Drive about an hour north of San Francisco to Sebastopol, turn onto a country lane, and you are greeted by a white farmhouse with a 30-foot orange tree and an open meadow, all of it situated on an expansive property.
It’s not a typical place to hold Rosh Hashanah services. But it’s par for the course for Wilderness Torah, a Berkeley-based nonprofit that promotes earth-based Judaism, putting together holiday retreats and running outdoor educational programs. From Sept. 29 to 30, the organization hosted about 180 people on the farm to bring in the new year.
The attendees ranged from families with small babies to folks in their 70s and 80s, who are referred to as “elders.” They pitch their tents in a large grass field with blackberry bushes gracing one end. The scent of mint from the farmhouse garden lingers in the air.
For those who haven’t been on a Wilderness Torah retreat and for long-time devotees alike, time is spent mingling with one another around the farm, sharing meals and attending services.
With the call of a shofar, dinner is served under a wooden canopy decorated with twinkling lights. We have been asked to bring a potluck item. I, regrettably, bring a sweet potato pie from Safeway, which sits embarrassingly next to a cornucopia of home-cooked items, among them beets with parsley, a homemade round challah with raisins, black beans, cherry-apple cake, watermelon, pesto pasta, baked salmon with capers, cut-up green apples and a spinach and raspberry salad.
“Look at this harvest,” a woman exclaims as we serve ourselves.
I am sitting next to Tristan Cole-Falek, a bass player who lives near Santa Cruz. At traditional synagogues, Cole-Falek says, it’s all about “praise God, praise God.” But Wilderness Torah is different, he says. “This is praise the land.”
Attendees come for different reasons, but a through-line is a yearning for tribal connection. “I think we’re all really hungry for community,” Cole-Falek says.
In between dinner and socializing are Rosh Hashanah services led by Rabbi Zelig Golden, Wilderness Torah’s founder and executive director. The tent where the after-dinner service is held fills quickly, with the prayer leaders sitting at the front crossed-legged and a band — accordion, double bass, guitar and drums — drawing people in.
At one point, Golden holds up a Kiddush cup and asks what everyone would like to put in it for the new year. “Love!” someone yells out. “Compassion,” another says. “Lovemaking!” a woman says with a grin. The night ends with a rousing set of songs. Apples with honey and challah are passed around in a chaotic swarm of people reaching for the food.
Rob Hershinow, who came to the retreat with his 14-year-old son Joshua and partner Jeanell Innerarity, said he was attending Wilderness Torah for the first time and planned to take some of its lessons back home with him. He met Innerarity a year ago and they just started living together. “We’re building a new family dynamic,” said Hershinow. “And I want to model for my son a beautiful home.”
San Francisco resident Elana Polichuk, another first-timer, said she came because “after a bunch of years in San Francisco and striving toward how I define a successful career, I have been grasping for more meaning to fill my time with things that feed my heart and soul. Things that make me feel more deeply excited as opposed to how much money I can put in the bank, how many more friends can I get on Facebook or LinkedIn, which was just not feeding me any longer.” We speak under the tent as the band plays “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen.
The day ends with a bonfire, and I spend the night in a one-person tent alongside my neighbors, Sam Weingast from Palo Alto and Heidi Engen from Norway. The young couple met in 2016 while protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota.
Wilderness Torah is “bringing back Judaism to what it used to be,” Weingast says.
The next morning, after a quick breakfast, a dynamic prayer service is held. It includes a 10-minute meditation in the meadow, filled with people with eyes closed, sitting, standing or lying down on the grass under a blue sky. There is also a moment where we get into groups of three and share how we would like to write the next chapter in our book of life, an activity dubbed the “court of angels,” something new Golden added this year.
“The weekend was beautiful,” he said a day after the retreat. “The community came together.” His favorite activity was the “court of angels,” seeing how “people really dove in in a reflective way.”
None of this resembles a traditional synagogue service, which is exactly why people say they participate in Wilderness Torah.
Lisa and Lewis Gottfried of Napa County recently left their congregation because of leadership changes and are now committed to the outdoor retreats. “It just cracks you wide open,” says Lisa about Wilderness Torah’s “Passover in the Desert,” which she attended last spring in the ghost town of Ballarat, near Death Valley National Park.
As the afternoon turns into early evening, it’s time for tashlich, the ritual in which people throw bread into a moving body of water to shed their sins and think about what they want to do better. Since Wilderness Torah is committed to environmental awareness, Golden recommends using stones or sticks so as not to “muck up” the creek adjacent to the farm.
I catch Simcha Schwartz as the ritual is underway. He’s development director for Wilderness Torah and says the organization is all about providing a village-like experience for attendees. “I think if you ask 10 random people on the corner of Ashby and Shattuck [in Berkeley], ‘What are you most needing or missing?’ the top three things would be community,” he says.
Schwartz has been connected to Wilderness Torah since its founding in 2007, when a few dozen friends would gather to celebrate Jewish holidays outdoors. The former co-founder and associate director of the Philadelphia-based Jewish Farm School, he joined Wilderness Torah’s staff in the spring.
The retreat comes to an end late Monday afternoon, and participants slowly pack up and head out. As Schwartz and I walk past a line of cars, he sticks his head into several open windows, offering hugs to the drivers.
“Are you coming for Yom Kippur?” he asks one woman, who confirms that she is before driving off.
We end up at the river where the sticks from tashlich still float on the surface. “There are a lot of different communities,” Schwartz says. “But to actually re-create a village experience and give people a taste of purpose for caring for each other and their essential needs and spiritual needs… it lets the nervous system relax.”