19 years after Livnot – Josh Rocker
I did the 2.5 month Livnot program in the spring of 1996.
Here is my story.
Nice Jewish boy from Short Hills, NJ (yes, my parents did the Philip Roth migration from Newark/Elizabeth to West Orange and then Short Hills). I was raised in a very Jewishly-identified home, even strongly Zionistic, but there was no real sense of spirituality and very little focus on the religious aspect of Judaism. This worked for me as a youngster. I loved Israel, I loved being Jewish, I loved chopped liver, I loved Mel Brooks and Woody Allen and I was a natural cynic. However, the typical image of an observant Jew made zero sense to me. I related to them as much as I related to someone who was Amish. They were complete strangers to me and frankly, their image upset me. In regards to my spirituality it was confined to nature and James Taylor and Cat Stevens or Pink Floyd. In college I started taking philosophy and began my journey as a psychology major which than mutated into biopsychology. I studied and constantly questioned how the brain worked and why the mind thought/felt the way it did. Being at a liberal arts college I also drank from the cool-aid spigot and therefore I began questioning all of my own personal fundamentals. What does it mean to be white, Jewish, privileged? This rocked my world a bit. Being Jewish was so essential to my essence but truly it was based on very little understanding of Judaism- I knew the basic stories of the Bible but nothing past that. I knew only a smidgin of the fundamentals of the religion. So as a thoughtful thinker why would I ever consider only marrying a Jew? Why limit myself? Why perpetuate a culture based on superstition and nonsense? Isn’t that just elitism?
In the meantime my best friend in school, Russ Hoffman, took a semester off and did a 3 month Livnot program in 1992. It transformed him and when he came back you saw his passion, his desire to learn more, his hunger and thirst for not just being Jewish but living Jewishly. I made a promise to myself that I too would go to Livnot. But…somewhat out of nowhere during my senior year I decided I wanted to become a doctor (trite, right? yet again another jewish doctor, oye vey!) and was pretty behind on my requirements. I graduated, worked for 2 and a half years, took courses and finally got into med school (Yeshiva University nonetheless, ha!). My boss at the time knew that once the acceptance letters started coming in I was leaving for Israel to experience Livnot.
Honestly, Livnot initially was apprehensive about letting me join because since college I had also been learning with an Orthodox rabbi weekly for about 1 1/2 years. I was slowly enjoying the concepts of Shabbat and halachah but had not fully accepted them. They were nervous I would be pushy or preachy or that my Orthodox exposure would be intimating to others. I assured them they had nothing to fear.
But wait, to back up a moment I mentioned my spiritual connection thus far has been via nature- well I did an Outward Bound during a summer in college and that only further intensified my tree-hugging spiritual side. One issue for me was I never was able to link my religion and my religious/spiritual experiences. In fact, on the high holidays I would go back home to my folk’s place and go to temple but would leave the sanctuary with the church-like services with a choir, to go outside and contemplate the holidays while walking in the nearby woods. So now I am at Livnot and I am learning about ben adam l’chevero (the ethical principles of how to conduct yourself socially) and watching the sun set over Mt Meron. I am learning about the sanctity of marriage and the mikvah and I am hiking from sea to sea with newly made friends. And I am seeing and feeling and learning about my important place as an individual within Judaism historically. I am a post-Holocaust Jew, in Israel. I am from Short Hills, but a 3rd-4th generation immigrant from Europe. The Jewish 20th Century story was still actively unfolding! I am learning of the Israeli struggles politically and emotionally as a developing nation. I am taking strolls in the wadi of Tzfat as spring is bursting through. I am walking throughout the mystical town of Tzfat and seeing many (ex-)hippy Orthodox artists making mind-blowing art. I am talking this all over with other Livnoters who are feeling and seeing the same thing. I am seeing that my religion is no longer just a stamp I received, but a badge I wear proudly. Not just because I have been brain-washed but because I appreciate it’s depth and substance. I learned of Rabbi Joshua Abraham Heschel’s spirituality which is based on the “awe” experience. That is my Outward Bound. That is my sunset. That is my singing and dancing on the roof top. The link has been made.
It has been 19 years. I regretfully have to admit I have not found any institution like Livnot- where pretension is left at the door and learning and listening to others is so important. Each personal story is appreciated. Where the music and the silence and the sunset and the manual labor for others are as powerful as the book learning.
My Judaism today cannot be well described externally. I am not strictly observant. I am a Jew who still does not except the fundamental nature of Orthodoxy but for the most part does appreciate its ideas and its place. I am a Pediatric Emergency Medicine doctor now, I am a husband and father of 4 (my greatest joy and accomplishment) and I send my kids to a day school and Jewish camps. I still go for long walks in the woods and by the river when I can- even on the high holidays. But my shul-hooky is less done in frustration that the services cannot fulfil me because I have come to grips with the fact that the words in the siddur and halachah move me less than my private moments with nature, my private moments with family and my public moments of performing good deeds and sharing simchas and experiences with others. My Judaism is not my shul attendance. Judaism is a much richer and meaningful package to me and I think my kids see that. I am not Jewish for them. I am genuinely Jewish for me and proud of it. And that is what will motivate them- seeing the fire in my eyes for Judaism and not just the edict- “Marry a Jew!”.
Livnot did not introduce me to Judaism but it connected my already searching soul to what it was looking for. Something with meaning, something that valued life, something that valued appreciation of experiences, something that was forward thinking and community minded. Something that remind me I was like dust on one hand and that the world was created just for me on the other. I am forever indebted to Livnot. But I am also forever indebted to whoever built the sun and Mt Meron and the wadi below.
Livnot Program T47