Discovering Roots at Livnot

Recovering from an amazing but strenuous hike the previous day, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to the day’s community service project. Nonetheless, I joined the rest of my group and headed down to the Ancient Cemetery of Tzfat. Our service project for the day was to restore a small section of the cemetery that time, a bit of neglect, and the elements of nature had taken their toll on. Though not the most glorious of sounding projects, we would have the opportunity to document headstones we restored to help families find graves that may have been lost with time.

Discovering family roots in TzfatOnce we arrived the group quickly began to work digging up earth that had covered headstones, pulling weeds, picking up debris, and repainting engraved letters that had worn away. Despite not feeling totally up to snuff that morning, the work came easy and I began to get into the activity. I spent quite a bit of time unearthing a tombstone that had been covered with dirt that had built up along the hill we were working on. It was intriguing to dig inch by inch and slowly uncover the headstone’s words. Unlike many of the graves that I am accustomed to in the States, the words told about a bit about the man and how his family remembered him. Each time I uncovered a line I asked our group coordinator Naama to translate the text for me so I could know a bit more about the story of this man who passed so many years ago. After the entire text was revealed I felt excited, accomplished, and ready to move on the next grave just feet away.

Just before I could start on the next grave, I began to talk to David (another service coordinator) about my family’s roots in Tzfat. He asked for my family name, which I told him was Sha’cror, and he began to scan the graves around us. He then remarked that one of the stones just two graves down from me held the name Yaacov Sha’cror. At that moment my mind immediately began to race. This could be the grave of my great-grandfather; one of the three men in my family I was named after. As I looked at the headstone I noticed that someone had previously started to repaint the engraved letters, but had stopped after completing only one line.

Hiking in Israel with LivnotI spent the next half hour slowly and carefully retracing the engraved letters on the stone in black paint. Making sure not to spill a single drop or take a stroke outside the lines. The entire time questions raced through my head as to whether or not this was my great-grandfather, and if it was, what other members of my family were in this cemetery. My mother always told me that we had family buried here and more than 10 generations in Tzfat, but I never expected to meet this history face-to-face on this seemingly ordinary afternoon. After I finished tracing all the letters on the headstone I finally lifted my head and noticed that each person from our group was totally invested in the task they were undertaking. As the afternoon came to a close multiple people requested that we stick around just a bit longer because they wanted to complete the work they had begun. Even though I felt a connection to the grave I was working on, I was no more invested in my labor than any other person in the group. Though I can’t speak for everyone, I think that each of us felt like we had spent our afternoon volunteering on an enjoyable and worthwhile project.

After heading back to the Livnot house and cleaning up from the long day under the sun, I called my great-aunt who I hadn’t seen in over 16 years. She resides in Tzfat and I wanted to spend some time with her while recapping the day’s events. As I showed the picture of the grave I repainted, she turned to me and remarked, “that’s my father’s grave!” In that moment the day’s work became that much more rewarding and I knew that I’d remember this day for the rest of my life. On a service project that I didn’t choose, working on a dozen graves in a small section of a cemetery where hundreds are buried, I came across my great-grandfather’s grave. However, I wasn’t the first. Someone at some unknown point came before me and started to retrace the letters but for some unknown reason stopped after only one line. It was almost as if my great-grandfather was just waiting on me to come and finish the job. Whether it was coincidence or divine I can’t say, but I do know that this experience connected me more deeply with my Jewish roots and family history. And though my goal was to restore my great-grandfather’s grave, I felt a bit of my Jewish soul being restored in the process. Livnot had it spot on: “To build and to be built.”

-Jacob Tzegaegbe (NE89)