Participants and workshop leaders gather around the campfire in Berkeley at a June 5 Wilderness Torah workshop for parents. (Photo/Dan Pine)
Participants and workshop leaders gather around the campfire in Berkeley at a June 5 Wilderness Torah workshop for parents. (Photo/Dan Pine)

Wilderness Torah expands as adherents age into parenthood

Nature Deficit Disorder. It’s a thing. And Berkeley-based Wilderness Torah wants to teach Jewish parents the antidote: Send the kids outdoors.

Since its inception 10 years ago, Wilderness Torah has promoted what it calls “Earth-based Judaism,” drawing on Jewish texts and traditions to foster a reverence for nature.

Appealing in large part to young adults, the organization has drawn national attention for its innovative approach to spirituality. “Passover in the Desert” and “Sukkot on the Farm” are two of the best-known programming staples.

With longtime acolytes now becoming parents themselves, Wilderness Torah has expanded its scope with kid-oriented programs such as B’hootz (Hebrew for “outdoors”) and workshops such as the recent “Raising Earth-Connected Kids.”

Wilderness Torah youth programs manager Daniel Schindelman Schoen, who ran the June 5 workshop, said, “It’s important for families in the city to maintain an Earth connection. For Jewish families wanting Jewish community in their lives, everything is more fun when it’s outside.”

To prove it, he held the event in a backyard vegetable garden in Berkeley brimming with artichoke, kale and chili pepper plants. Drawing about 15 parents of young children, as well as several local Jewish educators, the workshop aimed to help parents teach their kids the Jewish values connected to the planet.

Schindelman Schoen’s evocation of Nature Deficit Disorder comes from the work of journalist Richard Louv, who coined the term in his 2005 book “Last Child in the Woods.”

RELATED: Ecstasy on the farm — Wilderness Torah’s earth-based Sukkot

He started things off by drawing the Wilderness Torah circular calendar, which delineates the annual Jewish festivals and holidays, and where they fall in the seasons.

He then suggested craft projects and activities parents can do with their children that promote Wilderness Torah’s outdoors approach: making natural dyes for challah covers out of eucalyptus and indigo; baking homemade kosher matzah on sizzling rocks; using hot campfire coals to fashion wooden Kiddush cups.

“Some come out beautiful,” Schindelman Schoen said. “Some not so beautiful.”

The notion of a campfire went over well as twilight descended and temperatures dropped. Flora Goldman, Wilderness Torah’s community programs director, volunteered for fire duty, tending a campfire crackling in the center of the backyard.

As the stars came out, Schindelman Schoen led the attendees in a kid-friendly game of “Nature I Spy,” in which participants took note of some wild and woolly growing thing in the backyard, playing 20 questions with the others until someone guessed right, and then collectively saying a Hebrew blessing.

Participants broke into small groups to repurpose a Hasidic tale of a young girl who prefers talking to God in the woods over praying in synagogue. Schindelman Schoen and his colleagues then passed out strands of raffia plant and had everyone practice weaving cordage out of it.

The evening ended with a prayer by the 19th-century Eastern European sage Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav and the notion of hitbodedut, which Schindelman Schoen loosely translated from the Hebrew as “to make one’s self alone.” Nachman taught that the best place to do hitbodedut is in nature, a sentiment Schindelman Schoen heartily supports.

“Being in our own practice of noticing nature is one of the greatest things we can do to notice the Earth,” he said. “It’s a gift.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.