My Experience at Livnot U’Lehibanot
It’s morning and I’m climbing down the mountain. I spread my arms wide, heart forward. “Baruch hashem!” I didn’t know I could use these words for my God. I didn’t know my ‘God’ was “God”. This word felt limiting and distant. My spirituality had recently grown and deepened beyond my imagination, but I saw this discovery as taking place outside of Judaism. Yoga, meditation, nature, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shinto…these were the sources of my renewed joy, love and faith. Sure, I saw connections between all religions, but this was not Judaism. Or perhaps just not the Judaism I grew up with.
When I returned to Israel to spend a semester studying among Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians and international students at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, I saw an opportunity. In 2009 I had participated in a 6-week program called Nesiya in Israel, and at that point in my life I’d felt deeply connected to my spirituality within Judaism. Now I was headed back to Israel stripped of any remnants of Zionism, filled with the heavy knowledge of the Palestinian narrative, and spiritually dissociated from Judaism. I knew my relationship to the Jewish state would be very different this time around. I also knew that I wanted to complicate it further, that I need not be content with the framework with which I entered. I suspected that if I looked for my newfound spiritual beliefs within Judaism, particularly in Kabbalah, they would be there. Regardless of my political views, being in Israel presented a unique chance for this search. I left the states with the nebulous thought that I would like to spend some time in Tsfat and learn more about Kabbalah. I sent it out to the universe (though now I might say to God), and dropped it.
During my first week in Israel, an unprecedented storm prevented me from starting my volunteer time at a farm in Netanya as planned. Instead, through a series of beautiful circumstances, I met Aharon Botzer, the founder of the Livnot program in Tsfat. The moment I heard the words “connecting to Judaism through nature”, I knew in my core that I was to participate in this program during my Pesach break from school.
I came to Livnot at the height of my disillusionment with Israel, nervous about the politics I’d encounter. These fears were quickly quelled as I found myself fully welcomed exactly as I am. Pesach became a deeply meaningful and spiritual experience, and I was shocked at how much of my spiritual life I found present, even enriched, within Kabbalah. My return to Judaism climaxed at a Shabbat meal with a local family arranged through the program. This was my first encounter with the Jewish Renewal movement, and I instantly saw a home for myself there. I stood in awe as I realized I had been incredibly Jewish all along! Judaism smiled as I explored my spirituality in ways I viewed as ‘outside’ of it, not jealous of the name I gave my peace.
Livnot showed me that I did not need to change my beliefs or the way I connected to the Infinite in order to return to Judaism. Feeling at home once again within this community has been incredibly healing and has only deepened my spirituality. Today I felt grateful to look around at the mountains, the birds, the trees and to be able to thank God for the beauty surrounding me, for the amazing and complex system of my body that allows me to experience the physical world, and for restoring my soul to this body when I woke this morning. Ancient words passed to me in childhood and dormant for years rose to my lips.
מודה אני לפנך, מלך חי וקיים, שהחזרת בי נשמתי בחמלה, רבה אמונתך.
I give thanks before you, living and eternal God, that you mercifully restored my soul to my body. Great is your faithfulness.
I know that I have a new physical home in Tsfat at the Livnot campus, but I’m most thankful for the home it gave me within my heart.
–Rivka Shapiro, 256For information or to sign up for a week at Livnot, check out the Northern Exposure program.