Rabbi Zelig Golden, founding director of Wilderness Torah, clutches the organization‘s new Torah scroll, posing with the Wilderness Torah staff. (Photo/Julia Maryanska)
Rabbi Zelig Golden, founding director of Wilderness Torah, clutches the organization‘s new Torah scroll, posing with the Wilderness Torah staff. (Photo/Julia Maryanska)

Finally, a Torah for Wilderness Torah, thanks to dying synagogue

Endings can also mean beginnings. That is certainly true for one particular Torah scroll that has just been passed down from a shuttered synagogue in San Jose to Wilderness Torah, the earth-centric Judaism organization based in Berkeley.

“It’s a really beautiful thing,” said Rabbi Zelig Golden, founder of Wilderness Torah. “I feel very blessed.”

The scroll was one of two belonging to Temple Beth Sholom, a community founded in 1970 that was down to seven members by 2013 and had no permanent home. Their last year of High Holiday services was 2017.

“There is some grieving, and a sense of the bittersweet,” said Warner Bloomberg, the last president of what was tabbed as “the little shul that could” in a 2013 J. cover story.

The small community in the South Bay had been operating on a shoestring budget and relying on a core of committed, long-term volunteers and a dwindling number of participants for holiday services. It remained true to the values the small congregation was founded on in 1970, when a few friends got together with the idea that no one should have to pay for High Holiday services (free or low-cost tickets were a rarity at the time, as were congregations with affordable, sliding-scale dues).

Over the years, the temple stuck with its low-key ethos: There was no paid staff, except for part-time rabbis. In 1976, that person was Rabbi Michal Mendelsohn (then Bernstein), the second woman to be ordained by the Union of Reform Judaism. That made her the first presiding female rabbi at a North American congregation, according to the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

In 2011 Rabbi David Dunn Bauer served Beth Sholom. He now feels it’s “beautifully significant” that the San Jose group chose Wilderness Torah for its scroll, and thinks it is indicative of a shift in what people are looking for today — a new kind of experience that they can’t get from a traditional synagogue.

That’s where the Jews are going. That’s where the scroll should go.

“That’s where the energy is going. That’s where the Jews are going,” he said. “That’s where the scroll should go.”

It took some thinking, however. When Beth Sholom’s board members made their decision in early 2017 to shut down, they also decided to give themselves and the community one more year of High Holiday services.

“We should do it the right way, the proper way, legally as well as spiritually,” Bloomberg said. “That’s what led to the decision to have one more set of services.”

They also had to figure out what to do with their two Torahs. In the end, they decided by consensus to give one to Project Kesher’s Torah Return Project, which donates scrolls to Eastern Europe. The second one would stay local. They just had to find the right place.

When Golden heard about a Torah scroll looking for a new home, he was immediately excited.

“I have been wanting a Torah since Wilderness Torah was founded,” he said. “Wilderness Torah, after all, is called Wilderness Torah.”

Beth Sholom said “yes” to his application, and now the Torah, along with a portable ark and foldable bimah, is in Golden’s living room.

“Apparently, God decided it’s time for us to have a Torah, and here we are!” he said.

It comes at a good time for the 11-year-old growing organization. Known for nature-based, outdoor festivities like “Sukkot on the Farm,” the group has also started to increase its ritual and educational programming.

“Wilderness Torah is in a moment of evolution and growth, and now we have this Torah to grow with us,” Golden said.

The Beth Sholom Torah will make its debut at Wilderness Torah’s Sept. 9-10 Rosh Hashanah retreat at a farm near Sebastopol, marking both the Jewish New Year and a new life for a well-loved scroll.

“When it came time, they passed it on so it can continue what it was written to do,” Golden said.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.