Submitted by: Zelig Category: Ensuring the Jewish Future
The Big Idea
At this time of profound environmental concern, Jews are turning to the environmental movement for purpose and nature for spirituality. There is a need to engage these Jews with compelling Jewish vehicles for spiritual growth, nature connection and ecological action. On the East Coast, Jewish environmental education programs for youth and young adults have successfully emerged, but there are no similar programs in Los Angeles, and no programs nationally that create a year-round cycle of outdoor Jewish programs for all ages. Wilderness Torah provides an essential vehicle for Jews who seek to express their environmental values through their Jewish life.
Wilderness Torah revitalizes Jewish life by reconnecting Jewish traditions to the cycles of nature to facilitate individual spiritual growth, strengthen multi-generational community, and connect people to nature. Wilderness Torah programs include land-based festivals Sukkot on the Farm, Passover in the Desert and Shavuot on the Mountain; nature-based rites of passage an outdoor B'nai Mitzvah program for youth and daylong and multi-day wilderness experiences for adults; Gan Torah, children's Jewish nature education; and sustainable life skills education, such as organic gardening and healthy Jewish cooking. Wilderness Torah programs cultivate understanding of Judaism's earth-based roots, inspire appreciation for Creation, and offer skills that empower participants to engage in Tikkun Olam by living sustainably in the modern world. Wilderness Torah will develop curricula and train Jewish leaders to bring its programs into communities across the Jewish world.
Since the first Sukkot on the Farm festival in 2007, Wilderness Torah has sold out every festival, serving over 300 people in 2009 and over 500 people in 2010, a growth rate of over 65%. A large and dedicated community of volunteers has rallied around Wilderness Torah to propel its success. Evaluations indicate that programs provide relevant, meaningful community experiences, educate participants about the relationship between Judaism and nature, cultivate heightened awareness and respect for the environment, inspire action through sustainable lifestyle choices, help individuals discover a sense of life purpose, and foster increased Jewish involvement.
As a leader in the Jewish environmental movement for over a decade, co-director Zelig Golden brings a wealth of Jewish knowledge, program experience and strategic alliances. As a community organizer and program manager for over a decade, co-director Julie Wolk provides a depth of managing and organizing experience. Operating on an all-volunteer basis since 2007, Wilderness Torah launched itself as a non-profit organization in 2009 after being accepted into UpStart Bay Area's social innovator incubation program, convening an all-star advisory board, and becoming fiscally sponsored by Hazon. In 2010, Wilderness Torah received the prestigious Joshua Venture fellowship and received its first major foundation grants. With its most substantial annual event, Passover in the Desert, only four hours from L.A., Wilderness Torah is poised to expand its work into the Greater Los Angeles community.
Wilderness Torah will transform Jewish life in the Greater Los Angeles area by providing new ways for Jews to engage in Jewish spirituality, community building, and nature connection. Los Angeles Jews will understand the connections between Jewish traditions and nature's cycles, will be inspired to care for natural systems, and will have concrete tools to take sustainable action steps in their personal and community lives.
Through land-based community festivals, such as Passover in the Desert, we gather multiple generations to camp, eat and pray together, and experience the harmony between Judaism and nature's cycles. Land-based festivals provide inclusive, joyous Jewish experiences that resonate with nature's rhythms and bridge generational divides, making Judaism more accessible all who feel most connected in nature.
Our rites of passage programs, including B'nai mitzvah nature-mentoring, Jewish Vision Quests, and Wilderness Walks, create opportunities for individuals to understand their life path through nature connection and ancient Jewish wisdom. Youth and adult rites of passage build self-confidence and a deeper sense of self-knowing, empowering one to fully serve the community with one's innate gifts, in turn strengthening the community fabric.
Outdoor experiences inspire appreciation for Creation. We then teach skills that enable participants to deepen their relationship to nature and live more sustainably. Picking food from a field and blessing it for the first time, for example, creates a new food relationship. Our Sustainable living skills classes, such as gardening, pickle making, and challah baking, empower people to take home concrete ways to live more sustainably.
Program success will lead individuals toward:
- Clarity in their life path
- Stronger Jewish identity
- More Jewish involvement
- Respect for nature
- Sustainable life choices
Our programs also strengthen generational linkages, deepening community interaction and resiliency.
Within three to five years, as we refine and expand our programs, we will develop curricula and train Jewish leaders to bring WT's programs into communities across the U.S. In the long term, we aim to develop a rural center that integrates our community programs with organic farm education, food production, nature education, and skills that can be transferred to urban communities a place where families can connect in nature, and a national model and training ground for building healthy, sustainable Jewish community.
This Is A Great Idea Because
Wilderness Torah is part of a growing Jewish environmental movement. Three New York based organizations have led the way: Coalition on the Environment in Jewish Life raises environmental awareness through Jewish institutions. Hazon, our fiscal sponsor, engages Jews primarily through bike rides, and food education. Teva offers environmental education for kids.
In 1994, Teva paved the Jewish environmental way with programs for day-school kids. In 2003, the Adamah program initiated a second wave for young adults integrating farming and Judaism. Kayam Farm and the Jewish Farm School (JFS), which teach sustainable agriculture rooted in Judaism, have since emerged on the East Coast.
WT is creating a third wave of nature-based Judaism, filling a unique niche in four key ways. WT is the first to bring these nature-based Jewish opportunities to the West Coast. WT serves all ages, emphasizing weaving the fabric of multi-generational community. WT is the only Jewish organization using nature-based rites of passage as an element of community development. WT will be the first to provide trainings to help Jewish communities across the country develop Jewish culture rooted in our relationship to nature.
Wilderness Torah's programs are entirely new and innovative. The pilgrimage festivals, such as Passover in the Desert held annually near Death Valley, provides an experiential, village-building experience for all ages in the earth-based context of the holiday that is not available anywhere else.
Wilderness Torah's rites of passage programs are also entirely innovative, providing nature-based programs that meet participants where they truly are in life and that cannot be find anywhere else in the Jewish world. For adults, solo journeys into the desert wilderness have been at the core of receiving wisdom and direction since the earliest days of the Jewish tradition our forefathers and fore-mothers from Moses to Miriam received revelation through such solo journeys yet such experiences can be found nowhere in our tradition today. Wilderness Torah has created new adult rite of passage opportunities by offering the annual Jewish Vision Quest, a 10- day wilderness journey focused on a three-day period of solo time and fasting, that facilitates a deep connection to Creation and the discovery of clarity around one's life path and purpose.
Similarly, the B'nai Mitzvah Nature Mentorship Program provides a new and innovative avenue for Jewish families to address the whole child at this critical life-transition by engaging children who are drawn to experiencing Judaism in nature. This outdoor program is fully beyond synagogue walls, and is designed to offer a Jewish experience that is fun, empowering and meets Jewish youth where they are in life to help them become full human beings who appreciate their Jewish heritage.