Wilderness Torah Opens Pathway for Jewish Educators

Photo by Judyth Greenburgh
Photo by Judyth Greenburgh

By Judith Schiller

From schlepping and setting up my tent, to fox walking barefoot in the forest, to playing games in nature with my tribe, to finding my sit spot in the woods and listening to the birds, to witnessing and creating fire, to sharing from the heart in tribe council, to singing, praying, offering blessings before eating delicious, organic meals, to gathering under the walnut tree to learn from mentors and masters, to using my hands in nature crafts, my four day journey in the Wilderness Torah Training institute, (WTTI) July 20-24, filled me with inspiration, wisdom, understanding and connection.

I first heard about Wilderness Torah (WT) education programs for youth in Berkeley, CA from my Shinui colleague in the East Bay area. I was eager to learn more about their outdoor and rite of passage experiences with youth in their b’hootz and b’naiture programs. I embarked on this training in earth-based Judaism with a friend and colleague who shared my interest and enthusiasm. The experience stood apart from any PD I have done previously.

Our WTTI community of over 50 participants an inter-generational mix of rabbis, educators, and people who have attended WT festival experiences- was led by the Lev, an exceptional group of talented professionals who brought a myriad of wilderness, musical, educational and interpersonal skills. Our group was divided into tribes, each assigned a Rosh (head) who guided the tribe in learning adventures.

As I’m sure is true for many Jewish educators, Judaism and nature is not a new topic to me. I develop this theme for different audiences in a range of immersive experiences. WT was different. The entire experience was rooted in a culture of our relationship to the earth, and shaped by core practices of blessings, prayer, music and group norms of sharing stories, and no trace camping, i.e. bring your own dishes and wash them. (After witnessing a tremendous amount of paper waste within Jewish settings, it was restorative to see none of this here.) In addition, I was almost completely disconnected from digital devices for four days.

We learned about the 8 Shields Model, that relates cycles of nature and our lives, to fostering healthy, cohesive culture. Based on the 8 archetypes found within this model, WT creates experiences that flow with natural time and human design. To paraphrase guest scholar, Jon Young, who developed the 8 shields model “Culture is complex, like the nervous system. When we recognize that we are part of culture, and feel deeply connected to the earth and all that lives there, we treat the world around us better, with love and respect.” WT believes that returning to the rhythms of nature enables us to more easily return to ourselves.

Although Judaism is an ancient tradition with deep connections to the natural world, modernity has lost much of that deep, rhythmic relationship. As a society that suffers from what was referred to as “nature deficit disorder,” a disconnection from the natural world that we are part of, WT seeks to “reconnect communities to the ancient, earth-based Jewish heritage, sparking transformative Jewish experiences that build community and strengthen Jewish identity.” Their overarching aim is to “rebuild the ‘village,’ weaving multi-generational community that renews Jewish traditions and connects people across the generations, all in the context of nature.”

Integrating Jewish and nature-based experiences, WT aims to cultivate a vibrant, joyful Judaism. At the heart of WT is deeply embodied learning, engaging body, mind and spirit. WT programs are designed to mentor participants rather than teach them, enabling them to discover their own gifts, follow their curiosity, and receive challenges that invite their growth. Youth are brought into a journey following six points of a Magen David: Hebrew calendar, nature crafts, Jewish practice, nature connection routines, Jewish values and challenges. Through engaging outdoor games and activities, learning wilderness skills (such as fire-making, and crafts using natural materials), sharing stories, interacting as a community, and celebrating Jewish life and festivals with ritual and core practices, boys and girls learn to really listen, relate to each other, embrace their Jewish identity and develop life skills and competencies.

I personally found my own experience of slowing down and paying close attention to the natural world to be healing, deeply mindful, and spiritually uplifting. Given the fast-paced technology-centered culture of today, I see great value in helping youth develop their own capacities to slow down, disconnect from their digital devices, and tune in to the world around them in healthier ways.

Along with my many takeaways from WTTI, both in my own spiritual growth, and professional development, I am exploring how WT could be integrated into my work of experiential Jewish education. While I see all kinds of opportunities to infuse its concepts and teachings in my own and other communities, I recognize that it needs to happen within consciousness and culture. This takes time and willingness to develop. Importantly, we need people who can fulfill mentorship and leadership roles, as well as congregational partners. One thing is clear to me – it is essential to create immersive experiences in nature where youth can feel a sense of awe, and connect to themselves, their peers, community, the earth, and God. This is essentially the culture of Judaism. With my training experience, plus the WT curriculum and resources now in my hands, I’m on the derech. I encourage and welcome Jewish educators everywhere to join me in this journey. And, if you have not recently taken time to sit quietly in nature and listen to the birds, I highly recommend doing so!

Judith Schiller is the Director of the Retreat Institute of the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland.