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.

1 comment:

  1. For more information about Shofar and other Holy Temple instruments.

    We have three websites

    1) Shofar Sounders WebPage


    2) Joint Effort with Michael Chusid, an expert Shofar sounder and commentator

    3) Shofar WebPage
    If you have any questions or comments, do not hesitate to ask.