I don’t think that I am the typical Livnot candidate. I grew up in a strong Jewish community, belonged to an Orthodox synagogue, attended Modern Orthodox, religious Zionist sleep-away camp, went to Jewish day school, and studied Hebrew language and literature at a largely Jewish university. I wasn’t searching for a new understanding of Judaism, so much as a renewed experience of the spirituality that I used to feel in certain Jewish settings–for instance, singing outside at sunset on Saturday evenings to say farewell to the Shabbat, my whole community of camp friends sitting beside me, eyes closed, bodies swaying to the music, voices raised in harmony (can all religious Jews sing well? I remember wondering). I had been missing that feeling of awe for a while.
I came to Livnot twice before I was officially a “chevre.” My brother had volunteered at Livnot for three weeks before he made Aliyah, and later volunteered here again for a number of months. After a bit of resistance, he convinced me to come for a Shabbat in Tzfat. I had no idea what to expect, and was surprised (and quite happy) to be greeted at Livnot by people that were so curious and eager to get to know a new face, to discuss life and Judaism, to sing together, to cook together, to be simply open. It was an alumni weekend, and I met a whole group of past chevre who had been impacted strongly by their experiences at Livnot. Some had found a way to connect to a Judaism that before had seemed foreign or unwelcoming. Some had met their spouse. Many had fallen in love with the land of Israel; with the breathtaking view from Livnot’s balcony, most people here do. They had all had the summer of their lives. At the encouragement–or perhaps cunning–of my brother, I even participated in the legendary Livnot Shabbat oneg, also known as “The After Party.” I toasted people in my life that I was thankful for, told the person to my right why I thought they were great (though I had only just met them, it felt like the perfectly normal thing to do), told the room at large what I thought was great about myself, heard from my little brother–who sat to my right–what he appreciated about me, and responded with only a “Thank you,” as per the oneg rules. I left Livnot after that weekend utterly confused about the place: What was its agenda? Was it religious? Did I really just open up to a roomful of people that I had known for less than 24 hours? Was that view even real??
It took another visit to convince me that Livnot truly is as open as it seems. Everything about it is real, the view included (see below to believe it yourself). Its agenda, if you can call it that, is to bring an element of spirituality back into modern, young adults’ lives; in this age of fast-paced, high-stress, career-centeredness, we tend to forget to stop for a moment, take a deep breath and admire the beauty around us. During my week at Livnot, I remember relaxing for the first time in a long time. I was never actually idle–I was always singing, dancing, cooking, hiking, volunteering, thinking, talking or playing Jungle Speed till the wee hours of the morning. But for once, it was all with the refreshing goal of building a part of myself that didn’t usually get much attention. I had spent the last eight years focusing almost entirely on being a student, and the last few months worrying about where my life would go next professionally. In Tzfat, I was suddenly, wonderfully, able to take a break from all of that, let the music and the view do their work on my soul, and not think about school or jobs. I could simply be. I talked for the sake of talking, learned for the sake of learning, did the Chicken Dance while washing the dishes with my friends just because I could, hiked because I had time, sang and played music for members of a nursing home because it would make them feel happy. Perhaps my favorite day at Livnot was when, during a 20+ task scavenger hunt around the Old City of Tzfat, my group deviated from the “strict” order of business and had a spontaneous jam session with the locals in the Artists Gallery–for hours. We didn’t win the scavenger hunt by any means, but we had an experience worth remembering.
While I hadn’t intended for my week at Livnot to bring me much in terms of Judaism, I was excited to be able to discuss Jewish topics with my new friends, most of whom had grown up with a very different Jewish experience than mine. Some had been raised in active Reform households, some had never been bar/bat mitzvahed (though one was actually studying for his bar mitzvah now, in his twenties), some had a non-Jewish parent, some had begun to reconnect with Judaism in college, and some still hadn’t quite reconnected. I loved the diversity of the group, and everyone’s willingness to talk about their experiences. On the Saturday of my week at Livnot, I had lunch at a host family’s house with a young man who had never been to a traditional Shabbat lunch before. That, for me, was a new experience, and I felt privileged to share it with him. Then and now, I reflect on how amazing it was to get to see Judaism and Israel from such a fresh perspective–literally, through the eyes of one who’d never seen them till now.
Needless to say, my time in Tzfat was extremely positive; and, in typical “Leave-Not” fashion, I asked if I could come back to help in some way. I spent a little over a month in Jerusalem in February pursuing a different type of Jewish learning, and then came back to Livnot as a marketing and social media intern. I’ve worked on the organization’s website and blog, researched and written about Israel scholarship opportunities, corresponded with Birthright organizers about what Livnot can offer BRI participants, learned how to use Facebook as a marketing tool, and spent some beautiful Shabbatot here in Tzfat. I’m now in the last few days of my internship, and I am extremely satisfied with the projects I’ve worked on and the skills that I’ve learned. I’m happy to be able to spread news of Livnot to more people–its encouragement of curiosity and distinct lack of coercion will be a welcome change for many who have come to expect just the opposite from religion these days. The Livnot staff and volunteers are like my family, and when I came back to campus after a week away for the Passover holiday, Aharon Botzer (Livnot’s founder) saw me and said, “Welcome home.” I knew then that Livnot was–is, will be–more than just a campus where I did a volunteer program, or a typical place of work. It really is more special than that, and I hope you’ll get to experience it for yourself one day.