In response to a project which aims to make Shabbat a central feature of Jewish life in North America, we sent out a request to our alumni. We asked them to describe their first Shabbat at Livnot and how it affected them.
Read this letter from Chevre Dave Bender.
During a trek to Israel some 32 years ago, I opted into the third semester of a then relatively unknown, feisty little study/work program in Tzfat, Livnot U’Lehibanot.
Coming from a religiously and culturally assimilated Jewish American background, the bid to try out an new initiative delving into an Israel and Jewishly-suffused realm was a quixotic move. But I was young and willing to try anything new at least once.
For three months I and the other students dormed in Aaron and Miriam Botzer’s extended stone home, set amid ancient Old City alleyways. We gratefully enveloped ourselves in their gracious hospitality, and gradually adapted to a traditional Jewish environment that was holistically instructive, supportive, yet deftly non-coercive.
As the weeks passed, we learned about the living nexus of the People, Land, and Torah of the House of Israel, from the head down, and from the feet up – the mental and muscular meeting amid the heart and neshama.
The daily regimen of striving with modern reads of ancient texts in the classroom in the morning, and afternoons spent struggling to physically – literally – help rebuild Tzfat, heavy stone-by-stone and bucket-of-earth by bucket-of-earth, reanimated a decimated and dormant Jewish and Israeli identity in me.
And then there was Shabbat with the Botzers and their then young family. The weekly immersive and revivifying spiritual experience was light-years away from my secular background and near non-existent Jewish cultural awareness.
Coming from an impoverished childhood in Florida and Texas, I had no awareness of a Jewishly mandated day of rest, learning, and light – let alone one lived, joyously, in the heart of the Jewish world.
Friday’s all-encompassing rounds of shopping, cooking and cleaning; the rooftop Kabbalat Shabbat prayers at sunset; the exotic meals, flavors and fragrances; the camaraderie, study, laughter, singing, joy and sheer fun – what a liberating revelation!
The intense Livnot days passed quickly. At the course’s conclusion some of us went back to life, college and careers in the US and elsewhere. But many of us stayed on or later returned to Israel, with most eventually settling here, as I did.
The wall-to-wall “to build and be rebuilt,” experience would prove a profound turning point in my life, leading to Aliyah and a fuller observance.
Personal circles in life sometimes gyre, spin off and close, while others spiral around the years and decades, gaining strength, ever rising.
Over three decades after taking part in a then-nascent Livnot, and making a life, family and home elsewhere in Israel, I ended up back in Tzfat.
In March, my wife Miri and I married and settled down – ironically – just a few lanes away from the Livnot campus. And we now often host new Livnoters for Shabbat dinners and lunch.
Michael, as an early program alumni I respectfully ask your assistance in helping Aaron and Livnot U’Lehibanot spark more Jews towards regaining their ancient birthright and rejoin the sacred braid of a rich and unifying Jewish life.