Farm-to-table food and a path through the wilderness led me to my Jewish roots

The newly released “Seeds of Opportunity: A National Study of Immersive Jewish Outdoor, Food, and Environmental Education” — the first-ever national survey of JOFEE strategies — demonstrates the positive outcomes achieved by organizations in this area, particularly in reconnecting disengaged Jews to Judaism and transforming many into Jewish community leaders (www.tinyurl.com/jweekly-joffe-report).

I see this every day in my work as managing director of Wilderness Torah, a 6-year-old Berkeley-based nonprofit that brings Judaism alive in the wilderness for thousands of participants through multigenerational festivals like Passover in the Desert and natured-based youth and community programs.

But I also know it deep in my kishkes: It was Jewish outdoor, food and environmental education that brought me in to Judaism five years ago.

Raised secular, the question of my Jewish identity always lingered in the background. I knew I was Jewish, I just didn’t know what that meant. I grew up with little Jewish exposure. We celebrated Christmas. We didn’t observe Passover.

When I got to college at U.C. Berkeley, I began to explore a bit. I went to a service at Berkeley Hillel, but I didn’t understand the words or the practices, and I didn’t go back.

Then I graduated to the work world. When I realized you could get a day off for a religious holiday, one year I asked for a particular date off “for Passover.” When I returned to work the next day, people questioned why I was at work on Passover after all. Not knowing that Jewish holy days start in the evening, I had asked for the wrong date off!

Meanwhile, my life took its own course. In my 20s, like so many, I traveled and explored the world. I moved to new cities, built new friendships and a career. In my 30s, I deepened my quest for meaning, discovered meditation and yoga and transitioned to purpose-driven work, building a nonprofit career and then earning an MBA focused on socially and environmentally responsible business.

But that question of my Jewish identity, so long in the background, started to push to the forefront. It was high time to find out what it meant.

Fatefully, at a fall harvest celebration (people pressing their own cider and baking pizzas in an urban park’s outdoor oven), I came across a postcard. It beckoned to me: the 2008 Hazon Jewish Food Conference. “The what?! That exists?” I thought to myself. Steeped in the sustainability world, I realized that this intersection of my two seemingly separate identities could actually be my way into Judaism.

I went to that conference of 700 people, not knowing a soul, in late 2008. And there I delved into four days of workshops, films, talks, farm-to-table food, and Jewish learning, history and ritual. It opened my eyes to the nature traditions in Judaism and Jewish values that are alive today.

It left me hungry for more, and I embarked on a major campaign to acquire Jewish experience. I went to the Limmud learning conference in Southern California. I baked my first challah and took my first Hebrew class. Back home, I started going to the Mission Minyan, an independent minyan in San Francisco’s Mission District.

Single, I always had my eyes open. Perhaps I would find my mate on these Jewish journeys? (At Mission Minyan, I later learned that my urban hipster knit caps were broadcasting to some that I was a married lady, with my covered head. Who knew?)

In spring 2009, I found myself traveling down to the Southern California desert for Wilderness Torah’s Passover in the Desert. And that’s where I truly opted in to Jewish practice and ritual for the first time, with the awesomeness of the desert and the deep ancestral experience of the tribe to hold me. And I did find that mate — Wilderness Torah co-founder Dr. Jon Rosenfield.

Six years later, I’m helping to lead Wilderness Torah. I got married under the chuppah and served on the board of my synagogue. My Jewish practice and education continues to evolve. And I have reconnected to who I am, my lineage, and a tradition that reflects my values.

The JOFEE report shows that I’m not alone. Nearly 80 percent of participants in Wilderness Torah activities say they were disengaged from Judaism at some point in their lives; most had actually been alienated by negative experiences. For 40 percent, their JOFEE experience was their way back in. And perhaps even more striking: 84 percent of Wilderness Torah participants say they now consider themselves leaders in the Jewish community.

Wilderness Torah is about to hold our seventh annual Passover in the Desert, April 17-21. It’s clear to me that JOFEE organizations like ours hold unlimited potential to reconnect Jews to Judaism. We’re answering a call for deep Jewish experience that is felt around the world.

Nancy Shaw is managing director of Wilderness Torah, a three-time Slingshot Fund awardee as one of the nation’s 50 most innovative Jewish nonprofits.