From October 2-9, 2012, I experienced Sukkot with Livnot in Tsfat.  In short, it was an amazing experience.  One of my top priorities in coming to Israel is to connect with the places and the people I come in contact with.  I am confident in saying that I connected the way I wanted to throughout this week.  Livnot is a welcoming, engaging environment and as an alumnus, or chevre (friend/participant), I can return whenever I want and they will be waiting with open arms.  I also connected with the other participants and the staff.  I made many new friends and I am certain that I will remain close to some of the people.  Livnot also has the privilege of hosting three Israeli volunteers for their mandatory service.  Tifferet, Leora, and Naama are the Banot Sherut volunteers for the year and they made my experience more amazing than I expected.  Since I have been living in Israel, I have heard the analogy comparing Israelis to a prickly pear.  Basically they have a rough, sharp, outer layer that is hard to get past, but once you do they are sweet and juicy on the inside.  Tifferet, Leora, and Naama greeted us on the first day with huge smiles, bright eyes, open minds, and a different perspective.  This introduction set the mood from day one and their smiles and hearts only grew larger as the week went on.  Our group leader for the week, Doron, was also inspiring.  I could go on for pages about him but in short, he had an encouraging energy and correct tools to inspire people.

Livnot is not for everyone though.  The Sukkot program was not only physically challenging, but also mentally challenging.  The program is very intense and there are only a few opportunities to take a long deep breath…one being Shabbat.  However, Livnot was a perfect experience for me.  I have been in Israel for a little over a month.  I am volunteering in the Israel Teaching Fellows program for 10 months in Ramla, just outside of Tel Aviv.  It has been a very slow start and to put it simply, I have been bored.  Livnot offers hiking, engaging in discussions, volunteering, and constant social interaction, cooking and some cleaning and helping out.

The hiking was less than I had anticipated but my expectations may have been slightly skewed.  In the interview, we were all asked if we could physically hike for 7 hours in a day.  That was the main reason I wanted to participate in Livnot, but the hiking was not very challenging.  It may not have lived up to my expectations in difficulty, but it exceeded my expectations in history and beauty.  The first hike was to a place called Yodfat.  The walk began on a dirt road, which appeared to be insignificant.  It was nestled between some farms, villages, and an abundance of trash.  The first place we stopped was in a grove of olive trees.  This grove of olive trees was hundreds, if not a few thousand years old.  Our tour guide, Michael, pointed out a few trees and said they were between 600 and 800 years old.  We continued on our journey and occasionally we stopped to discuss more about what we were looking at.  The final destination of our hike was up a tel (an ancient city mound).  On the top, Michael told the story of Yodfat and the battle between the Jewish people and the Romans.  After that we ate lunch and took a bus to another place.  I forget the name but it was a cave, also in the middle of nowhere between a village, farm, and a delicious pomegranate tree.  This cave had another story about the struggle of the Jewish people and the Romans.  To me, the main moral of the stories was of the Jewish people’s struggle to thrive, but strength to survive.  The best part about coming with a program such as Livnot is that they take you to the places, they tell you the stories, and they give you the means to make the connection between a place, its history, and yourself.  Because of Livnot, I was able to fully experience Yodfat and the cave.

My favorite part of the trip was probably experiencing Shabbat with Livnot.  Back home I never thought about Shabbat.  I thought it was ridiculous how you are not allowed to do anything and that there are all these rules you have to follow.  But really I just had the wrong idea of Shabbat and I was approaching it from the wrong direction.  Since arriving in Israel the other members of my Ramla ITF group has been hosting “Shabbatlucks”.  Basically we bring a dish to pass, light the candles, eat Challah, and just hang out, but then Saturday is normal and we do whatever we do.  Before this week I had never experienced Shabbat by the book, but this was the perfect place to try.  We prepared all of the food before sundown on Friday, and Livnot has all of the necessary tools to do simple things such as heat food and water.  All I had to do, really, was to turn my phone off, not flip any light switches, and not handle any money.  I never thought it could be so easy, but the environment that Livnot creates made it almost completely carefree.  That is what Shabbat should be like.  It is a day of rest.  You can read, you can talk, you can eat and drink, and there should not be a single worry in your mind.  This is exactly how I felt from sundown to sundown.  The best part of Shabbat was that we were invited to a host family’s house for lunch.  I went with one other chevre, Leah, to a house a few minute’s walk away.  Pessach and Shoshana Rotem are from New York and Virginia, respectively, and moved to Israel in 2005.  The food was great, and the hospitality was better.  At the end they told us that if we were ever in Tsfat again that we should let them know and that we should not feel awkward to invite ourselves over if we wanted to.  My family is visiting me at some point while I am in Israel and I will not hesitate to return to their house.

The final aspect of my Livnot experience was the mentally engaging part.  Every day we had discussions about spirituality, about Judaism, about morals, about teachings, and many other topics.  In all of these discussions, I learned.  I learned about other chevre’s opinions, about the banot sherut’s opinions, and about Doron’s opinion.  Some of the topics even made me discover my own opinions because I had never asked myself the questions.  The most engaging activity was also for Shabbat.  We split into three groups, food for body (people who prepared food for Shabbat), food for thought (also referred to as WoW, words of wisdom, to present to the group), and food for soul (songs).  When we had to choose I knew I wanted to be a part of the food for thought group.  For this activity we were supposed to pick a topic.  Then we had to find something in the library and relate it to our group or ourselves.  It was like a mini research project in order to offer words of wisdom to our fellow chevre.  Some of the topics were spirituality, selflessness, or Jewish identity.  My topic was about teaching and learning.  I found a quote, which Leora helped me find in a matter of seconds.  It was about learning as a child and learning like an adult.  To sum up my speech, attitude is a key aspect of teaching, and it is important to learn to love learning.  I wasn’t entirely prepared when I spoke but I had some notes to help me.  I spoke from the heart and people said that I did a great job.  All of the others were fantastic as well.  They were inspiring and also raised questions and topics that you don’t normally think about.  Many of the activities throughout the week lit some fires in our minds and made us think in ways we don’t think about.  This is how people can take the most out of the program.  If you challenge your thinking and open your mind to new topics you can grow immensely as a person.  As in any wisdom that is given, however, there can be a lot of bullsh*t.  I have learned that this statement is true in almost everything that you learn, but it is in the eye of the one receiving the wisdom to sift through it and take what you want from it.

This program didn’t change who I am, but it did teach me a lot.  I learned about my personal Jewish identity, about the history of the Jewish people, about the perspectives of other people, about where I can go hiking near Tsfat, and many other things.  I made connections to people, and places, and now Livnot is a place that I can come back to whenever I want.  I would not recommend it for everyone though.  You need to have the right mindset, to enjoy going out of your comfort zone, to participate, to question your ideas, and to open your ears.  I am extremely glad that I participated in the program and I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything, and lastly, I can’t wait to go back for a few more nights at Livnot to participate in whatever it is that they are doing at the time.

-Scott Littman