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)

Wilderness Torah presses pause on flagship ‘Passover in the Desert’ event

Wilderness Torah, which focuses on Earth-based Judaism, won’t run its flagship Passover event in 2024.

The decision to pause Passover in the Desert, announced Tuesday, comes after the Berkeley-based nonprofit made a broad call for donations earlier this year after losing major grants.

Rabbi Zelig Golden, the executive director, emphasized that the postponement of the desert event is temporary.

“This pause for Passover in the Desert is just that. It’s a pause to step back, envision and bring pilgrimage to its next level,” he said.

Passover in the Desert has been a Wilderness Torah tradition since 2008. The five-day event has encapsulated the organization’s signature blend of Jewish spirituality, connection to nature and celebratory community, framed by the stark beauty of the Mojave Desert.

But creating a village from scratch in the desert for hundreds of people is very challenging, Golden said.

“We just simply realized that we didn’t have the staffing resources or an understanding of how to engage our volunteer community in a way that would be really generative,” he said. “We don’t want to burn out our staff and our community, which has started happening in the previous years.”

“Wilderness Torah is financially stable, although it was one of the factors in considering whether or not to hold Passover in the Desert — that we don’t have as much tolerance for risk right now,” Golden said.

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)

The event was on hold during the Covid-19 pandemic but returned last year with an all-time high attendance of about 350. According to Golden, an even bigger crowd was expected for 2024.

In March, Wilderness Torah announced that it needed emergency funding to continue to function — $300,000 by the end of April in a combination of individual and foundation donations. The group came very close to reaching its goal. However, Golden said, the nonprofit realized it needed to downsize and leave empty positions unfilled. Wilderness Torah has also laid off three staff members whose salaries were largely covered by income from Passover in the Desert, Golden said, bringing the nonprofit’s staff down to eight.

Golden emphasized that all of the organization’s other programming will go ahead as planned, including Sukkot, Shabbat gatherings, teen events, “Sunday school in the forest” and holiday celebrations. The one exception: A project with Santa Rosa’s Camp Newman called the Center for Earth-Based Judaism is on the back burner for now.

As for Passover in the Desert, Golden said the event will return at some point. For now, leaders haven’t decided what, if anything, might replace the desert event in 2024.

“The organization remains committed to bringing people together and for moving the Earth-based Judaism movement forward,” he said.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

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