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Community Takes Passover Tradition Back To The Desert Wilderness

Wilderness Torah festival attendees take their Shabbat celebration outside the Tent of Meeting (at left) as the sun sets in the Panamint Valley of the Mojave Desert in 2014. At center in white, with both arms reaching up to the sky, is singer-songwriter Mikey Pauker. Shabbat participants are singing, drumming and playing guitars.

It's Passover and as is traditional, many Jews are eating matzo for the week. But in Southern California, a group called Wilderness Torah is not only reflecting on the Passover story but going into the desert to relive part of it.

About 150 people are gathered around an outdoor fire. In the expanse of a vast desert night, they sing a soulful Jewish tune. They're here to remember the Passover story, in which the Israelites were slaves in Egypt before they crossed the Red Sea into the desert.

"We're doing something that's simultaneously in some ways new, but as old as Judaism and perhaps even older," says Zelig Golden, executive director of Wilderness Torah, which organizes the event.

Participants can find meaningful connections in the desert, Golden says.

"The connections we find in tribe, the relationships with each other, with inside of ourselves, with the Earth. And with God, with spirit."

Usually, Passover is celebrated with what's called a Seder, a big meal where the story is told. Most people here did that at home. Then they drove to this spot in the Southern California desert, just outside Death Valley National Park, and pitched their tents.

For several days, they'll sing, pray and ponder the holiday's lessons.

Jaclyn Marks came down from the San Francisco Bay Area to participate.

"We just finished breakfast, we had delicious matzo brei. And I woke up to the sun rising and some music," she says. "It was beautiful."

Back home, Marks is active in her Reform synagogue. Other participants come from Judaism's Conservative and Orthodox movements, while some aren't observant at all. Regardless, they're here to immerse in Jewish culture.

"You know, I'm not totally in my comfort zone," Marks says. "But that's why I'm here, to do something different. To really get in touch with my own self and my own needs and my spiritual side."

This is what Passover in the desert is all about, says Golden.

"Because really, the Passover experience for us is not just about telling the story of the Exodus, but it's about taking that story and turning it into a meaningful, personal experience," he says.

In a large, open tent that barely shields the intense sun, the group reads from the Torah. Then the participants veer from tradition. Golden says each person will stake out an isolated spot in the wilderness to learn what the desert has to offer.

"There is some mystery here," he says. "You go out to be on the land by yourself. It might be a nice walk in the sunshine, in the wind, and it might be a lot more."

After a few hours, as the day fades to dusk, everyone returns to camp. The group gathers once more around a fire to sing and dance in celebration.

Marks came here wanting to connect with a spirituality she doesn't feel in her everyday life.

"What I love about Wilderness Torah and these types of immersive retreats is they're full of so much song and music and prayer and teaching," she says. "And I have not found such a deep spiritual connection to Judaism and to God in other places."

It's exactly the kind of connection Wilderness Torah hopes to inspire.

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