Saturday, August 1, 2009

There is so much magnificence...

Livnot U’Lehibanot. To build and to be built. This is an organization based in Tsfat, a magical, mystical city in Northern Israel. Livnot was one of many trip providers under the umbrella of Birthright Israel, which is how I made my way here in the first place. I feel incredibly lucky to have been on this trip with Livnot because, at least for now, they will no longer be associated with Birthright. My group, Livnot 236, was the last group to experience Israel through the lens of Livnot. The nitty-gritty: unlike most Birthright trips, which are for ages 18-26, Livnot’s trip was only offered to 21-26 year olds, and specifically those of us with little Jewish background. Instead of going out partying late into almost every night, we got up early and did community service and went hiking through this beautiful country. We had five soldiers with us for the first five days of the trip, as all Birthright trips do, but also had three ladies who were doing their national service with Livnot, three of the most beautiful souls I have ever had the opportunity to spend time with, and who I feel so lucky to be able to call my chevre. Chevre, for those who are unfamiliar, is a term that does not really have an English translation. (Chevre are friends who are beyond friends, like family, but it’s not exactly family either. Think of the deepest connection you have ever had with others: those are chevre.) Further, our group was given the gift of an amazing leader, Michael, a man who made aliyah many years ago, who has so much knowledge of this country’s history, of Jewish history, of the land. He is an amazing storyteller, a master of relating ancient history to our confusing present. His love for this nation runs so deep that it is impossible to not take at least a little of it for one’s self. A better leader could not have been found. Truly.

Michael in the Old City

Shira S. in the Old City

And then there was our group. Forty-three (unless my counting is off!) amazing individuals, so varied, so inspiring in their life stories and paths. Somehow, community formed instantly; it always amazes me when that happens. I spent more time with some people than with others, as one would expect in a group so large, but each and every person is chevre. This community --- us, our service girls, the soldiers, Michael... Oh! And we cannot leave out Menachem, our masterful bus driver, and Shachar, our medic who was with us at all times with laughs, bandaids, and yes, his gun --- was what made the trip. As someone who likes a lot of alone time, it was challenging at times; I missed out on a lot of late-night hanging out because I needed to recharge. But, I wouldn’t trade any of it. To any of you reading this right now, know that I am full of so much gratitude for all you, for all that we shared collectively and on smaller scales. I send so much love to all.

I think trying to summarize all that we did and saw during two packed weeks would be tedious for all of us, but I will share some of my most powerful moments:

- After settling into our first hotel, we headed to the Old City of Jerusalem. This remains one of my favorite places to spend time in that holy city… so full of energy, tangible history, so many stories. It buzzes. It’s heavy. When we landed in Israel, I did not have any sort of instant connection to the land, to being here. I just… was… it confused me. I was pretty certain that I would feel… something! Well, the shift happened in the Old City. One of our group members ran into a friend of his, so I was told. “That doesn’t happen. You’re full of it,” I replied. No more than three seconds later, I heard my name. What?! I turned around. A dear friend from New York, here for a year for seminary. I had been in the country only for a few hours… didn’t I just say that those things just don’t happen? Well, they do here. They have to me, a lot. Synchronicity has been a constant presence.

Dome of the Rock and the Kotel, Old City

Young girl in the Old City, Jerusalem

- We went deep into caves that Jews hid in 2,000 years ago during the Bar Kochba revolts. The specific cave we visited was discovered by a team including our guide, Michael, making it that much more special. We crawled deeper and deeper, through constantly shrinking tunnels, past trick turns meant to confuse Romans. Each little crevice created by the hands of our ancestors. We finally made it to a large --- well, large compared to those tunnels --- cavern, where men, women, children, and babies, hid in absolute silence and darkness (I have never seen such darkness) for always-unknown lengths of time. Silence. Even a whisper could lead to everyone’s demise, not to mention a child’s cry. We coughed, cleared our throats, turned off our flashlights. We sat for just a minute, though it could have been a second or an eternity. “Ose shalom bim romav.” Michael started singing this melody, one I have loved since childhood. Those of us who knew it softly joined, many of us in tears, eventually splitting into a simple harmony. It was the most powerful experience I have ever had singing Jewish music, and perhaps any music. One of the richest moments of my trip.

Getting ready to enter the caves

Tehila, David, and Sarah C. in the cavern

Joshua H. making his way in

Josh G., wiped out by the caves

- And then there was the MEGA event. “Tel Aviv! Tel Aviv!” No, actually… um, maybe not.

- Shabbat in the Old City. We started at Mt. Zion. We all lit candles, accompanying each other with a joyous niggun, standing arm and arm, singing and dancing until everyone had their chance to bring some light to Shabbat. We sang our way up to the rooftop of a building with many layers; it is believed to the site King David’s tomb, the location for The Last Supper, and at some point had significance to Muslims, although I cannot seem to remember the specifics. Up we went, to views of a beautiful church, and of the Old City --- the Dome of the Rock, the Kotel (Western wall). Here we had a kabbalat Shabbat ceremony as only Livnot can do it, with songs and dance and an amazing sense of connectedness to each other and to that place, that moment. Joy. Yearning. At some point a synagogue choir could be heard on the wind, cello-like male voices in perfect harmony. We departed for the Kotel, passing a synagogue along the way. I heard the organ, and the cantor started singing. It was magic. I was glued to the spot, could not move until I absolutely had to, with Shachar passing by, the end of our group. (It is probably no surprise that so many powerful moments for me involve music… and it’s also a pattern I am not taking lightly.) All of this before we even got to the Kotel. That’s a whole ‘nother power… this holy site where, on Shabbat, Jews come to mourn the destruction of the Temple, but also to welcome in the Sabbath. The guys’ side was raucous; Chabad was leading some singing and dancing to be envied. After making our way to the wall, leaving our notes, expressing what needed to be expressed, the group of Livnot chevre circled up and sang some of our own songs. Quietly, together, periodically slipping apart to let another of us in. A beautiful beginning to a beautiful Shabbat.

- We had so many hikes squeezed into so few days.

Masada: Pushed my limits beyond anything I’d ever done before. (Well, until a few weeks later…) Not that it was long, not that it’s that difficult of a hike. But we hiked in a heat wave, something like 44 degrees C! We’re talking around 115 degrees, people. I drank six liters of water. I went slowly. I made it. And how worth it. It is one of those places --- like the Old City, like the caves, like most of this country --- where the history is tangible, palpable. Masada was fortified by Herod over 2,000 years ago in case of a revolt, and was settled by Jewish rebels who fled Jerusalem in about 66 CE in the face of the first Jewish-Roman War. Masada was eventually sieged, but the rebels committed mass suicide, rather than face capture. We heard stories recorded by the ancient historian Josephus, filtered through Michael. We sat in an ancient synagogue, saw ancient bathhouses, mikvehs, and the remnants of an old church. We went deep into a massive cistern, and were entertained by a skit put on by two of our ladies. And yes, music here too, but of a more humorous sort: some chevre were pulled away while the rest of us explored the Masada ruins. They put together a “Masada rap,” inevitably accompanied by our laughter. The beautiful music of laughter.

A view from the top of Masada

Masada Rap

Ein-Gedi: Kum-kum-lei-lei-lei-lei-lei-kum-kum-lei-lei. Actually, I missed this one. I was one of a few unlucky souls who got hit with a stomach bug the evening after hiking Masada. Getting up at 3am to start a hike… was not happening… But the blog wouldn’t be complete without some kum-kum!

Yehudiya: Our most beautiful hike, up in the Golan Heights. It was a hike into paradise, waterfalls filling a large, freshwater swimming hole where we got to spend a few hours, do some chevruta, have lunch, soak in the wonder of our surroundings. More than once, I locked eyes with a friend, wordlessly sharing an “Is this for real?” moment. Amazement was our theme that day, and it was not hard to feel. What is more challenging, of course, is finding this sense of amazement in all of our day-to-day life, in the otherwise mundane, something I have been trying to do ever since. Well, it’s something I’ve tried to do for a long time, but that I do with renewed effort now.


Gamla: Our final hike, our smallest group of chevre. Gamla was once the capital of the Golan, an ancient Jewish city conquered by the Romans. We hiked to the fort, out to a rock ledge that held the group of us suspended in space. More Josephus. The wind. The sun. Palpable history.

View of Gamla, and beyond

Shira W. on Gamla's peak

- Tsfat. How does one explain this place? It is a city that, as we were told anyway, has been Jewish for hundreds and hundreds of years. One of the only places in Israel, if not the only, that has been Jewish its entire history. And for Livnot chevre, it is home, a place to which we are always welcome to return. The Livnot campus is built on top of ruins (currently being excavated) in the Old City of Tsfat. Tsfat is a largely kabbalist; many artists there are heavily influenced by the world of Kabbalah. I guess I should mention that there is a large artist’s quarter that Tsfat is known for --- potters, painters, jewelers, leather workers, candle makers… you name it, they have it. It’s comprised of narrow roads and tinier alleyways, which lured me many times to wander whichever way my heart desired, to get lost knowing that I would always find my way back home… somewhow… It is a magical, mystical place. We had a second Shabbat here, the last couple days of our program. This time our kabbalat service was on Livnot’s balcony, where we sang and danced and watched the sun set behind the mountains, magnificent colors fading to deep blue and black. We ventured to various local synagogues to get a taste of the services; I went to a shul influenced by Carlebach, who has a famous, well, in certain circles, synagogue on the Upper West Side that I plan to visit upon my return to the states. Walking through the streets of Tsfat on Shabbat is even more powerful than at any other time, the silence, the peace, the sense of being a part of something so much larger than the individual. A group of us slept on the roof on Shabbat, sharing conversation and shooting stars (mine and another’s first), waking with the sun.

Building in Tsfat

Yemenite child outside of Livnot's campus

I have been back just once since our four days (and what wonderful days) there during Birthright, and unfortunately only for a few hours. Tears came to my eyes when I walked back in. I heard echoes of songs and laughter from our group, but knew noone was there. I had a powerful sense of arrival, of feeling home. I felt… full…

Sunset from Livnot's balcony

Tsfat closed our trip. Some chevre stayed up north, the rest of us took a bus to the airport. Most headed to the States, but a few of us continued on from there. Of course there is plenty more to say, but I could write thousands of words and still not be able to satisfactorily impart the magic, the change, the power I have felt being here. I promise to try.

Kol tuv, until the next post...

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