Reflections from BaMidbar’s Director: A Season of Self-Reflection and Programmatic Evolution

By Jory Hanselman

The High Holiday season is a time of reflection, of asking hard questions and facing our truths. It also is a time of hope and rebirth, a time to appreciate the cycle of life and all of its phases. As Rabbi Alan Lew, in This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation (2003) states, “At Tisha B’Av we became aware of our brokenness; during Elul we cultivated an awareness of our actual circumstances, […] Rosh Hashanah is, among other things, Yom Harat Ha’olam – The Day the World Is Born” (pg. 115-116). Just as each of us individually undertake a journey of spiritual transformation during the High Holiday season, the BaMidbar team has been practicing deep self-reflection, discovery, and programmatic evolution.


Tisha B’Av, and Facing Hard Truths

Just as the Jewish people do at Tisha B’Av, in June the BaMidbar team faced hard truths. Over the previous year, 40% of our inquiries had been from adolescents, a population we did not, at that time, serve. Winter programming had posed greater challenges than expected, and many of our interested families expressed negative assumptions and understanding around the wilderness therapy industry and model. Additionally, scholarship requests throughout the year had been much higher than anticipated, rendering our budgetary projections inaccurate. As the Ramah in the Rockies team prepared for the summer camp program to open, the BaMidbar team decided to take the summer to pause and reflect upon lessons learned from our first 18 months of operations.

Elul, and Cultivating an Awareness of Our Circumstances

Just as the Jewish people do over Elul, the BaMidbar team took time over the summer to cultivate an awareness of our actual circumstances. We know the Jewish community needs to do more to address mental health and addiction, and that BaMidbar’s core programming is effective and provides a valuable and needed service. That being said, engagement in our program was not at the level we had hoped. In many ways, we had tried to fit into this nice and neat box labeled “wilderness therapy,” but ultimately, we are very different than most wilderness therapy programs. The cultural perspective and set of values that guides our work is different. We work with a more self-motivated, less crisis-oriented population, and within a specific community and cultural framework. We provide therapeutic services in a wilderness environment, but we’re not a traditional wilderness therapy model. We’re a program of Ramah in the Rockies, but we’re not a Jewish summer camp. We provide community education programming, but we’re not a traditional educational program.

Rather than trying to fit into the box of “wilderness therapy,” “Jewish summer camp,” or “Jewish education,” we realized we needed to lean into our unique and very formidable strengths. As Leonard Cohen says, “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.” BaMidbar is building a resilient and thriving Jewish community that recognizes, honors, and helps heal the brokenness that exists in each and every one of us. We are utilizing nature and adventure-based experiences as a part of a therapeutic process that promotes emotional, physical, and spiritual wellness. We use Jewish metaphor, storytelling, and tradition to help our students clarify personal, as well as Jewish, identity and values. We support families in building strong and healthy relationships. And last, but certainly not least, we work to increase open dialogue around mental health and addiction in the broader Jewish community.

Rosh Hashanah, and Program Evolution

Just as Rosh Hashanah is a time of rebirth, so this season has been a time of evolution and reimagining for the BaMidbar team. So what does this mean? Leaning into our strengths, BaMidbar will be introducing cohort-based, short-term program options, adolescent programming, and increased community education over the coming year. In mid-August, BaMidbar piloted a new program, “Launch Month,” which began on August 18th and ended on Sunday, September 15th. Launch Month is an immersive, cohort-based 4-week experience that helps Jewish young adults overcome personal hurdles and get on their feet as confident and adjusted adults. Using the outdoors as our medium and our clinical model as our lens, students learn and practice skills to help ease the transition from adolescence to adulthood. While our traditional program touched on many of the same themes, Launch Month supports a motivated and self-directed population. Students are people who may feel lost, or stuck, but who do not require immediate treatment or placement. They see the value in a self-development experience, but perhaps are unable to dedicate 10 full weeks to the endeavor. Our Launch Month students are invested in the program, and motivated to be here.

We announced Launch Month programming on July 1st, and by August 1st we filled the program and began a waitlist. We were blown away by the interest we received in the Launch Month model. As the experience unfolded, we saw the strength of the community environment, and value of a cohort facing similar challenges, and on similar stages of their journeys.

We continue to receive interest in this program model, and will officially be hosting a second Launch Month program this winter break, from December 22nd to January 12th. We continue to receive adolescent inquiries as well, and dependent on logistics and staffing, we may also host a two-week adolescent winter break program in addition to the young adult launch month program. We’ll be announcing our 2020 program calendar in October, which will include new program offerings

I would love to connect with any community members interested in learning more about BaMidbar’s vision moving forward. We would not be where we are today without the community’s enthusiasm, support, and belief in this program. Wishing this to be a season of growth for us all. Shanah tovah u’metukah (Have a happy and sweet New Year)!

Jory Hanselman
Director of BaMidbar Wilderness Therapy