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B'naiture Pre-Teen Rite of Passage and Mentorship

Custom & Craft
Los Angeles, California United States
Leadership team

Eileen Levinson, Founder & Creative Director
Wendy Jackler, Program Manager

Organization website
Prize category
3 – 5 years
Target audience
Environment/Outdoor Education

Wilderness Torah awakens and celebrates the earth-based traditions of Judaism to nourish the connections between self, community, earth and Spirit.

We reinvigorate Jewish life by reconnecting to our ancient, earth-based roots through multi-generational land-based festivals, such as Passover in the Desert; K-12 nature-based mentorship and rites of passage; young adult leadership development; and a new training institute to disseminate this transformational approach to Jewish life across the Jewish world.

Wilderness Torah has been named one of the nation’s most innovative nonprofits five years running by Slingshot Fund, and has served more than 8,000 participants since 2007.

What Jewish wisdom do you use in your work?

Wilderness Torah serves the Jewish community with the premise that Judaism is rooted in ancient, indigenous wisdom, having once been a land-based culture closely tied to the earth and agricultural cycles. With this awareness, we renew ancient Jewish cultural elements that have been forgotten or stultified, such as celebrating the rain during Sukkot, spending time alone in nature, and cultivating a relationship to sacred fire. This brings Jewish experience alive, in relationship to the elements and our ancient life-ways, in a way that is inspiring, transformative, and connect us to the most essential aspects of life.

Wilderness Torah believes in discovering a balance between the textural tradition and rediscovering how to truly embody the ancient traditions and practices. Participants report loving Jewish learning that provides background and content to the “earth-based Judaism” concept. Thus, once participants experience Jewish tradition in embodied, authentic and resonant ways, we discover a hunger for deeper Torah learning where one did not pre-exist (e.g. Torah, Talmud, Midrash, Chasidut etc.). For example, during Passover in the Desert we tend a sacred fire 24/7 from festival beginning to end, just as our ancients cultivated a sacred fire in the Temple for hundreds of years. So too, in B’naiture, we thoroughly teach fire skills so that each mentee can tend their own overnight solo fires. In both cases, participants seek further understanding from Torah, Talmud etc. to understand the ancient Jewish relationship to fire.

Wilderness Torah emphasizes the core value l’dor v’dor, “from generation to generation,” focusing on reweaving the fabric of multi-generational Jewish community by developing mentorship-based youth programs and community festivals. We believe that people learn more and relationships are deepened when mentors (our educators) honor the unique gifts and creativity and the intrinsic capacities of individuals to learn and lead. We use the art of inquiry to draw out the inherent wisdom in our mentees and place youth and adults in leadership roles as early as possible. We consciously cultivate relationship between the generations, particularly honoring the life experience and perspective of our elders.

Wilderness Torah deeply embraces the Jewish sensibility Lech L’cha, that by leaving one’s comfort zone and embarking on a journey of discovery, one will stand a great chance of discovery of one’s own true nature. Nature, we believe, is the ideal context for such encounters. Like Moses who encounters the burning bush alone in the wilderness, and then encounters personal transformation that enables him to manifest his destiny, we believe we all need such encounters at critical junctions in our life. Thus, we emphasize hitbodedut (spending alone time in nature) as a core Jewish practice, which is consistently noted by participants as a highly impactful element of our work.

As shomrei adamah, guardians of the earth, B’naiture mentees learn about core Jewish environmental values found in Torah and commit each year to one change in their life to support the environment, such as becoming active in forest conservation. Learning to love the sources of life, spiritual and earthly, provide core context for our mentees to then step into service and walk the path of Tikkun Olam, healing the world.

How does your program work to make that wisdom accessible and directly applicable to your audience's lives?

Wilderness Torah programs work on the simple premise that when we provide experiences that are real, authentic, and meet the actual needs of our youth, then Judaism becomes something that youth and adults yearn to connect to more deeply. We turn the traditional Jewish education model on its head -- rather than focusing our programs on simply teaching Jewish values, knowledge, and practice, we use Jewish values, knowledge and practice as the context or the container within which we create relevant, deeply meaningful and truly transformational experiences.

For example, two seasons ago we used the story of Jacob’s ladder to frame the overnight solo. This story inspired Rowan, who halfway through the night chose to lay down to sleep with his head on a stone. Rowan had a powerful dream that night, in which he learned about his duty to care for the earth. In that experience, Rowan had a powerful personal experience and saw how Judaism contains wisdom that can guide him in his life. To read about Rowan’s experience, please visit our website here:

What impact has your program had on your participants?

In 2010, we partnered with a nationally-known evaluation consultants Wendy Rosov and Beth Cousens to design our evaluation procedures. Wilderness Torah culminates each program with online evaluations (Survey Monkey) and one-on-one interviews with participants and parents.

Our goals for B’naiture include at least 90% of participants to feel and exhibit a deeper connection to Jewish life by a) continuing a Wilderness Torah youth program, b) choosing to engage in synagogue life (e.g. choosing to do a Bar or Bat Mitzvah where they were not planning before,) or c) engage in new Jewish practices and rituals (e.g. candle lighting at home) beyond institutional Jewish life.

In the last several years, an incredible 100% of participants report sustained or deepened interest in Jewish life, including many who opt for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah or take new practices into their family life. Nearly 100% of families in the program report wanting to continue involvement with Wilderness Torah, and in fact in 2015 we launched Shomrim (Guardians), a new teen program, in response to requests from the graduating 8th graders. We additionally expanded our teen programs at festivals, including the first overnight backpacking experience for teens at Passover in the Desert in the Southern California wilderness.

Some testimonials:

“Avi found a way to call his very personal style of spirituality ‘Jewish.’ It was wonderful that you helped him figured out how to make Judaism relevant for him. I believe that you were able to affirm that Avi’s way of being is beautiful and worthy of loving himself. I see much more free expression without fear since his return.” - 2016 B’naiture parent

“B'naiture is the keeper of the eternal flame of ancient wisdom during this challenging chapter of human history. I'm so grateful that there are still people in the world with the wisdom and dedication to tend this small fire, nurturing it so that it can illuminate the path toward a more beautiful future for our children.” - 2016 B’naiture parent

“Over my time in B'naiture I have grown most [in] my knowledge and understanding of Jewish traditions. I have learned a lot about the origins of Judaism and the stories in the Torah, and I think many of the stories are very wise with good information. I would recommend this program to any other youth if they are very interested in nature and enjoy being active, and also if they have a strong Jewish identity and want to learn more about ancient Judaism.” - 2016 B’naiture Participant

“I have become way more confident in myself. I have faced a lot of my fears and I have changed for the good. I would recommend it to others because it pushes you to do things that are out of your comfort zone. Once you do this you learn your comfort zone is a lot bigger than you thought. Also it is really fun and you create really strong bonds with other people. I have really enjoyed B'naiture and would not be the person I am today without it”. -2016 B’naiture participant

“Our daughter hated Hebrew School at our synagogue and was saying that she didn't want to become a Bat Mitzvah or even be Jewish. She loved being outdoors, so we enrolled her.... After that year, our daughter announced that she would like to become a Bat Mitzvah after all. For the next two years, she participated in B'Naiture. We couldn't have asked for a better program! The mentors provided a way for our child to connect nature (her favorite thing in the world) to Judaism and spirituality. Most of all, by the time the program came to a close and she became a Bat Mitzvah, she loved being Jewish.” - 2016 B’naiture parent

“For every Bar/Bas Mitzvah these days, there are a dozen Jewish kids growing up with little or no identification with the tribe. I can't help wondering whether they'd be more connected if Wilderness Torah practices were the norm. Your work is so accessible, so relevant, and so vital. Keep it up!” – 2015 B’naiture parent

What have you learned about applied Jewish wisdom that contributes to your success?

We have learned that applied Jewish wisdom, be it core Jewish spiritual practices, Jewish values, or Jewish teachings, come alive when they are a part and parcel of relevant, immersive, life-centered experiences that deeply touch participants where they are. For too long, Jewish life experiences have become fragmented from individual’s daily lives. Many of us attended Sunday school or Hebrew school and felt that the information and indoctrination we received lacked connection and relevance to our lives. For this reason, upwards of 60% of youth consider their B’nai Mitzvah the end, rather than the beginning, of their Jewish journey.

By turning applied Jewish wisdom in service to each youth’s life journey, however, we see this trend shift. Youth who are met in their need to explore real issues facing them in school and family, and the deeper yearning of testing boundaries and expanding their felt experience of what is possible (characteristic of the adolescent rite of passage time), by real experiences that meet and challenge them, are deeply served and fall in love with Judaism when it supports their very real journey.