beside the living waters, one rooted in eternity, growing into our world, wherever minds and hearts open to receive miraculous renewal.  Tu b’Shevat is a holiday whose time has come:  the need for us to heal and honor our earth-mother is so great.

May our ceremonies and our meditations, our actions and our prayers bring forth a harvest of goodness – from above, from below.  May we live to see harmony and love prevail within all creation, between all creatures, to the glory of our common Creator.

Thank you to Jeffrey Kessler for this post.

Small Talk about WT with Julie

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

Lisa Robbins, of “Let My People Know” in Tampa, Florida did a short interview with me about Wilderness Torah last week… who we are and what it’s like to come on a Wilderness Torah Pilgrimage Festival!picture-2

Tu B’Shevat in the Redwoods – By Rae

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

We stand huddled together at the top of the path, where the edge of the forest meets the edge of the concrete parking lot.  We stand with clipboard rosters in gloved hands, our breath making little clouds in the crisp morning air.  We stand as our elders many generations before us may have stood, beckoning to our people to come out of all that is man-made and into the grove of green below.  Saul, Julie and I invite the young parents and their bright beaming kids, the folks our age rediscovering faith and old friends, and the elder couples, to make their way down the path in silent reverence and heightened awareness of all that is growing, pulsing, alive in the forest.  One by one, and four by four, the folks descend on the trail to the ritual space.  And then it is time for us go, two by two, the first to arrive and the last to make the journey.

Sunny Redwood GroveWe turn a corner in the muddy path and the music of singing wafts from the trees below – we can hear the ritual far before we can see it.  My people are ahead!  Steps quicken, heart beating, and at once the surreal motions of the early morning awaken to the reality: it is time for the seasonal gathering of the Wilderness Torah tribe.  I am smiling now and taking a songsheet from Kait and finding a place to nestle my bag and my body amidst the circle of singing friends nested in the circle of redwood trees.  We are dozens of Bay Area folk who have come together today in observance of a sacred Jewish tradition to honor the trees, Tu B’shevat.

We are delving into four worlds, journeying into the foundation and rising to crown.  Now is the time for innermost reflection in the core of winter; now is the time to embrace the growth that will come at the tips of the branches,  that will come into our lives unexpectedly and most necessarily.

The children rush out of the grove to play in the emerging sun and sing happy birthday to the trees.  Zelig and Brian lead us adult-folk on a mystic journey from rabbinic stories to presence with breath to savoring the first bite of a sweet tangerine.  Rose white, rose red, the coming of spring blushes in each cup.  We must get into the earth now, splaying our bodies down and digging a hole for our noses to root into the decomposing pines, searching for fertile soil beneath.  Arising we embrace the sturdy trunks, praying alongside these tall, shady friends whose language we can no longer speak, but for whom we have not forgotten to be grateful.

Tree HuggersWe pass around plates of wrinkled dates and plump figs; here in California our harvest bears a Mediterranean semblance to our ancestors’ bountiful harvest in the holy lands halfway across the globe.   This year, what seeds will we plant in our hearts, and will they lead to peace faraway, and right here at home?  Who will water the painful roots of our history, and nurture them to grow anew into beautiful trees with sweet fruits?  Where will we each put down our roots and what ways will our branches intertwine?  And how will we care for the tender sapling that is this new, fledgling community called Wilderness Torah?

Now more than ever before our sacred traditions of honoring the earth are needed. The United Nations met last December for a Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen that not only failed to conclude a new global climate deal but also to find a way forward.  The earth’s temperature is rising, polar caps melting, hurricanes are brewing, earthquakes shaking, and people keep cutting and cutting the trees.  Does anyone remember reading The Lorax by Dr. Seuss?  The moment a trufula tree was cut down the magical creature with a moustache more-hip-than-the-hippest-Mission-hipster popped out and gave warning not to destroy the trees, or all life would be destroyed.  But the people kept on chopping until finally all the trees were gone, except that one golden seed that was passed on…

Tu B’shevat is a day to gather under the belly of the full moon and become the Lorax:  We speak with, and for, the trees through our prayer followed by right action.  As our tradition teaches us to braid our challah for Shabbos, so to do we braid these sacred ingredients on the fifteenth of the month of Shevat: reverence for life, renewed commitment to personal growth, and a pledge to plant, cultivate, protect, and respect the forests and all their wooded, wondrous creatures.
Redwood Looking UpThe ritual is ending – I see that Joti’s hair has literally become braided with pine branches.  Our group breaks out in song about loving the earth, the waters, the fire, the wind.  The four worlds and the four elements mingle with our four central chakras and our bodies zing back to life after sitting in meditation for so long.  Julie calls us into reflection on paper, and I can’t help but get caught up in the cycle of life that is tree, paper, composting soil, all spinning through the circle before my eyes.  The kids have returned and there is a general clamor to make the ascent to the parking lot where metal gilded beasts are waiting to take us far away from here.

That night, my beloved and I put on 3-D black rimmed glasses and dive into the mythic world of Avatar.  I cannot think of a better movie to see on this holiday!   Gaia’s interconnected spirit shines through the iridescent trees and all the creatures, and emerges triumphant and whole.  May we aspire to such lasting wisdom and grace in the face of our increasingly militarized and polluted culture.  May we each do our part to honor the life force of trees and make it so.

Rae Abileah is a grateful member of the 2010 Pesach in the Desert planning committee… and hopes to see you in the desert in April, scrambling along the rocks on a vision quest, in downward dog under the shade of beautiful tapestries, rhyming to a drumbeat across a blazing bonfire, singing “Let my people go!” while reenacting the journey from mitzrayim to freedom, or biting into a morning matzoh covered in local sweet chile sauce and Avishai’s yummy tehina!

Sukkot on a Farm: (Of course!)

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009

What did you harvest in your life this year? And what seeds will you plant now – seeds that will lay dormant for the winter, to be nourished by the rain and soil – that will spread their leaves next spring?

In the Sukkah

These were some of the questions we pondered as one hundred and fifteen people spanning three generations gathered at Green Oaks Creek farm in Pescadero, CA, for the third annual Sukkot on the Farm Festival last weekend. Celebrating the harvest festival on a small, organic farm seemed to us a meaningful way of understanding what it really means to have gratitude for the abundance of life.

Our friend Dave designed and built us a gorgeous 400 square foot (!!) sukkah dripping with eucalyptus leaves and colorful tapestries blowing in the strong, ocean winds. Sitting in it reading from a 250 year-old torah as the sunshine glimmered through the branches was one of the most powerful experiences of the weekend.

Cooking in the cob kitchen

I can definitively say that we ate the highest quality, most delicious, local, organic food you could possibly find anywhere. Our produce came from nearly ten local farms that grow everything from famous artichokes to the sweetest corn I’ve ever put to my lips. And Avishai, our magical alchemist chef, transformed it lovingly into some of the tastiest, most nourishing food imaginable.

Dayenu, right? But there was more… we harvested our food, toured the farms (we were right next door to Pie Ranch), heard from local farmers about their work, meditated in the redwoods, did yoga, learned about food justice from Peoples’ Grocery founder, Brahm Ahmadi, practiced hitbodedut learned how to make herbal medicines, pickles and fire by friction. The kids were treated to a live musical performance by members of Octopretzel, nature walks, and their own sukkah. We filled our evenings with bonfires, stories, and moonlit walks up the hill for an ocean view.

The farm

This is how Sukkot should be – connected to the land where our food came from, in the company of new and old friends, deepening our spiritual connection on the land, in the very midst of Creation.

I would say that in addition to all the strawberries and tomatoes, we harvested a lot of love and thanks, while planting the seeds of community, connection, and the healing of the earth.

Shavuot on the Mountain – Sunset, Sunrise…

Friday, June 5th, 2009

Embedded deep within the Jewish tradition are the earth-based and agricultural practices and values of our ancestors. So to celebrate Shavuot camping at the sacred Mount Tamalpais in Marin County seemed only natural. Seventy-five people from around the Bay Area gathered for an all-night, Tikkun Leil gathering of learning, song, movement and ritual amongst the redwoods. We began with a dinner of homemade soup made from seasonal, orgOpening Circleanic, and local veggies and the traditional dairy kugels of the holiday, rolled into evening services at sunset and then began a series of offerings from our community. Candlelit study sessions around long picnic tables with Rabbis Sydney Mintz, Daniel Lev, and other local teachers harkened back to days of old when students and rebbes studied and debated by candle light ‘til dawn. In addition to the more traditional text study and storytelling, we sang and danced in the woods, learned frame drumming around a fire, went on silent meditation walks in the dark and practiced pre-dawn yoga. We came together at midnight for a ritual telling of the story of Moses at Mt. Sinai, Hebrew chanting, and a guided visualization of our own metaphoric journeys of revelation.

For those who stayed up for sunrise (or awoke for it), we made our morning prayers at dawn in view of the mountaintop, in a trance induced by prayer, love, and lack of sleep. A communal bikkurim (first fruits) breakfast and closing circle ended our time on the mountain together. It was a time of deep personal reflection and revelation, connection with the Earth and Spirit, and simply a time to celebrate Judaism in a beautiful place amongst loving community.

Check out these articles in the J Weekly about our event!

Editorial about Wilderness Torah on

Thursday, June 4th, 2009

Planting our Jewish roots outdoors is a great idea

Thursday June 4th, 2009 – Editorial

We think Wilderness Torah is on to something.

Our story this week on page 4 shines a light on Wilderness Torah, a fledgling, volunteer-led  Jewish organization that is striving to make a connection between Judaism and nature — linking the two through holidays, rituals, food and outdoor encounters.

To celebrate Shavuot last week, for example, the East Bay–based group organized an all-night outdoor study session, called a Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, at a campsite in Mount Tamalpais State Park. Many of the 75 attendees had not set foot in a synagogue in years, but were thrilled to find an organization and an event that married their Jewish soul with their passion for the environment.

This mix of innovation and tradition has already caught the attention of UpStart Bay Area, a nonprofit organization that incubates Jewish ideas and helps them stand on their own two feet.

But while Wilderness Torah is getting training and support as part of UpStart’s first run in the Bay Area, like any new entity, it will need money to grow.

Imagine what a startup like Wilderness Torah could do with proper financial support: communal holiday celebrations on farms, in deserts, under redwoods; farm and garden education through a Jewish lens for children and families; a fellowship for young adults that simultaneously teaches about Judaism and sustainable agriculture.

All make the Jewish tent bigger, broader, more alive.

Clearly, organizations like Wilderness Torah could potentially transform the Jewish community. Unaffiliated individuals and families could reconnect to Judaism by getting outdoors. Where better to reinvigorate Jewish life? Nature welcomes everyone.

These are times of scarce resources. All nonprofits have felt effects of the recession. It makes sense that some established Jewish institutions might worry about precious dollars targeted for new, untested programs.

But an entity like Wilderness Torah should not be seen as competition with synagogues. Rather it is a partner, an access point, a gateway to a deeper Jewish life. Everybody wins.

Many synagogues across the Bay are already onto this trend, organizing outdoor Shabbat and Havdallah services throughout the summer. What’s unique and commendable about Wilderness Torah — and why it might appeal to a wide range of Jews — is that its focus is equal parts nature and Judaism.

Experiencing nature and Judaism in the open promotes an understanding of the world around us, and an appreciation for the spirit within. Both are crucial in these challenging times.

Judaism began under the skies. We applaud Wilderness Torah for taking a step back outside.

For more on Wilderness Torah’s Shavuot retreat, read this week’s story:

To celebrate Shavuot, up all night on Mount Tam

Article about Wilderness Torah at

Thursday, June 4th, 2009

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