Young Jews’ experience of Sukkot and Jewish festivals at Livnot in Tzfat, Israel
Megan Cohen, a former Peace Corps volunteer currently studying Disaster Management at Tel Aviv University, tells us how Sukkot at Livnot helped her connect to Judaism.
This is an edited version of Megan Cohen’s longer piece available on her own blog here: Megan in Israel
On Sunday I took a bus from Tiberias up to Tzvat (or Safed, both names are talking about the same city). Honestly, I slept through most of the bus ride. I woke up a few hours later at the Central Bus Station in Tzvat and used my cell phone GPS to navigate through the windy alleyways and streets- it mislead us a bit, because the streets are so narrow and close together the GPS has a hard time detecting exactly which one we are on. After 20 minutes or so we found the building, met one of the Bat Sheirut (Helpers? Counselors? Program angels? Sisters? Friends? I’m at a loss how to describe them), got situated in our rooms and just hung around on the terrace until Opening Circle started.
Monday, I woke up early for an Optional Spiritual Learning Session- but unfortunately, being a so-not-a-morning-person, I don’t remember what we discussed. I remember nodding a lot. Either from agreement, or half-awakeness.
We ate breakfast and then headed over to a Youth Activity Center for one of our volunteering experiences. We helped repaint the walls and railings, clear out some former building materials-now trash. I offered to draw something, and the head of the program sent her son out with me to find the right paint for a mural. We weren’t able to get the paint, but me and another Chevre ended up drawing a mural in pencil on the wall. Hopefully, the kids will paint it one day. I’m not sure what will happen to it though, I know how these kind of projects (where one person starts it, but can’t follow through and finish it, and needs to rely on other people to finish it) usually just don’t happen. But it would be nice to see it painted one day.
Tuesday we had our full day hike somewhere near Beit Jan- which I loved. Even though my feet were no where near healed from Yam l’Yam, I can’t help but be happy when I’m out in nature, jumping from rock to rock like a game, running uphill, breathing in the fresh air and looking out to the valley- sigh. My version of heaven.
Wednesday had us volunteering at an Old Age Home- singing songs. What Livnoters do best 😉 It was really fun to be able to sing and dance, some of the residents responded really well to it, were very happy, and it noticeably brightened their day. Some were unchanged- a few were not happy. There was one lady who was hitting her head, I thought maybe she was just going with the beat of the song, but then she was trying to say something so I leaned in closer to hear her, and she hit my face. Oh well, this wasn’t my first rodeo around nursing homes. I’m just glad everyone else I saw that day responded better- and I even found a woman to speak French with. I stayed there later then everyone else because of that, and luckily saw one of the Bat Sheiruts to return back to Livnot with.
After this we had prep time for Simchat Torah, most people helped with the cooking, a few of us volunteered to create some Words of Wisdom (or WOWs). Those of us making a WOW went upstairs to the meditation room to brainstorm and research.
Thursday we slept in, though some of us went to Shul, then had a Bar-b-que- or a Beer-B-Que, as everyone cooking had to do so with a beer at hand. The food was delicious, some kind of Indian curry beef, the standard beef and franks, all the accoutrements- it would’ve done American 4th of July proud. We then did some Rabbi Nachman skits- someone would read a story and a few others would act it out on the spot. Everyone was pretty hesitant to do this, but I’ve done a bit of improv with USY and have very little qualms with making a fool out of myself. They were interesting stories- some of them I liked, some I didn’t- there are many different ways to interpret them, and again, I loved hearing everyone elses’ takes on them.
Friday we had candle lighting and Kabbalah shabbat- candles, singing, dancing, jumping, shouting, making melodies, making noise, making spirit. Seeing the sun set, watching the colors streak through the sky with the start of Shabbat. There was time for shul hopping and then dinner- more delicious food, more Ruach- more of everything that makes a Jewish celebration wonderful and unique.
Saturday- We had lunch with host families. The one that I went to had 6 children, some of them spoke some English, I tried speaking in Hebrew with the others. The husband works in the Teacher’s Hospital/Medical School in Tzvat. We had some great conversations, and it was a wonderful, chill Shabbat meal.
Later we had an ‘Intimacy Class’- the guest speaker is a relationship counselor, and we talked about intimacy in terms of Judaism- intimacy in the sense of working on being closer with someone else, whether it be yourself, a family member, or a lover. There was some interesting parallels drawn from the Torah to The Infinite, and specific Torah laws to relationship values and advice.
We had our dinner, and then Havdalah. Havdalah is a sweet moment, calm and peaceful, with a bit of an air of mourning that Shabbat is over.
This experience was one of the best that I’ve had in Israel so far. I’ve been here since July, I’ve been a Jew all my life, but it’s only after Livnot that I started feeling connected to it. I got bat mitzvahed in a conservative temple, I did the whole Hebrew school thing- but I haven’t felt like it was my religion in a long time. “I’m culturally Jewish”, I’d say, and then explain that my religion is a complicated thing. Truthfully, what I believe in is still complicated. That hasn’t changed so much. I still have way, way more questions than I do answers, and I still don’t feel like I fit any particular paradigm- reform, secular, Kabbalah- I’ve never much cared for boxes and constraining labels anyway.
But now… there are Jewish texts I want to read. Questions that I want to search for the answers for in Judaism. That Jewish community that I didn’t feel connected to- I now do. That spirit of singing and dancing, the beauty of Shabbat dinners and Shabbat days- I feel reconnected to it.
The past 4 weekends I have spent with other Livnot Chevre.
That speaks louder than any words I could say.
Thank you, Livnot