Wilderness Torah's signature annual event, Passover in the Desert, drew its biggest crowd yet to the Mojave Desert, April 5-10, 2023. (Photo/Julia Maryanska)
Wilderness Torah's signature annual event, Passover in the Desert, drew its biggest crowd yet to the Mojave Desert, April 5-10, 2023. (Photo/Julia Maryanska)

‘We passed through that storm’: Wilderness Torah raises enough to keep going

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Wilderness Torah has survived the emergency cash crunch it was staring down in February thanks to a successful GoFundMe campaign, leaders of the East Bay–based nonprofit told J.

As of April 18, the “earth-based Judaism” organization had secured all but $25,000 of the $300,000 it had set as a bridge-funding goal, according to officials. Wilderness Torah still needs to raise more money to meet its $1.2 million annual operating budget for the rest of the calendar year, though part of it has already been covered through donations and grants.

“We have now passed through that storm,” said Rabbi Zelig Golden, the executive director, referring to a series of significant revenue losses that hit the organization simultaneously and threatened its ability to keep operating.

Last month, Wilderness Torah went public with its situation, revealing the loss of two major grants and also noting that inflation and the cost of living in the Bay Area had contributed to its woes.

By that time, a GoFundMe initiative titled “Bridge Funding Campaign: Meeting the Challenge” had been launched, with an end-of-March goal of $50,000. All told, 330 community donations brought in $52,349; anonymous donors kicked in another $50,000 in matching funds.

Ten more major donors — some who have been supporters over the years and some new donors — provided $100,000 in additional funding, Golden said.

“Many of those people have donor-advised funds at the Federation,” Golden said, noting that the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund helped Wilderness Torah connect with the donors.

The remaining $75,000 has come from Jewish foundations, Golden said, and though he opted not to disclose which ones, he did say he is working with them to develop longer-term funding partnerships.

“It feels amazing,” Golden said. “It wasn’t a certainty that Wilderness Torah would make it through the cash crunch. What feels most incredible is that we survived because of the generosity of big donors and small donors.”

Rabbi Zelig Golden at a Wilderness Torah gathering on Yom Kippur in 2022. (Photo/Courtesy Wilderness Torah)
Rabbi Zelig Golden at a Wilderness Torah gathering on Yom Kippur in 2022. (Photo/Courtesy Wilderness Torah)

This month, Wilderness Torah hosted its popular five-day festival, Passover in the Desert, in the Mojave Desert’s rustic Panamint Valley. Approximately 375 people participated, making it the organization’s largest such event ever. Even so, capacity had to be capped at that number due to cost factors, and 100 people on a waitlist were unable to attend.

In 2019, the last time the Passover event was held, 275 people attended.

This year’s festival included a seder, spiritual programs and holiday-centered workshops — including one about the spirituality of making and eating matzah. On Shabbat afternoon, there was a “wilderness encounter,” a festival tradition during which every person spends three hours alone in the desert. Later everyone gathers around a fire to share experiences and sing songs.

Many couples, some who had met through Wilderness Torah, were honored with an aliyah during the Shabbat Torah service. Some arrived with their babies.

The village also celebrated four couples who are engaged to be married this year, at least two of whom met through Wilderness Torah. There was also an aufruf (a celebratory pre-wedding ceremony) for one of the couples.

The majority of participants came from the Bay Area, with a group of 25 coming from Los Angeles. One person flew in from Jerusalem, and many others came from out of state.

According to Golden, putting on the event cost approximately $250,000, with $110,000 coming from program fees, $25,000 from a grant from NuRoots (a young adult program of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles) and $115,000 from Wilderness Torah’s budget.

“It’s part of the challenge of Wilderness Torah’s financial picture,” he said, adding that the organization is trying to find event funding partners.

“How do we scale the festival culturally and how to scale it financially?” Golden said. “We’re exploring those questions.”

Jew,  Jewish,  J. The Jewish News of Northern California
Emma Goss.(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.