Reliving Exodus, local teens battle elements on desert trek

The desert trip was billed as a real-life taste of Exodus for 11 local teens.

Sponsored by the Peninsula Jewish Community Center, the five-day Passover journey didn't disappoint. It included a plague-like pelting by hail.

"Monday night was really hard because it was raining and windy," said Gena McNutt, a 13-year-old Belmont girl who signed up for the event. "A couple of tents blew over so we all stayed in the bathrooms."

Replete with sporadic flashes of wild weather, last week's outing to Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California was, according to participants, an eye-opening chance to celebrate Passover almost the way their ancestors did.

"I've done a lot of seders at my house before, but this was really different," said McNutt, an eighth-grader at Mid-Peninsula Jewish Community Day School in Palo Alto. "It was all so meaningful."

After motoring down to the park, 140 miles east of Los Angeles, on a chartered bus, the campers immersed themselves in desert life.

The trip included a naturalist-led exploration of the desert, a Mount Sinai-style trek up a local peak and an alfresco seder prepared and eaten around a campsite's picnic table.

"Really it was a way to make a living connection between ourselves as Jews today and this story and the experience of our ancestors," said Todd Braman, the JCC's teen director and trip organizer.

"The telling of the Passover story is really about putting ourselves in their places. What better way than to put ourselves in the desert?"

Ariana Friedman, a 15-year-old freshman at Carlmont High School in Belmont, said she'd never before spent five days without running water. Now that she has, the teen called the departure from urban amenities "definitely very fun.

"I normally wouldn't live without running water or have a seder outside, but that's how my ancestors probably did it," she said.

Friedman was equally philosophical about the evening when rain forced the group to dine next to the bathrooms — the only available spot with a roof.

Blown away by the desert's rugged beauty, Friedman said she was amazed by the moon's illumination. "You can just see everything."

The group, which included three adults and the teens, ages 13 to 16, decorated Miriam's cups, climbed rocks, talked about struggles and liberation, and concluded the event with a seder last Wednesday.

Their menu consisted of matzah ball soup, charoset, hard-boiled eggs, fajita-style matzahs covered with cheese, olives and salsa, and bananas topped with melted chocolate.

"I've never had a desert seder," Friedman said. She described her first one as "a lot more real, a lot more connecting to the past."

McNutt declared the food "really good," but acknowledged that "that might just have been because we were really hungry." The meal also was appealing because "there was just sort of a feeling, a community feeling," she said.

Braman said few campers knew each other beforehand, an element that added to the challenge of creating a new community in the desert as their ancestors had done.

"It was almost a leap of faith for them," said Braman. "None had been to the desert before. What did it really take for Jews in Egypt to pick up and follow this crazy guy into the desert?"

On the eight-hour return ride home, Braman saw evidence of bonds that were forged in this particular journey as campers traded e-mail addresses and promises to stay in touch.

Participants also reported sharing — albeit separately — a common experience when they finally rolled into their respective homes on Thursday. Like her fellow campers, "I took a shower as soon as I got home," Friedman said.