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First U.S. Jewish Wilderness Therapy Program To Open In January

In January of this year, Ramah in the Rockies is opening BaMidbar Wilderness Therapy, the nation’s first Jewish wilderness therapy program, serving young adults struggling with trauma, mental health issues, substance abuse, and those struggling on their journey from adolence to independent adulthood. The Jewish tradition provides such powerful guidance, support, and strength. And it speaks so strongly to individual growth and development facilitated through journeys in the wilderness. At BaMidbar, we will use the strength of the Jewish tradition as the foundation for our program, the framework that gives greater depth to each student’s physical and spiritual journey. Through Jewish metaphor, storytelling, values, and practice, we have the opportunity to transform an already powerful model, to provide a uniquely impactful Jewish pathway to recovery.

This week’s parshah, Lech Lecha, begins with a journey. At God’s command, Abraham sets forth from the land of his father and all that he knows, to journey towards an unknown destination, “a land that I will show you,” as God tells him. Throughout the Torah, our ancestors journey — they go, holech, many places. In Genesis, we see deep family brokenness and displacement. In Exodus, there is freedom from slavery in Egypt. In Numbers — BaMidbar — the Jewish people wander the desert, and in Deuteronomy, they enter the Holy Land. Each of these books, and the people within them, follows a journey.

Why? Why are there so many journeys in our tradition? Why does Abram have to leave and face trial upon trial before he can grow and develop into Abraham, the father of a nation? The first sentence of the parshah gives us some indication of why this journey is necessary.

Excuse me for a minute, and follow me as we dive into some grammar. “Lech Lecha” is so often translated as “Go forth,” or “Get unto thee.” The first word, Lech, is the imperative form of the verb “to go.” It’s a command — “Go, get going.” But what about “Lecha”? God has already told Abram to go, so why isn’t “Lech” enough? Lecha is reflexive; it means “to yourself,” or “for yourself.” Rashi interpreted “lech lecha” literally; “Go for yourself,” or go for your own good. We can also read this as “Go into yourself.” It is not just a physical journey that God commands, but a spiritual journey as well.

“Who is this young woman, giving me a grammar lesson?” you might be asking yourself, “and why is she talking to me about journeys?”

When I was in high school, my brother was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. He was struggling with addiction, and overdosed and attempted suicide many times. He was in and out of the hospital, and I didn’t think he would live to see me graduate high school. Around the same time, I lost two of my peers, one to suicide and another to an overdose. I was lost and afraid and self-destructive, and with the way my world seemed to be falling apart, I wasn’t sure I’d get to graduation myself. In April of my fifteenth year, just before Pesach, my parents enrolled me in a wilderness therapy program in Utah.

At 15, I left my parents home, a land that I knew and was familiar with, and entered into the unknown. For two months, I wandered the deserts of Utah. I learned to build a fire without matches or a lighter, made a backpack out of choke cherry and leather, and cooked over an open fire with eight other young women, who were also struggling at home. I slept in the rain and the snow, facing the deep internal brokenness and displacement that I felt defined me. In this environment, surrounded by the beauty and austerity of the desert, I began to appreciate that my pain, my unanswered questions did not make me weak. They were an essential part of who I was, who I am today, and they are what defined me, though not in the way I had first thought.

When I was 15, I wandered through the wilderness, the Midbar. While the wilderness therapy program I attended was not in the least bit Jewish, my identity as a Jew was fundamental to what I gained from that program. I was in Utah over Passover, and the correlations were too blatant to ignore. Mitzrayim, Egypt, means “the narrow place.” In each generation, we are supposed to celebrate our liberation from Mitzrayim. We were slaves, but now we are free. In every generation, we are bound; we are held back, by external events and internal beliefs. By depression, trauma, addiction, and immobilizing self-doubt or fear of the unknown. And every year, we have the opportunity to explore those things that hold us back and say, “No. I will not let this stop me from living my life to its full potential, living the life I want to lead.”

As I struggled with the death of close friends, the fear of losing a loved one, and my own debilitating depression, and as I celebrated Pesach alone in the desert, away from my family and all that I knew, this concept of self-liberation from Mitzrayim profoundly impacted my journey and experience.

In Pirkei Avot, we are told that our father Abraham was tested ten times. In this week’s parsha, we see many of those tests. Abraham is exiled from his home, he faces famine, war, and family brokenness. When speaking with a friend about Abraham’s trials, she made a great point. “Can you call it a journey if you’re not tested?” she asked. “Without a test, then it’s just a vacation, right?”

Throughout the Torah, we see our forefathers face trials. We see them struggle, grapple to find the correct answer, and oftentimes, we see them fail. Take a second look at this parshah; have you ever paid attention to Abraham and Sarah’s misadventures in Egypt? I won’t go into those misadventures in details here, but let’s just say the content may not be suitable for young audiences, and in this particular journey, Abraham surely does not put his best foot forward. Does that mean we do not venerate Abraham, who makes some unsettling decisions regarding his behavior and treatment of his wife, along with some seriously questionable parenting decisions? No. The Torah presents full characters – their good side and their bad – and shares stories of their struggles, their trials, as they grapple to find their way in the world, and their personal meaning, values, and purpose. Biblical characters are flawed, because, guess what – they’re human. Just as we are.

Abraham’s journey is not just physical. He went forth into the unknown, both physically, as well as spiritually. When I first mentioned BaMidbar, I said it was “the nation’s” first Jewish wilderness therapy program. While this is the United State’s first wilderness therapy program for Jewish young adults, BaMidbar is by no means the first Jewish wilderness therapy program. No, I would say that Abraham is really the first wilderness therapy student, and throughout the ages we have relived that narrative, again and again. Our ancestors were good at finding self, purpose, and community in the desert. Why, as we face our own struggles in this day and age, should we not as well?

Lech Lecha, to everyone reading. Go into yourself, go for yourself. Recognize that our trials and challenges are not weaknesses; they are what help us grow, what allow us to flourish and appreciate joy, and they are what allow us to develop into our best selves. May we all have the opportunity to face our challenges, and come out the other side with a greater sense of self and purpose.

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