Gathering under tall sequoias in the Oakland hills on a Sunday morning, more than 250 people joined Wilderness Torah for the nature-centric agency’s annual Tu B’Shevat in the Redwoods program.
“It was really sweet, lovely and kind of mellow,” Becca Holtz of Berkeley said about the morning seder.
In the middle of a grove of trees, participants formed into a large circle, spreading out on blankets and sitting on fold-out chairs. The full program on Jan. 19 lasted five hours and included a seder, a picnic lunch, kids’ activities and “sharing circles” for interfaith families and LGBTQ attendees.
To warm up the crowd of 185 adults and 72 children, Wilderness Torah founding director Zelig Golden led participants through songs and exercises that helped them offer gratitude for their surroundings — and to connect with nature and the folks sitting next to them.
“We are celebrating the new year for the trees in the trees with a community of like-minded people and great teachers,” Golden said. The festival occurred three days after the actual date of Tu B’Shevat at Roberts Regional Recreation Area.
After the enthusiastic beginning, Golden took things in a more quiet direction by suggesting participants go into a redwood grove and connect to a spot on the Earth by lying face down on the forest floor. Then it was time to “dance it out,” as Golden said, and people began moving to the beat of guitars, mandolin, drums, kalimba and flute.
The seder continued by incorporating four cups of wine, grape juice, and bowls of mandarins, figs and dates. And singing, of course.
“We are really on a journey of weaving the community in a beautiful way,” Golden said in an interview. “As it grows, it deepens, and this year is our best Tu B’Shevat yet.”
Golden, 39, is a Berkeley Law graduate who began his career as an environmental lawyer and is now working toward a master’s in Jewish studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley while also taking Aleph’s online rabbinic ordination program. He co-led the seder with a visitor from Israel, Bonna Devora Haberman, one of the founding members of Women of the Wall.
Since the 2009 premiere of Tu B’Shevat in the Redwoods, the event has nearly tripled in size, and organizers say they diligently try to establish a “village” model, which incorporates multiple generations of children, adults and elders.
“It has grown remarkably,” said Nancy Shaw, who took over as Wilderness Torah’s managing director a few months ago. “The energy and spirit is still the same, but it has become a bigger and more diverse community.”
Celebrating the new year of the trees, Tu B’Shevat is a holiday that marks when the earliest-blooming trees in Israel emerge from winter and begin a new fruit-bearing cycle. The holiday has gained popularity in recent years, Golden said.
Rachel Cohn of El Cerrito was there on Jan. 19, attending her fourth Wilderness Torah event after “getting hooked” two years ago.
“I found the community to tap into my interest and vision of what a Jewish community could look like,” she said. “It’s multi-generational, welcoming, connects to the outdoors and you see it come alive with the seder. It made me want to seek it out even more.”
Described as a community effort, the event was put on with the help of numerous volunteers, who did everything from pour cups of wine to plan children’s programming.
Shaw said that Tu B’Shevat in the Redwoods, because of its proximity and relative brevity, is the most accessible of Wilderness Torah’s four annual festivals. The others all involve camping and multiple days: Passover in the Desert in Death Valley, Sukkot on the Farm in Pescadero and Shavuot on the Mountain in the Oakland hills (although the Shavuot program this year has been rebranded Shavuout First Fruits and shortened to one day).
The brainchild of Golden and a few friends to bring Judaism back to the wilderness, the organization first began holding events in 2007. The nonprofit has been named one of Slingshot Fund’s 50 most innovative Jewish nonprofits in the United States for the last three years, and it served more than 1,500 participants last year.
“Wilderness Torah is entering our sixth year and the fruit we are offering is finally beginning to ripen,” Golden said.