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Introspection begins outdoors

Ramah hosts first Jewish wilderness therapy program

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Shacharit on a mountain is part of BaMidbar — the first kosher, shomer Shabbat wilderness therapy program launching in January at Camp Ramah in the Rockies. Courtesy BaMidbar
Shacharit on a mountain is part of BaMidbar — the first kosher, shomer Shabbat wilderness therapy program launching in January at Camp Ramah in the Rockies. Courtesy BaMidbar

Was our forefather Abraham the first participant in a wilderness therapy program? Jory Hanselman, 27, founding director of BaMidbar, the first kosher, shomer Shabbat expedition-based wilderness therapy program, thinks so. 

“Finding growth and building yourself in the wilderness is not a new idea,” she said during an Oct. 30 gathering to promote the program in the West Orange home of Matt and Pam Greenwood. “Look at Lech Lecha,” she said, pointing to the recent Torah portion in which God instructs Abraham to leave his father’s house and embark on a journey through the desert.

Hanselman, originally from Libertyville, Ill., is no stranger to the great
outdoors. When she was 15, she found herself in a crisis and enrolled in a wilderness therapy program in Lehi, Utah. Like Abraham, the experience not only improved her state of mind, it gave her life direction. 

In the wilderness, she told NJJN, “We use natural consequences. So, if it rains and you haven’t followed the instructions to build a tarp shelter properly, you’re going to get wet. You can’t blame your parents, your therapist, or God. Well, you can, but it won’t get you anywhere. 

“There are natural consequences to reinforce the lessons we are teaching of self-care and personal development.”

BaMidbar, which will launch at Camp Ramah in the Rockies in January, is intended for Jewish men and women between 18 and 26 who are struggling with   challenges related to the transition from adolescence to adulthood, including addiction, mood disorders, and anxiety. 

“So many Jewish families turn to for-profit [non-Jewish] wilderness-therapy programs for their children,” said Rabbi Eliav Bock, director of Camp Ramah in the Rockies, which supports the BaMidbar administrative staff. Ramah is affiliated with the Conservative movement although BaMidbar advertises itself as non-denominational. “Call up most of those programs and ask them about Shabbat and kashrut and they will know exactly what you’re talking about and how they can accommodate you.” 

But none are Jewish nor do they utilize Jewish texts or wisdom as building blocks. And even those that are able to provide kosher food cannot offer accommodations for Shabbat. Bock felt there was a need for such a program, and he knew a perfect location. 

“Why not a Ramah wilderness therapy program?” he asked. “Our site is dormant nine months out of the year.” 

Eleven people gathered in the Greenwood’s home for an open house where Hanselman and BaMidbar clinical director Charles Elias provided information. The evening was designed for area professionals, such as clergy, educators, and therapists — anyone able to make a referral to families in crisis.

Most of those who attended had little knowledge about expedition-based wilderness therapy programs. Overall impressions were positive, though because the kashrut standards and rabbinic leadership will come from the Conservative movement, there was concern over whether the program would meet the needs of individuals from other denominations; some wondered if it would be appropriate for individuals who adhere to strict halachic practices. 

Others asked whether the program would be limited to Jews, and if so, what criteria would be used to determine who is Jewish. The official policy is that anyone who identifies as Jewish is welcome (the Conservative movement’s definition of Jewish, which requires matrilineal descent, will not be followed).  

Wilderness-therapy programs in the United States grew out of outdoor education programs, such as Outward Bound, which came to North America in 1962. They were often considered akin to boot camps; the insertion of a serious clinical component became more widespread around 2000, according to Elias. 

There is another source, which happens to be a Jewish one, for these types of programs: American wilderness camps designed for emotionally challenged youth. According to Dr. Michael Gass, director of the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Center at the University of New Hampshire, the first of these was Camp Ramapo, a Jewish camp in upstate New York. Founded in 1922, it was sponsored by the Jewish Board of Guardians, a forerunner to the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services in New York. 

Gass estimates that today there are probably between 80 and 120 expedition-based wilderness programs. Centers like his are now beginning to conduct research into effectiveness and long-term results. They are also creating umbrella organizations to develop and disseminate best practices and standards.

While there is little data on how many participants are Jewish, Hanselman suggested it is “a disproportionate number,” pointing out that at one of the largest such programs in Utah, 42 percent of participants are Jewish. 

In expedition-based, wilderness-therapy programs, participants are in the back country, backpacking or climbing, building shelters and fire for warmth. Because it’s generally an unfamiliar setting, according to Gass, people project not their “social self,” but their “true self,” to learn resilience, examine identity, and develop core values. “You can’t con your way out,” he said.  

Elias said people usually turn to wilderness therapy when they have exhausted other less restrictive options. “The idea is not a quick fix, but to build foundations. In the wilderness, you peel off layers and get to the core issues.”

BaMidbar clients will stay on average eight to 10 weeks, and includes a family therapy component midway through. New clients will be accepted on an ongoing basis. The cost is $485 per day, with scholarships available for the first year to cover up to $7,000. 

As many as 16 people can be enrolled at a point during this first year, which will run from January until Shavuot and then resume in the fall. After the pilot year, plans call for the program to run year-round. 

Aside from Shabbat, participants will spend most of the days in the wilderness. “We can’t make a fire on Shabbat or do long-distance hiking,” Hanselman said.

Whereas most wilderness therapy programs focus on mindfulness and reflective practices, BaMidbar will be the first to rely on Jewish texts and values to create that practice. 

Although the wilderness program Hanselman enrolled in as a teenager wasn’t Jewish, she was in attendance over Passover, and she said the holiday’s theme nursed her into recovery. She asked herself, “What’s my Mitzrayim [Egypt], and how am I going to find my way forward?” Mitzrayim is often considered a metaphor for things that enslave or hold Jews back. Still, she said, the experience would have been even more powerful if she had been able to engage with the group in the exploration of her Jewish identity.

Bock, Ramah in the Rockies director, has been working on the launch of BaMidbar since 2014; now he sees it as a kind of paradigm for the larger Jewish community. “We want to be a model for other Jewish organizations,” he said. “Why is there no Jewish eating disorder program? Why is there no Jewish wilderness therapy program for kids under 18? Why is there no Jewish program for sexual abuse?” 

There are other therapy programs geared toward Jews, including Beit T’Shuvah, a Jewish faith-based residential treatment center in Los Angeles for adults struggling with addiction; the spiritual component of BaMidbar was actually adapted from that of Beit T’Shuvah, according to Hanselman. But most deal primarily with addiction for adults.

“Certain people who are Jewish would look for a program based in Jewish values,” said Pamela Bard, a Maplewood-based independent education consultant who attended the Oct. 30 meeting.

While she called the BaMidbar audience “a niche market,” she added that if it’s a strong program, it could bring “a lot of value.” She pointed out that many existing programs have kosher kitchens, but, besides BaMidbar, none follow Jewish law or are conducive to Shabbat-observant individuals. 

But she warned that the Jewish framework is just one aspect of a program. Another question is whether the staff and clinicians are well trained. 

“It has to have good clinical roots,” she said.

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