Coming of age in the redwoods: New program infuses bnai mitzvah experience with nature

When we go into nature during important transitions in our lives, we learn about ourselves.

So says Zelig Golden, founding co-director of Wilderness Torah and a key player in the development of B’naiture, a new two-year program designed to aid the transition for girls and boys ages 11 to 13 as they prepare to come of age.

“Kids at this age are fundamentally learning about themselves as they form their identities — including their Jewish identities,” Golden, 37, said. “In the B’naiture program, we use experiences in nature to create challenges that allow the kids to see their potential in the world.”

Wilderness Torah, a Berkeley-based nonprofit that celebrates Judaism’s Earth-based traditions, will launch the mentoring program Oct. 23. It is intended to supplement traditional b’nai mitzvah education or to serve kids not affiliated with a synagogue.

“Our mentors will talk with the kids about their relationships to God, about what kinds of sacrifices might be necessary when they become adults and about taking responsibility for who they are in the world,” Golden said.

The program will include two camping trips per year (one with parents and one without) at Camp Newman’s backcountry site in Santa Rosa and twice-monthly meetings. The cost is $995 per year plus $100 for parents who attend the kickoff camping trip. Some scholarships are available.

Raffi Altman-Allen

Framed by stories from the Torah and Jewish teachings, experiences at B’naiture will provide the 10 girls and 10 boys participating with “challenging experiences, a chance to learn new skills,” Golden said, as well as “a time for sharing, for counseling from mentors, for self-reflection.”

This is not wishful thinking. Golden knows that the concept works, because two years ago he helped found and directed a similar pilot program in partnership with Chochmat HaLev, a Jewish Renewal congregation in Berkeley. Twelve youngsters were part of the pilot program.

One was Orr Goldberg, 11, a Berkeley resident who attends Windrush School in El Cerrito.

“I loved the sleepover — that was amazing,” Orr said. “I also liked all the hikes we took.”

Orr Goldberg

He added that he enjoyed talking with the mentors and other participants about making choices regarding feelings and reactions to events. “Your feelings can be whatever you want them to be,” he said.

Orr’s parents, Neil and Hagit Goldberg, also were pleased with the program.

“It is brilliantly conceived,” said Neil Goldberg, a designer and entrepreneur. “The outdoor component, the learning of the skills needed to n n n from 1b   

navigate through the woods in a physical way, is complemented with the classroom component, where there was a deepened spirit of connection, of tribe, and a sense of commitment to what the students were doing.”

Raffi Altman-Allen, 13, who is going into eighth grade at Willard Middle School in Berkeley, also took part in the pilot program.

“Hiking and being in nature is important to our family, so Raffi is already comfortable in that environment, but the pilot program gave her a different perspective,” said Raffi’s mother, an artist who didn’t want her name used for this article. “It also teaches that you are strong on your own, but you have community there to help when you need them.”

Raffi, Orr and their families are all affiliated with Chochmat HaLev.

“Chochmat HaLev helped us get our start, and they continue to supplement their synagogue-based Hebrew School program with B’naiture,” Golden said. “We are grateful.”


Kids in the B’naiture pilot program learn how to start a campfire.

A former environmental attorney, Golden is a member at Chochmat HaLev and also teaches adult education classes there. With Julie Wolk, he co-founded and directs Wilderness Torah, which aims to “revitalize Jewish life by reconnecting Jewish traditions to the cycles of nature.”


Currently, B’naiture receives funding for program development from the Covenant Foundation. “Primarily, boys are showing interest, but this program is designed for girls, too,” Golden said.

B’naiture has “three amazing female mentors that have designed a special girls’ track,” he added. “We are working with lots of synagogues to get the word out.” 


B’naiture is having a free informational meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday, July 20, at the JCC of the East Bay, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley. The program begins in October. Information: www.wildernesstorah.org, [email protected] or (510) 590-1479.

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.