Celebrating Judaism in nature

Marcos had an idea. “We must create an organization that communicates the wisdom in Judaism with connecting to the calendar and nature!” he said.

People on a Shebet Haaretz trip enjoy a group hug in Corral de Piedra, Mexico (photo credit: DANIEL ALMAZAN)
People on a Shebet Haaretz trip enjoy a group hug in Corral de Piedra, Mexico
(photo credit: DANIEL ALMAZAN)
One hot morning seven years ago, brothers Emilio and Marcos Cohen found themselves wandering around the streets of old north Tel Aviv, talking about how much they yearned to share their spiritual and environmental vision with the world.
“In those days, Marcos was finishing a degree in environmental studies at the Hebrew University, and I had just arrived to spend the next nine months in Jerusalem with my wife, deepening our Torah study and Jewish understanding,” says Emilio. “We were concerned about our natural environment, and we had an ever-increasing desire to share our Jewish practices in ways that are more colorful and open to the universal reality we are living in.”
After a trip to India, Emilio decided to commit himself to fulfilling mitzvot, and he completed a program in Jerusalem in permaculture – the development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient – which had a huge impact on his sensitivity to the value of nature and its connection with Judaism.
Marcos had an idea. “We must create an organization that communicates the wisdom in Judaism with connecting to the calendar and nature!” he said. “We must share the values of social and ecological responsibility that exist within the Torah, and teach our brothers and sisters how beautiful our spiritual tradition is.”
Thus they created Shebet Haaretz (Tribe of the Land, pronounced shevet in Hebrew), an inclusive project that entails expeditions and workshops in Israel and around the world.
“The goal is for all Jews to feel the importance of their role in the project,” says Emilio. “In the same way that within nature there is a balance when there is interaction between different elements, Shebet Haaretz believes that the People of Israel are strengthened when dialogue and interaction take place among all types of Jews. Each experience and expedition we organize encompasses the structure and content relevant for traditional, Orthodox and secular Jews. In these diverse reunions of practice and ideology, there is a kind of magic and an air of hope and inspiration.”
Born in Mexico City, the Cohen brothers say they were blessed with the opportunity of traveling to different countries in their search for truth. Their mutual quest remained in their minds for some years until Marcos decided to make aliyah with his wife and children.
Once in Israel, he collaborated with the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, which works to promote green faith initiatives, religion-environment issues, and green religion education. And it was through this connection that an opportunity arose that changed their lives forever.
Emilio and Marcos took a group of Mexican Jews to the heart of the Chinanteca Jungle in the northeastern mountain rage of Oaxaca, where they were able to interact with the indigenous community. The result was “very powerful,” they both recall, and shortly after that, they repeated the experiment in the jungle of Veracruz. It worked again.
A few months later, they co-founded Shebet Haaretz. It is, they say, a project based on two foundations: the understanding and appreciation of the natural environment, on the one hand, and the desire to deepen Jewish wisdom, on the other. Combined, they seek to reveal “the intrinsic relationship that exists between both.”
The commitment to communicate this relationship is manifested in their main activity – designing transformative experiences in nature under the framework of ancestral Jewish wisdom.
In every experience and expedition they organize, Shebet Haaretz highlights that the Jewish people are and have always been a native people to the Land of Israel. To reinforce this view, it connects the native Jewish community to indigenous communities in different regions of the planet by sharing meaningful interactions and exchanging wisdom from subjects ranging from herbology and agriculture to health and religion.
“The aim is for our experiences to be built upon four fundamental cornerstones: the appreciation and consciousness of the natural environment; facilitation of Jewish wisdom; spaces for open dialogue and interconnectivity between the participants; and the opportunity of stepping out of the urban comfort zone,” says Emilio. “Each of these pillars helps the participants water down their personal labels that were given to them by their social circumstances, and express their truest selves.
In one of our experiences, an Orthodox Jewish participant who is very strict in his observance and another participant who defines himself as a ‘secular humanist Jew’ – which means that he sees no religious character in Judaism – created a beautiful friendship that is still alive today. They spent their expedition talking to each other, laughing, arguing. Seeing them connect while they were enjoying their mescal (a Mexican alcoholic beverage) on Shabbat was a beautiful miracle.”
“Shebet Haaretz’s main values are the formula to rediscover the ancient ways of the Jewish people, the mitzvot, and the ancient Jewish spiritual-technologies that teach us how to connect to ourselves, the world, and all the beings and people that inhabit it in a deeper way,” says Marcos. “Shebet Haaretz is a community that believes that we are descendants of a tradition of mystics and sages who guide us and call upon us to renew our responsibility as ‘Guardians of the Planet.’”
The outdoor experiences and expeditions offer the opportunity to explore remote natural areas through a deep and colorful Jewish perspective, he says. “The diverse activities, dynamics, and conferences in the programs allow us to immerse ourselves in a unique self-exploration and catalyze an extremely positive turning point in the personal life of the participants.”
Shebet Haaretz offers five major expeditions during the year that take place in different ecosystems of different countries, including Mexico, the United States, and, of course, Israel. These expeditions are carefully designed to be perfectly aligned with that which is taking place in the Hebrew calendar and the natural surroundings.
Shebet Haaretz’s upcoming expedition that will occur in the fall is Bamidbar (hebrew for “in the wilderness”), which takes place in a mountain range of eastern Baja California Sur called “La Sierra de Cacachilas,” located in the southern Baja California Peninsula in northwestern Mexico. The Sierra of Cacachilas lies just east of La Paz, a desert ecosystem on the coast of the Sea of Cortez.
“It is a very special location, an amazing place,’’ said Emilio. “It is very beautiful because we go right after all the summer rains have fallen and even though it is a desert with an arid climate, everything is green. It is such a special opportunity to be walking in the desert being surrounded by vegetation. This is very deep internal work – the physical effort of walking on the mountains opens our hearts and makes us more receptive. And this happens due to great interaction and connection among the participants, through dialogue, meditation and recognition of our power in a tone of celebration.”
Bamidbar (The Book of Numbers, meaning literally, in the wilderness) is about understanding why the Torah was given to the Jewish people in the desert, leaving the comfort zone of our physical bodies and of the consciousness in our minds; connecting to the natural cycles of the Earth through the power of the Hebrew calendar; empowering the self and the actualization of our potential as individuals and as a nation; the Jewish wisdom in the unicity of humanity and the universal mission of our nation.
Shebet Haaretz also creates private expeditions for groups of friends, families, schools, etc. The representatives of every country run weekly and monthly short expeditions and activities such as outdoor prayers in the forest, lectures, concerts and Shabbatot. The aim is to build a global community that is deeply rooted in the ancestral wisdom and ethics of the Torah, which are highlighted in our encounters with the jungles, mountains, deserts, and vast plains of the world.
Spending time in nature is not only healing and harmonizing, but also reminds us of who we are as individuals, as a civilization and as a species. Judaism is a spiritual path that is deeply tied to its calendar. The passage of the Hebrew months opens gates of opportunities that welcome us to become aware of the change of seasons and the agricultural and the lunar cycles. Being mindful of these changes awakens within us feelings of appreciation and connection with the natural environment.
Shebet Haaretz believes that what arouses a sense of responsibility toward the planet is interaction with nature. If we are disconnected from our natural surroundings, one will never be able to really know their intrinsic value and beauty.
As it says in Midrash Rabbah, “When the Creator created a person, He took Adam to walk in the garden, among the trees and said: ‘See how beautiful my creatures are; be aware so that you will not destroy or corrupt them, because there will be no one after you to repair this.’”
Shebet Haaretz seeks to connect these two dimensions – nature and Jewish wisdom for the service of the transformation and healing of all those who participate in their experiences.
Everyone is welcome to join “the tribe.” The Shebetz Haaretz community is open to men and women of all ages and all backgrounds. It is an “Orthodox-friendly” movement: the food provided is strictly kosher, Jewish law is observed but the group still seeks to create a space of dialogue and openness so that everyone is encouraged to be who they are and nurture the group. Shebet Haaretz is a platform for anyone who wants to come find themselves and start walking on their own path in the most authentic way.
The expeditions and activities are not limited to a particular language – every adventure has participants and teachers from different parts of the world who speak English, Spanish and Hebrew, as well as other languages.
If you want to know more about the project, you are invited to visit the Shebet Haaretz website: www.shebethaaretz.com and follow the organization on Facebook www.facebook.com/shebethaaretz/ and Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/shebethaaretz/        ■