2010-01-27

A 15-year History of Building Earth-Based Hebrew Ritual Community in the California Desert


The Joshua Tree Passover Village was born deep in the redwood forests of Mendocino County California in the summer of 1995.  A spirit-filled conference was held there, sponsored by Michael Meade’s Mosaic Multicultural Foundation, that was designed to explore reconciliation between the genders, featuring poetry, mythic story-telling, heartfelt discussion, and African earth rituals.  Midway through, the conference fractured along ethnic/cultural lines, denying us the “feel good” moment we had anticipated when we would bridge all the cultural, social, and gender-based divides that confront us.  But as the Village of Reconciliation turned into the somewhat wryly renamed “Village of Wrecked Conciliation”, a spark was reclaimed from among the shards.  On the last day of the conference, those of us of the Hebrew persuasion gathered at a picnic table under the immense trees and stated our intention to pursue knowledge of the earth-based traditions of our ancestors.  At our Chanukah gathering in San Francisco a few months later, we decided to hold a Pesach seder in the California high desert the next Spring.

That first year, around 20 of us trekked into the Joshua Tree National Park wilderness, packs on our backs containing our water, bedding, community supplies, and food (including the brisket for our seder meal!).  We truly felt like the Children of Israel leaving Mitzrayim, schlepping our gear along the rocky path the necessary mile and a half to get into the back country where camping is allowed anywhere.  I was in the rear of the group, so when I arrived at the beautiful clearing among the rocks that the front guard had chosen as our gathering site (or maybe that was just as far as they could get with the heavy gear?!), I saw my 11 year old son 200 feet above me on the top of a boulder formation, and I knew that if his mother didn’t kill me first, this would be an extraordinary experience.  That first year we were serenaded each morning by the local coyote troupe, and shared of our deepest selves during a weekend full of ritual, ending in a healing circle and the sprinkling of our extra remaining water onto the surrounding land that had held us for the last several days.

Each subsequent year we have journeyed out together, typically 26-40 of us in any given year, from LA, the San Francisco Bay Area, San Diego, and even as far as Boston, to celebrate Pesach.  While the majority of years we have held the event in the desert, a few times we held it in the mountains of Malibu.  We do the event on the weekend that follows the official start of the Passover holiday, which allows us to spend the first and second “official” seder with our families or friends in the city.  Each year we establish our “Passover Village” for the weekend, where we enjoy each other’s presence and spirits in a cooperative, and heart-felt endeavor.  Our vision is to create a village, if only for a long weekend, in which we all dwell together as Brothers and Sisters, in which each Soul is fully seen, recognized, and acknowledged, creating a lattice of contribution in which each person serves a different role, a vital role in the community, aligned as much as possible to his/her core self.  Beyond experiencing the general themes of Passover and following the seder in the Hagaddah, our group creatively seeks to explore the connection to our people’s past as an indigenous people.  That is to say, what does it mean to be a Hebrew - a boundary crosser - one of the Children of Israel, an indigenous tribal people who lived day to day connected intimately to the land and to nature.  This was our group’s initial motivation for holding seder on the land, in the desert, much as our ancestors must have experienced it. 

Beyond the ritual of the Haggadah itself, each year we also add an additional bit of extra kavanah  (spiritual intention) to our Seder weekend to explore our tribal history together.   In some years this consisted of focusing on a broad concept, while other years we would explore the archetypal nature of one of our specific Hebrew ancestors.  Some highlights of years past include our exploration of:
·    Year 2: The character of the 12 Tribes,  including creation of tribal shields
·    Year 5: The Mishkan (Tabernacle, see below)
·    Year 8: The concept of Avodah (sacred service) and the Tribe of Levy
·    Year 10: Malchut, Kingship, David
·    Year 11: Sarah and Hagar

Last year (Year 14) we explored Joshua – the book and the man - finding that the story of the Book of Joshua contains many “mirror-images” from the story of the Exodus.  As such, we incorporated many aspects of the story of Joshua into our Haggadah and our rituals, in parallel with the traditional seder stories, which combined with the clear starry nights and warm hikes in the daytime, led to a rich depth of Pesach experience that simply could not be reached around the living room table.

But this written description cannot convey the true feeling of what we experience together as a ritual-based community.  Let me tell a few stories of our experiences, contained within what I consider the 4 major intentions that we hold each year that we go out to the desert (it’s Pesach, so of course there must be 4!):
1.        To Be in Nature
2.        To Create Sacred Space
3.        To Create Beauty in Ritual
4.        To Create Community


To Be in Nature
At the core, we Hebrews are an indigenous tribal people.  We know the experience of living on the land, it’s in our bones, the avanim of our ancestral collective unconscious.  When I tell Westernized Jewish friends about our Joshua Tree Seder, and they say something like: “But we’re Jews, we don’t camp!”, I feel sadness for the level to which the 2000 years of our peoples’ history of exile and oppression has disconnected some of us from who we truly are as a people.  So to reclaim our truth, it seemed just natural (no pun intended) that we had to head back into nature.  The first year we trekked into the Joshua Tree backcountry, as described above.  For all subsequent years we have decided to car-camp, enabling us to expend less time and energy actually getting there, and allowing us to have more time actually being there.  The boulders and rock formations of our Joshua Tree group campsite form an amphitheater in the shape of the Hebrew letter Chaf, which holds us in it’s blessed palm and carries us through our weekend of prayer and ritual.  Our youth scamper up and down the rocks like young rams, free of the constrictions of the city.  We feel the afternoon winds blowing into camp from the West as the desert begins to cool, recognizing it for what it is - the breath of Raphael the Healer.  While we have experienced rain, wind, hail, and snow, more often we share pleasant, warm/hot sunny days in April, with the desert blooming with Yucca flowers and all colors of wildflowers.  Cloudless nights are filled with countless stars, and the bright moon rises sometime in the night, cresting the surrounding wall of rocks to light up the entire desert floor.  We have been visited by many of our Living Being relatives – ground squirrel, desert tortoise, snake, coyote, birds of all sorts with their songs, and many, many others.  We incorporate the Stone Beings and the Sprouting Beings into our rituals, along with full acknowledgement and incorporation of the 4 Elements.  Our youth are taught to build and manage fire, to blow shofar to call the community to ritual circle gatherings, and we re-learn to bless each other with water sprinkled from copper basins and to anoint with oil.   We enwrap ourselves and delight in the Nature all around us, of which we feel completely a part. 

To create Sacred Space
Our first 4 years in the desert we celebrated our seder ritual in the open air, without shelter. By year 2, we had established the boundaries of our ritual space in the shape of a rectangle with the proportionate dimensions of the Tabernacle (Mishkan) which Moses, Betzalel, and the rest of our ancestors built during their 40 year Sinai trek.  In year 3 we were deluged with rain, which was quite a challenge for us, as we put on our ponchos and raincoats, circled up with our umbrellas and Haggadot in hand.  We sped through a fairly rapid rendition of the seder, and were rewarded at the completion of the “Maggid” section of the seder when the rain stopped, the sun appeared, and a brilliant double-rainbow spread over the desert to the East.  Magnificent!!!  The following year we suffered the plague of wind and hail, and in our closing circle decided we needed to obtain shelter for our future rituals. 
The need for shelter was met with a large, old US service tent which had the same rectangular dimensions of the Tabernacle, purchased at an army-navy supply store in East Los Angeles.  We brought it to the desert in our 5th year, and converted the ohel (tent) into our sacred Mishkan, cleansing it with white sage, copal, frankincense, and myrrh, decorating it with bright-colored fabric banners representing the colors of the 12 Tribes as described in midrash, and establishing representations of the sacred implements in the west end of the tent: menorah, bread table, incense altar, and the Ark containing the Tablets (a copy of the Art Scroll Chumash did well standing in for this purpose).  Outside the tent we placed a red-painted lintel above the doorposts, and a colored banner to each of the 4 Directions, representing the 4 groups of 3 tribes each that encircled the Tabernacle during its travels through the Sinai wilderness (see Photo).  We had created, through our kavanah, a sacred space which held not only us and our prayers, but also the energy of our invited ancient ancestors and their ways.  Each year we re-decorate our tent, and to the verses of “Ma Tovu . . . Ohalecha Yaakov . . . Mishk’notecha Yisrael”, we enter our Mishkan in ritual fashion to once again tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, as if we really experienced it.  And it truly is, we feel, as close as we can get to truly experiencing it. 

To Create Beauty Through Ritual
Each year we spend a good bit of time decorating the inside and outside of the Mishkan tent with the tribal flags, a colorful centerpiece, and assorted other additions that create a quite beautiful space for our gathering.  In addition, we borrow a cue from the original Mendocino conference by creating a Meditation Walk on the land that orients people as they arrive in the camp.   The walk relates to whatever the sub-theme/kavannah is for that year, and typically includes several stations for people to stop and engage.  At each station, shrines are created (see photo) from pieces of colored fabric, stones, earth, the natural plants and features of the landscape, with added features including the 4 Elements, various animal beings, phrases from Tanach on which to meditate, etc.  The intention is to physically and metaphorically manifest the year’s kavannah in order to enable participants to enter into the story of the weekend in beauty, nature, and meditative consciousness.  It allows for a nice transition: an exit from the stress and hassles of the world just left behind, and an entry into our world of ritual, prayer, and community that we will share for the next several days.
To Create Community
All of the above would be meaningless without the community of friends, true chaverim, that come, build, inhabit, and share deeply of themselves.   We have had newborn infants, and we have had Elders at our gatherings who bless us with the wisdom of their 7 to 8 decades of life.  Our young post-bar/bat mitzvah “Warriors” sound the shofar to call the community to gather.  We gather in Council (aka Talking Circle) to pass the Talking Piece, often a shofar or a redwood staff from the original Mendocino conference, to allow us to speak from the heart and listen from the heart.  We remember the words of the psalm, to “praise Yah with drum, with timbrel, and with dance . . .”, as we frequently drum with djembes and doumbeks, strike the tambourines, strum guitars, play flutes, and sing together in joy and praise.  We share community meals, including a grilled, catered (yes, even in the desert) seder meal Saturday evening.  We build relations during the formal rituals and during the informal free times hiking through the desert, or climbing on the rocks, or just “hanging out” in camp.  And finally, the raising of the community tent/Mishkan is an “all hands on deck” affair with all the community bonding of an Amish barn-raising.

We recently made an innovation that redefined the meaning of the seder service for ourselves.  In years 1-12 we typically held the actual seder service on Saturday from around 5 PM to 10 PM in our sacred space.  Two years ago we shifted the ritual timeline, such that we begin the seder ritual on Friday night with the Kadesh section (combined with Kaballat Shabbat), and end with the Nirtzah closing circle on Sunday morning.  We go through each of the other 13 portions of the seder throughout the entire day on Saturday.  By doing this, we have experienced a new way of being with the seder ritual that is very lovely, not rushed, and allows us time to fully experience the ritual and each other across an extended period of sacred time.

-----------------
So what’s next?  This coming year will be the 15th year of the Joshua Tree Passover Village.  Since concluding last year’s event, several of us have been meeting monthly to read and learn from the Book of Ruth, our extra kavanah for this year’s event. While we are indeed a fortunate people to have so much of our ancient history written and available to us, last year there was a strong statement made in our Talking Circle that most of the stories in our tradition are stories written by men, about men, and with a clearly Masculine/Patriarchal emphasis.   We therefore intend that the stories from Ruth that we will bring into our seder circle this year will serve as a jumping off point to invite all aspects of the Hebrew Feminine into our gathering, sparking much lively discussion and defining our collective experience this Pesach.  

Over the past 14 years, those of us involved with the Joshua Tree Passover Village have clearly learned that by showing up in the desert with open hearts and clear intention, magic, connection, and healing can truly happen. As we gather this year among the stones of Joshua Tree, and among the memories that we have built over the preceding 14 years, we will celebrate the freedom that is the promise of Pesach that we hold so dear, and again learn from one another what it means to be a People connected to the earth, to our ancestors, to Spirit, and to the best within each of us and each of our fellow human beings.

Kol Ha’K’rovim Sheli (All My Relations)
Marc Weigensberg

Originally published in “Eruv”, Issue 7, Sh’vat 5770, ed Rabbi Sarah Etz Alon.

2010-01-23

Visible Midrash about Ruth


We usually think of midrash as spoken stories about Torah. But Visual Midrash from the TALI Education Fund Collection reminds us that illustrations also tell stories. With our examination of the Book of Ruth at this year's Passover Village, The Visual Midrash website's collection of illustrations about Ruth provides a treasury of images to help our understanding of the story.

The above illustration, by Marc Chagall, shows Niomi saying goodbye to her two daughters-in-law.

2010-01-20

2010 Kavanah: Our Spiritual Intention

Shalom Haverim,

It's cold and rainy this week in Los Angeles, the mud is sliding and the wind is blowing, and that means . . . it's time to start thinking about our upcoming 15th annual Passover Village retreat. This year we will again be returning to our "home field" in Joshua Tree National Park, thanks again to Dan's loving care and uncanny ability to reach the national park reservation line to reserve campgrounds. The rocky amphitheater of the land beckons us to return for another year of earth-based ritual, prayer, camping, and being together.

Once again, we remember that Pesach is a time to renew our connections with our ancestors as we explore our ancient roots in ritual fashion. We will again tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt as if we ourselves had gone out from that "narrow place" over 3000 years ago. We will reflect again on the meaning of slavery and freedom, oppression and transcendence, repression and growth, celebrating what it means to be a people dedicated to service of HaShem.

In addition to these general themes of Passover, our particular group seeks to explore the connection to our people's past as an indigenous people. That is to say, what does it mean to be a Hebrew - an Ivri, a boundary crosser - one of the Children of Israel, a tribal people who lived day to day connected intimately to the land and to nature? This was our group's initial motivation for holding Seder on the land, in the desert, much as our ancestors must have experienced it. Each year we establish our " Passover Village" for the weekend, where we enjoy each other's presence and spirits in a cooperative, and heart-felt endeavor. Our vision is to create a place in which we all dwell together as Brothers and Sisters, in which each Soul is fully seen, recognized, and acknowledged, creating a lattice of contribution, in which each person serves a different role, a vital role in the community aligned as much as possible to his/her core self.

Each year we also add a bit of extra kavanah (spiritual intention) to our Seder weekend to explore our tribal history together. Last year, again setting up our Seder ritual space in accordance with the dimensions of the ancient Tabernacle, surrounded by the flags and banners of the 12 Tribes, we experienced deep and very personal teachings about the character and nature of Joshua, and the story of the entry into the Land of Israel after 40 years in the wilderness. We each took home from our Seder weekend our own very particular lesson and understanding of these stories, and ourselves.

For this year's kavanah, we want to further explore the archetypal nature of our ancestors, to see what lessons we can derive from their lives that will inform our own lives. During one of our community councils last year, there was a strong objection made to the masculine-leaning nature of most of the stories in our sacred texts. What about the women!? It was therefore decided our kavanah this year would be to explore a story of and about women - the story of Ruth. Over the past nine months, a group of your fellow Villagers have been meeting each month to study the Book of Ruth, seeking teachings and understandings of Ruth, the person, as well as the events of her time, which could inform our gathering this year. Some of the questions raised in our study of Ruth which we will explore this year include:

* What examples of the Feminine archetype in the Hebrew tradition are illustrated by the story of Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi? How can these stories help modern Jewish women connect more deeply to their ancestral roots? How can these stories empower the psychospiritual growth of all women, whether Jewish or not?

* Historically, how did we as Hebrews relate to and ultimately accept people from other traditions into our tribe? What can we learn from this story that can help bridge gaps between groups in our modern culture?

* How did our ancestors live together in the Land of Israel during the time of Ruth, a time of loose tribal affiliations in the period of the Judges between Joshua and David? What lessons can we learn for modern day living by studying the lives and social structures of those ancient times?

We know that we are indeed a fortunate People to have so much of our ancient history written and available to us. As we gather this year among the stones of Joshua Tree, and among the memories that we have built over the preceding 14 years, we will celebrate the freedom that we hold so dear, and again learn from one another what it means to be a people connected to the earth, to our ancestors, to Spirit, and to the best within each of us and each of our fellow human beings.

Join us among the rocks and earth, under the warm sun and starry night skies, as we again gather together to celebrate in our Passover Village.

B'Shalom
Marc

1/18/10

2010-01-17

Commentary: Why $72

The number 72 has a number of significant meanings in Hebrew spirituality. 
·      Most importantly, there are 72 names of God which are used throughout Torah and our tradition. 
·      Gematria (Hebrew numerology) Most people know that 18 = Chai = Life.  Taking the letters Chet (= 8) and Yud (= 10) together,  Chet + Yud (or Chai) = 18. The number 4 is a very mystical number, having to do with the concept of Wholeness, Balance, Harmony: 4 worlds of Kaballah, the 4 Directions, the 4 Elements, the 4 Animal Beings of Ezekiel’s mystical chariot vision.  Not to mention the significance of the number 4 for Pesach specifically: The 4 questions, 4 cups of wine, 4 types of children, 4 expressions of salvation from Egypt, etc etc. 
·      So putting things together, we see that 4 X 18 equals 4 times Chai, a life of wholeness = 72 = all the names of the Divine. So choose the meaning of wholeness that you prefer for the number 4, multiple by Life 18, and you arrive at $72 – the cost to attend this year’s Passover Village.
·      For a child (defined as below the usual bar/bat mitzvah age of 13), the cost is half that, 2 times Chai, $36.

2010-01-04

A Tabernacle in the Desert

Like our foreparents, a tent, a holy sanctuary, serves as the center of our community during Passover Village retreats.
For many years, this was our campsite. Just out of range to one side of the tabernacle is our community kitchen. Individual campsites are to the other side, with plenty of room to spread out for personal meditations and recreation.
After camping at a desert site for many years, we moved to a site in the mountains near Los Angeles in 2014. Occasionally we have pitched camp in other locations as well. This reminds us that during the 40 years after leaving Egypt, the tribes moved several times as we followed the pillar of smoke described in Torah.
Living close to the earth, we become aware that even the desert is full of life. The rocks, the sky, and the wind all whisper the name of God. To help us orient in space, we mark the cardinal directions with flags of the tribes of Israel as described in Leviticus.
Passover begins on a full moon. Watching the sky helps us orient in time and to experience the seasons.
By mutual agreement among villagers, we have chosen to not publish photos of participants. Like many other council circles and spiritual groups, we feel that our privacy allows us to be more fully present.

2010-01-03

Kavanah: Our Spiritual Intention

This letter, sent to community members prior to our 2009 encampment, helps express the kavanah - spiritual intention -- of Passover Village.

Shalom Haverim,


We will soon be returning to our “home” in Joshua Tree for our 14th (!) desert Pesach together. Thanks to Dan’s never-ending care and commitment to this community, we will gather once again in XXXX campgrounds in Joshua Tree National Park. The rocks and earth of our “home” site beckon us to return for another year of earth-based ritual, prayer, camping, and being together.


Once again, we remember that Pesach is a time to renew our connections with our ancestors as we explore our ancient roots in ritual fashion. We are instructed to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt as if we ourselves had gone out from that “narrow place” over 3000 years ago. It is a time to reflect on the meaning of slavery and freedom, oppression and transcendence, repression and growth. We celebrate what it means to be a people dedicated to service of הוהי/ם׳הלא, and renew our connection with the story and the people with whom it all began. [Apology for the backwards Hebrew, a technical glitch.]


In addition to these general themes of Passover, our particular group seeks to explore the connection to our people’s past as an indigenous people.  That is to say, what does it mean to be a Hebrew - an   ירבע / a boundary crosser - one of the Children of Israel, an indigenous tribal people who lived day to day connected intimately to the land and to nature?  This was our group’s initial motivation for holding Seder on the land, in the desert, much as our ancestors must have experienced it. 


Each year we establish our “ Passover Village” for the weekend, where we enjoy each other’s presence and spirits in a cooperative, and heart-felt endeavor.  Our vision is to create a place in which we all dwell together as Brothers and Sisters, in which each Soul is fully seen, recognized, and acknowledged, creating a lattice of contribution, in which each person serves a different role, a vital role in the community aligned as much as possible to his/her core self. 


Each year we also add a bit of community Kavanah  (spiritual intention) to our Seder weekend to explore our tribal history together.   Last year, again setting up our Seder ritual space in accordance with the dimensions of the ancient Tabernacle, surrounded by the flags and banners of the 12 Tribes, we experienced deep and very personal teachings about the character and nature of the prophet Elijah, as well as the character of the 4 lead Tribes.  We each took home from our Seder weekend our own very particular lesson and understanding of these tribes, Elijah, and ourselves. 


For this year’s kavanah, we want to further explore the archetypal nature of our ancestors, to see what lessons we can derive from their lives that will inform our own lives.  At the conclusion of last year’s event, one suggestion was to examine our ancestor for whom our camping site is named: Joshua.  Over the past 9 months, a small group of Villagers have been meeting each month to study the Book of Joshua, seeking teachings and understandings of Joshua, the person, as well as the events of his time, which could inform our gathering this year.  In terms of Joshua, we can explore:
·      what it means to be a true Disciple, to take on the mantle of leadership
·      what it means to be a Prophet Warrior in the Hebrew tradition


An examination of the Book of Joshua leads to a number of interesting insights which will infuse our gathering with additional meaning.  As one reads the stories, one is struck time and again of the parallels with the story of the Exodus.  Leaving Egypt was, of course, the first Pesach.  On the flip side of 40 years in the wilderness, the Children of Israel entered the land of Israel in the Pesach season, in fact celebrating with a Seder on the eve of entry, the people baking matzah from the grain of the earth as their supply of Mannah ran out.  The crossing of the Jordan River, which stood up in a column as the Cohanim entered the waters carrying the Ark, was a mirror-image to the escape from Egypt through the dry bed of the Red Sea.  What are we to make of these mirrored reflections in the stories?  What is the mystical understanding and difference in the crossing of the Red Sea into Sinai compared to the crossing of the Jordan into Israel?    Finally, the stories relating to the conquest of the land and the indigenous inhabitants by Joshua’s army, brutal and at times uncompromising in its depictions, raise questions relevant to today as the dust settles on a bloodied Gaza: Can we coexist in close proximity with other people?  How do we do that?  What can our ancient stories, our mythology, teach us about that?


We are indeed a fortunate People to have so much of our ancient history written and available to us.  As we gather this year among the stones of Joshua Tree, and among the memories that we have built over the preceding 13 years, we will celebrate the freedom that we hold so dear, and again learn from one another what it means to be a people connected to the earth, to our ancestors, to Spirit, and to the best within each of us and each of our fellow human beings.


Shalom U’L’hitraot – see you in the desert!

A Brief History of the Passover Village

Marc W. reflects on the History of the Passover Village


The Joshua Tree Passover Village was born deep in the redwood forests of Mendocino County California in the summer of 1995.  A spirit-filled conference was held there, sponsored by Michael Meade’s Mosaic Multicultural Foundation, that was designed to explore reconciliation between the genders, featuring poetry, mythic story-telling, heartfelt discussion, and African earth rituals.  Midway through, the conference fractured along ethnic/cultural lines, denying us the “feel good” moment we had anticipated when we would bridge all the cultural, social, and gender-based divides that confront us.  But as the Village of Reconciliation turned into the somewhat wryly renamed “Village of Wrecked Conciliation”, a spark was reclaimed from among the shards.  On the last day of the conference, those of us of the Hebrew persuasion gathered at a picnic table under the immense trees and stated our intention to pursue knowledge of the earth-based traditions of our ancestors.  At our Chanukah gathering in San Francisco a few months later, we decided to hold a Pesach seder in the California high desert the next Spring.

That first year, around 20 of us trekked into the Joshua Tree National Park wilderness, packs on our backs containing our water, bedding, community supplies, and food (including the brisket for our seder meal!).  We truly felt like the Children of Israel leaving Mitzrayim, schlepping our gear along the rocky path the necessary mile and a half to get into the back country where camping is allowed anywhere.  I was in the rear of the group, so when I arrived at the beautiful clearing among the rocks that the front guard had chosen as our gathering site (or maybe that was just as far as they could get with the heavy gear?!), I saw my 11 year old son 200 feet above me on the top of a boulder formation, and I knew that if his mother didn’t kill me first, this would be an extraordinary experience.  That first year we were serenaded each morning by the local coyote troupe, and shared of our deepest selves during a weekend full of ritual, ending in a healing circle and the sprinkling of our extra remaining water onto the surrounding land that had held us for the last several days.

Each subsequent year we have journeyed out together, typically 26-40 of us in any given year, from LA, the San Francisco Bay Area, San Diego, and even as far as Boston, to celebrate Pesach.  While the majority of years we have held the event in the desert, a few times we held it in the mountains of Malibu.  We do the event on the weekend that follows the official start of the Passover holiday, which allows us to spend the first and second “official” seder with our families or friends in the city.  Each year we establish our “Passover Village” for the weekend, where we enjoy each other’s presence and spirits in a cooperative, and heart-felt endeavor.  Our vision is to create a village, if only for a long weekend, in which we all dwell together as Brothers and Sisters, in which each Soul is fully seen, recognized, and acknowledged, creating a lattice of contribution in which each person serves a different role, a vital role in the community, aligned as much as possible to his/her core self.  Beyond experiencing the general themes of Passover and following the seder in the Hagaddah, our group creatively seeks to explore the connection to our people’s past as an indigenous people.  That is to say, what does it mean to be a Hebrew - a boundary crosser - one of the Children of Israel, an indigenous tribal people who lived day to day connected intimately to the land and to nature.  This was our group’s initial motivation for holding seder on the land, in the desert, much as our ancestors must have experienced it. 

Beyond the ritual of the Haggadah itself, each year we also add an additional bit of extra kavanah  (spiritual intention) to our Seder weekend to explore our tribal history together.   In some years this consisted of focusing on a broad concept, while other years we would explore the archetypal nature of one of our specific Hebrew ancestors.  Some highlights of years past include our exploration of:
·    Year 2: The character of the 12 Tribes,  including creation of tribal shields
·    Year 5: The Mishkan (Tabernacle, see below)
·    Year 8: The concept of Avodah (sacred service) and the Tribe of Levy
·    Year 10: Malchut, Kingship, David
·    Year 11: Sarah and Hagar

Last year (Year 14) we explored Joshua – the book and the man - finding that the story of the Book of Joshua contains many “mirror-images” from the story of the Exodus.  As such, we incorporated many aspects of the story of Joshua into our Haggadah and our rituals, in parallel with the traditional seder stories, which combined with the clear starry nights and warm hikes in the daytime, led to a rich depth of Pesach experience that simply could not be reached around the living room table.

But this written description cannot convey the true feeling of what we experience together as a ritual-based community.  Let me tell a few stories of our experiences, contained within what I consider the 4 major intentions that we hold each year that we go out to the desert (it’s Pesach, so of course there must be 4!):
1.        To Be in Nature
2.        To Create Sacred Space
3.        To Create Beauty in Ritual
4.        To Create Community


To Be in Nature
At the core, we Hebrews are an indigenous tribal people.  We know the experience of living on the land, it’s in our bones, the avanim of our ancestral collective unconscious.  When I tell Westernized Jewish friends about our Joshua Tree Seder, and they say something like: “But we’re Jews, we don’t camp!”, I feel sadness for the level to which the 2000 years of our peoples’ history of exile and oppression has disconnected some of us from who we truly are as a people.  So to reclaim our truth, it seemed just natural (no pun intended) that we had to head back into nature.  The first year we trekked into the Joshua Tree backcountry, as described above.  For all subsequent years we have decided to car-camp, enabling us to expend less time and energy actually getting there, and allowing us to have more time actually being there.  The boulders and rock formations of our Joshua Tree group campsite form an amphitheater in the shape of the Hebrew letter Chaf, which holds us in it’s blessed palm and carries us through our weekend of prayer and ritual.  Our youth scamper up and down the rocks like young rams, free of the constrictions of the city.  We feel the afternoon winds blowing into camp from the West as the desert begins to cool, recognizing it for what it is - the breath of Raphael the Healer.  While we have experienced rain, wind, hail, and snow, more often we share pleasant, warm/hot sunny days in April, with the desert blooming with Yucca flowers and all colors of wildflowers.  Cloudless nights are filled with countless stars, and the bright moon rises sometime in the night, cresting the surrounding wall of rocks to light up the entire desert floor.  We have been visited by many of our Living Being relatives – ground squirrel, desert tortoise, snake, coyote, birds of all sorts with their songs, and many, many others.  We incorporate the Stone Beings and the Sprouting Beings into our rituals, along with full acknowledgement and incorporation of the 4 Elements.  Our youth are taught to build and manage fire, to blow shofar to call the community to ritual circle gatherings, and we re-learn to bless each other with water sprinkled from copper basins and to anoint with oil.   We enwrap ourselves and delight in the Nature all around us, of which we feel completely a part. 

To create Sacred Space
Our first 4 years in the desert we celebrated our seder ritual in the open air, without shelter. By year 2, we had established the boundaries of our ritual space in the shape of a rectangle with the proportionate dimensions of the Tabernacle (Mishkan) which Moses, Betzalel, and the rest of our ancestors built during their 40 year Sinai trek.  In year 3 we were deluged with rain, which was quite a challenge for us, as we put on our ponchos and raincoats, circled up with our umbrellas and Haggadot in hand.  We sped through a fairly rapid rendition of the seder, and were rewarded at the completion of the “Maggid” section of the seder when the rain stopped, the sun appeared, and a brilliant double-rainbow spread over the desert to the East.  Magnificent!!!  The following year we suffered the plague of wind and hail, and in our closing circle decided we needed to obtain shelter for our future rituals. 
The need for shelter was met with a large, old US service tent which had the same rectangular dimensions of the Tabernacle, purchased at an army-navy supply store in East Los Angeles.  We brought it to the desert in our 5th year, and converted the ohel (tent) into our sacred Mishkan, cleansing it with white sage, copal, frankincense, and myrrh, decorating it with bright-colored fabric banners representing the colors of the 12 Tribes as described in midrash, and establishing representations of the sacred implements in the west end of the tent: menorah, bread table, incense altar, and the Ark containing the Tablets (a copy of the Art Scroll Chumash did well standing in for this purpose).  Outside the tent we placed a red-painted lintel above the doorposts, and a colored banner to each of the 4 Directions, representing the 4 groups of 3 tribes each that encircled the Tabernacle during its travels through the Sinai wilderness (see Photo).  We had created, through our kavanah, a sacred space which held not only us and our prayers, but also the energy of our invited ancient ancestors and their ways.  Each year we re-decorate our tent, and to the verses of “Ma Tovu . . . Ohalecha Yaakov . . . Mishk’notecha Yisrael”, we enter our Mishkan in ritual fashion to once again tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, as if we really experienced it.  And it truly is, we feel, as close as we can get to truly experiencing it. 

To Create Beauty Through Ritual
Each year we spend a good bit of time decorating the inside and outside of the Mishkan tent with the tribal flags, a colorful centerpiece, and assorted other additions that create a quite beautiful space for our gathering.  In addition, we borrow a cue from the original Mendocino conference by creating a Meditation Walk on the land that orients people as they arrive in the camp.   The walk relates to whatever the sub-theme/kavannah is for that year, and typically includes several stations for people to stop and engage.  At each station, shrines are created (see photo) from pieces of colored fabric, stones, earth, the natural plants and features of the landscape, with added features including the 4 Elements, various animal beings, phrases from Tanach on which to meditate, etc.  The intention is to physically and metaphorically manifest the year’s kavannah in order to enable participants to enter into the story of the weekend in beauty, nature, and meditative consciousness.  It allows for a nice transition: an exit from the stress and hassles of the world just left behind, and an entry into our world of ritual, prayer, and community that we will share for the next several days.
To Create Community
All of the above would be meaningless without the community of friends, true chaverim, that come, build, inhabit, and share deeply of themselves.   We have had newborn infants, and we have had Elders at our gatherings who bless us with the wisdom of their 7 to 8 decades of life.  Our young post-bar/bat mitzvah “Warriors” sound the shofar to call the community to gather.  We gather in Council (aka Talking Circle) to pass the Talking Piece, often a shofar or a redwood staff from the original Mendocino conference, to allow us to speak from the heart and listen from the heart.  We remember the words of the psalm, to “praise Yah with drum, with timbrel, and with dance . . .”, as we frequently drum with djembes and doumbeks, strike the tambourines, strum guitars, play flutes, and sing together in joy and praise.  We share community meals, including a grilled, catered (yes, even in the desert) seder meal Saturday evening.  We build relations during the formal rituals and during the informal free times hiking through the desert, or climbing on the rocks, or just “hanging out” in camp.  And finally, the raising of the community tent/Mishkan is an “all hands on deck” affair with all the community bonding of an Amish barn-raising.

We recently made an innovation that redefined the meaning of the seder service for ourselves.  In years 1-12 we typically held the actual seder service on Saturday from around 5 PM to 10 PM in our sacred space.  Two years ago we shifted the ritual timeline, such that we begin the seder ritual on Friday night with the Kadesh section (combined with Kaballat Shabbat), and end with the Nirtzah closing circle on Sunday morning.  We go through each of the other 13 portions of the seder throughout the entire day on Saturday.  By doing this, we have experienced a new way of being with the seder ritual that is very lovely, not rushed, and allows us time to fully experience the ritual and each other across an extended period of sacred time.

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So what’s next?  This coming year will be the 15th year of the Joshua Tree Passover Village.  Since concluding last year’s event, several of us have been meeting monthly to read and learn from the Book of Ruth, our extra kavanah for this year’s event. While we are indeed a fortunate people to have so much of our ancient history written and available to us, last year there was a strong statement made in our Talking Circle that most of the stories in our tradition are stories written by men, about men, and with a clearly Masculine/Patriarchal emphasis.   We therefore intend that the stories from Ruth that we will bring into our seder circle this year will serve as a jumping off point to invite all aspects of the Hebrew Feminine into our gathering, sparking much lively discussion and defining our collective experience this Pesach.  

Over the past 14 years, those of us involved with the Joshua Tree Passover Village have clearly learned that by showing up in the desert with open hearts and clear intention, magic, connection, and healing can truly happen. As we gather this year among the stones of Joshua Tree, and among the memories that we have built over the preceding 14 years, we will celebrate the freedom that is the promise of Pesach that we hold so dear, and again learn from one another what it means to be a People connected to the earth, to our ancestors, to Spirit, and to the best within each of us and each of our fellow human beings.

Kol Ha’K’rovim Sheli (All My Relations)
Marc Weigensberg

Originally published in “Eruv”, Issue 7, Sh’vat 5770, ed Rabbi Sarah Etz Alon.


Dan B. recounts the origin and history of the Passover Village

In 1994 (or 1995?), Laurie & I attended the second “Village of Gender Reconciliation” week-long retreat for men & women in Mendocino Woodlands Camp 2. 

The first one took place the year before in the same area, different (Camp 1) and included Michael Meade, James Hillman, Malidoma & Sobonfu Some, Miguel Rivera and others.  My experience was that it was somewhat intellectually oriented vs. “ritually rich” and had a not-very-culturally diverse group of attendees (few people of color, etc.).

The second one was much more diversely attended and included other teachers including Michael, Malidoma, Sobonfu, Miguel and others.

The intention was to separate into two groups (men & women) at some point and spend the day reflecting on relevant issues.  When it was time to begin, some of the African American contingent felt they didn’t want to be separated from each other by gender, that they so rarely had the opportunity to be together on retreat, in this type of environment, etc. and, therefore, decided to meet as a group by themselves.  Then other groups began to take that call to heart and soon there was a Hispanic group and perhaps others.

During what you may remember as Conflict Hour and/or the final approach to entering deep ritual space, there were many pleas to the African Americans (and others) to stick with the program and not take themselves “away” from the groups, that they were really needed, etc.  There ensued a fierce session of “how do you like it, being excluded, being needed but not being included, and so forth.  We proceeded to separate and people went where they felt called.  Laurie & I, and many other women & men still opted to separate by gender.
Several of us of the “Hebrew tribe” took a lunch together to consider if there was something for us to do to continue our own cultural exploration, although not during the conference;  rather, we decided to meet shortly after the conference to continue the discussion.  More about this later.

We came back together at the end of that gender/culture separation day with displays, gifts of song, etc., for each other.  However, the pain of the fractured separation was with us until the end of the conference.  At the end there was some healing, acceptance and appreciation for what had happened but there remained a deep, open wound in the community.

At the subsequent informal gathering of 8-10 men & women to discuss our Hebrew heritage and how we might continue, we agreed we’d gather for a Passover at a remote site Marc W. knew in Joshua Tree.  We carried camping equipment, food & water, wine and ritual materials a couple of miles to a completely unimproved site:  no water (except what we carried), no toilets of any kind, no tables – nothing.  We weren’t even allowed to have a fire and it was a very cold year.  Still, it was a wonderful event, attended by perhaps twenty men & women, some people of color and a number of kids.

That was our first year and we continued to develop a community of interested people willing to camp for 2-3 days in the desert and create a deepened and extended Seder.  A few of the years we met “in town”:  once at the Temescal Canyon Conference Center for a one-day event (vs. multiple days camping) and a couple times at the beautiful Wright Land high above Malibu;  once for a few days’ camping, another for a single-day event (if you don’t know this place, that’s a separate story!).

We’ve found a wonderful, very accessible, easy car-camping site in Joshua Tree National Park that can officially hold up to 40 people.  In fact, one year we did have as many as 40 attend but since then we’ve seen some decline in attendance (some regulars moved away, others weren’t called to attend again, etc., etc.).  At the height of the retreats, we took an additional cue from the Mendocino conferences and created Meditation Walks that would orient people to whatever sub-theme we’d agreed on for that year as they arrived.  You may remember arriving in Mendocino and being asked to visit various shrines (elements, animals, etc.) to see where you were called for that conference.  The Meditation Walks were inspired by those orienting displays and rituals.  Themes have included the Twelve Tribes, Elijah, Judges, and others.  We also incorporate Council as a form of community time sharing and many drum with djembes and other percussion instruments.  Other art and opportunities for creative expression are frequently and spontaneously offered.

Over the many years, we organizers “did it all:”  scouted for/reserved sites, arranged community camping & ritual gear, explored and developed sub-themes throughout the year, sent communications & invitations, etc., etc.  We acquired a massive 15x30’ tent to offer at least shade and protection from wind/rain as needed (we’ve had it all from scorching heat to freezing rain, high wind and even hail and snow!).  The tent approximates the proportions of the historical Tabernacle or travelling prayer & meeting area and we’ve often decorated it with a “holy of holies” area at one end (where “the” tablets were historically kept), colorful flags representing the twelve tribes, and the community usually creates a beautiful centerpiece.  The event has even been catered on-site from beginning to end (once or twice)!  The requested donation for attending has always been approximately what our expenses were, although we always made clear that no one with a sincere call to attend and participate would be turned away.

In recent years, we organizers grew weary, burned-out, etc. and pulled back a bit.  The options were to have a smaller event, no event or some other idea.  We asked for greater participation from the community in carrying and creating this annual gathering and, while a few have stepped forward, it’s mostly fallen back on the original organizers and a small core of participants.  We felt we’d rather continue doing it for ourselves and would continue inviting and welcoming sincerely interested returnees and newcomers.

Over the last couple years, a few of us have met monthly as a Study Group, both for the study & togetherness as well as with an eye toward how it might inform the following Passover Village Retreat.  This past year has been about the Book of Ruth.

Okay, that’s a fairly detailed, if long-winded, recap of 14-15 years of history!



Passover Village Dates 2010

The Passover Village community will again make an exodus into the desert to celebrate freedom and experience the ancient, earth-based and tribal nature of Pesach.

We will gather from Thursday April 1 until Sunday April 4, 2010 in Joshua Tree National Park.

All participants must pre-register. Check back at this site for additional information.