Livnot U’lehibanot: To Build and Be Built (Part 1)

This is the first in a series of posts about the program I did during Passover in April.

For Pesach this year, I was lucky enough to not only have the good fortune to celebrate the holiday in the holy land itself, but more specifically, to celebrate it in the mystical, mountain city of Tzfat. My previous experiences in Tzfat had been limited to say the least. We stopped there for an afternoon on my Taglit-Birthright trip in 2010, quickly making our way through all of the hot spots, from an artist whose work is influenced by gematria, to crashing a bar mitzvah at one of the local synagogues. Then in March of this year, I returned–twice even–but for no longer than half a day either time.

It was on the first trip this March with my mom, who was in the midst of her first visit to Israel, that we stumbled upon the Livnot visitor’s center. She was searching for a map that would help us decipher the circular, old city roads. Sitting at the desk, was Rachel, a cheerful girl with a big smile, who helpfully gave us a map, highlighted a few points of interest for us, and chatted with us about our trip around the country. When she heard I was a Masa participant, and currently living in Tel Aviv, she handed me a flyer for their weeklong Passover program, which was advertised as being “generously subsidized to only $150 per week.” We thanked her, and I said that I’d think about it, while actually planning to toss the flyer and forget about the suggestion entirely. But the price definitely hooked me. I thought there had to be some catch, and figured there was no way it could only be $150. Besides, the description on the flyer was something vague along the lines of, “hike and volunteer in Northern Israel.”  Not exactly the most intriguing of tag lines.

Narrow Old City Streets (just outside the Livnot campus)

Narrow Old City Streets (just outside the Livnot campus)

I’ve never been the type to seek adventure exactly, rather preferring to enjoy it if it came my way rather than making it an active pursuit. But this year has been a turning point for me. I took a big leap in moving to a foreign country–albeit with a program that has helped eased the transition– took a pit stop in Russia on my own on the way over here, and I’m planning on a solo trip to Europe for the summer. As we left the visitor’s center through one of their 16th century excavation sites, I began to think that maybe this program would be a good opportunity for me. Maybe I could finagle a way to finance it, and further, I would have a place for Passover where I wouldn’t have to fight in order to keep a kosher for Passover kitchen. I shared these thoughts with my mom as we exited onto the cobblestone streets of the old city, and she responded, “I’ll pay half if Dad pays half.” Now, I’m no expert, but a trip to ease my Pesach woes sponsored by my parents? Sounds like an exceedingly good bargain.

While I still took a little more time to think about it (and check to see if my dad would agree), a few weeks later, I found myself completing the application and participating in a phone interview, which involved questions regarding my Jewish background and community involvement. I began to worry just a little bit when the response to the enumeration of my involvement with university Jewish life was that Livnot is designed for people who generally have had less experience with Judaism. I assured my interviewer that I firmly believed we can learn from everyone, and that despite my 8 years of twice weekly religious school study, there is so much about Judaism that I still have to learn, whether it’s from trained rabbis, or someone who’s only begun to engage with their spirituality. After two weeks with no word, I really began to worry that maybe my prior experiences were in the way of my acceptance to the program, but at long last, an email arrived congratulating me on my acceptance to the 2014 Passover program. As relief washed over me, I settled back into the mundanities of job hunting, ulpan, and vegan cupcakes.

Livnot's front door

Livnot’s front door

When I arrived in Tzfat with another friend from Tel Aviv, I still didn’t really know what to expect. As a fairly constant worrier, my thoughts were mostly concerned with the cleanliness of my accommodations, for reasons unbeknownst to myself, but most likely because at my heart, I’m a city girl who is definitely afraid of getting dirty (once I’ve already gotten dirty I can then proceed to let loose and have fun). We were housed in a refurbished 16th century village, in rooms made of large stones with arching ceilings, and, as in the case of my room at least, only a suggestion of the warm sun outside. Upon entering the room, I tried and failed to picture what this village originally looked like, how the families lived, and what purpose each room possibly served. While there was ample time for reflection during this week, it was definitely not focused on the distinct history of my particular room. The rest of the Livnot campus is comprised of a large living room/common area, a kitchen separated into a meat side and dairy side, as well as a large upstairs room that is under construction, and a balcony, which allows for a stunning view of the neighboring mountains.

Peering down at the campus

Peering down at the campus

We began the program as it would end, by sitting in a circle and singing a song with a kabbalist named Shlomo (and until very recently, known as Doron). While it may be hard to believe given my verbose nature, when it comes to meeting new people, I still suffer from a small amount of social anxiety, and it’s definitely a push to say hi, introduce myself, and ask questions about my fellow participants. Likewise for enthusiastically singing a song I only vaguely remembered right off the bat. Following the song, we were given a run down of the rules and regulations involved in being a Livnot participant, and then taken on a tour of the old city, which ended at the citadel at the very top of the mountain. Our tour was lead by the engaging bat sheirut Tifferet, who insisted that her descriptions of Tzfat were the only time she would spend that much time talking. In fact the whole program was run by three truly incredible bnot sheirut (plural of bat sheirut)–Tifferet, Rachel (the girl I met at the front desk), and Nina–who are literally ‘service daughters’ which denotes one who is completing her national service in place of the standard army service. We began our citadel experience by walking through a very dark passageway that lead into a slightly more illuminated cistern. Tifferet urged us to even close our eyes as we entered the gloom of the cistern passageway, and only once situated inside did we open them to assess our surroundings. She then taught us a song brought to Israel by the Ethiopian Jews, which we again sang hesitantly (well for some of us at least) as we gained familiarity with a melody that would carry us through the rest of the week. We then also took a moment to take advantage of the brilliant acoustics of the domed cistern by participating in a screaming meditation, where we clear our mind by literally shouting it out. As I’ve already mentioned, my trust in the program and participants was still building, and I felt rather silly singing and shouting with people I barely knew. That’s the true brilliance of programs like these. By bringing together so many people with different backgrounds (though I think the overwhelming majority of us were actually raised in New Jersey), our different strengths and weaknesses balanced out, so while I hesitated at first to sing and shout with all of my might, there were those who helped ease my worries by immediately throwing themselves into these tasks, thereby creating a cushion of safety and encouraging others to fully participate. Of course, my fear in and of itself was most likely rooted in the idea of “well what if no one does it, what if I throw myself in but I’m the only one, and everyone laughs at me?” Being a kid that didn’t fit in very well with the social hierarchies of public school, this is a fear that has followed me for a long time, and that I’ve slowly been working to let go of as I’ve aged. This has mostly been achieved through the opportunities I’ve had to engage in not one, but many fresh starts, including programs like Livnot. As we exited the cistern, back through the unlit passageway, the group noted how much easier it was going back. While the first time around we couldn’t help but notice the darkness, on our second passage, we could only see the light, symbolic to say the least. We ate dinner in the surrounding park, joined by Tifferet’s family, who lead us in a second introduction, as well as our first discussion of Pesach.

Tzfat sunset from the Livnot living room

Tzfat sunset from the Livnot living room

After dinner, we participated in the ritual of searching for chametz (leavened bread) by candle light, before being taken on our second trip of the day to explore caves that were remnants of the Bar Kochba revolt. In order to reach them, we walked through a dark path off of the main road, where we were given the option of not entering the caves should we so desire, though I think everyone chose to give it a shot. As we wriggled through the dust to reach a large subterranean cavity, our guide began to tell us the story of the caves. Each cave was once a cistern serving several houses of the Jewish community, but when it came time to revolt, the memory of Massada 60 years prior was still fresh in the minds of many. Rather than hiding in a mountain fortress and committing mass suicide (though the prospect was discussed), the Jewish people decided to try a different method of hiding from the Romans. The cisterns, except for a select few were dried out and sealed, and were then connected to each other by a series of small twisting tunnels, giving the advantage to the defenders. The Romans, whose gear was not only loud–which easily gave away their position–but also cumbersome, found it difficult to maneuver through tunnels with the purpose of rooting out the Jews. We returned to our recurring theme of the week, that of leaving Egypt and seeking freedom, and what it meant to these Jews in particular. After our initial background discussion, we split into two groups, and crawled into a second smaller chamber. Some of the tunnels were so narrow that the only way to pass through was by literally slithering flat against the ground. In this second smaller chamber (also once a cistern) we discussed some of the miracles of the revolt, such as the fact that children and babies were somehow trained to be quiet, but even more miraculous, was the story of two Jewish women who gave birth inside the caves in complete silence. Before exiting the small chamber in order for the second group to take their turn, we spent two minutes sitting in complete silence, with the darkness pressing in and around us, in order to gain just a little more understanding of what it might have been like during a Roman attack. As we afterwards exited into the brisk, night air, each of us had yet another experience of the word freedom: freedom to breathe, freedom of movement, the ability to use our eyes and to see light etc. Of course, that night was extremely cold, so while we had the opportunity to go take our own space after being crammed together in the tiny caves, banding together to share body heat proved to be a little more important, at least for someone like me who was cold even with two pairs of pants and three sweaters.

Part 2 coming soon!




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  • scrappyrn
    May 15, 2014 at 2:31 am

    You are fabulous Ashley and I am so proud of you. Can’t wait for part 2.