17 May 30 Minutes with Aharon Botzer
Thursday, April 11
Here at Livnot U’Lehibanot, Aharon Botzer is something of a living legend. A friendly persona with a white beard and a penchant for building, one can always find him somewhere on Livnot’s Tzfat campus–showing off our balcony, talking to a group of participants (chevre), or perhaps passing through the living room on his way to his own home, located just a few steps away. Aharon is Livnot’s founder; he also just so happened to be my interviewee in the library earlier this morning. I wanted to know how Livnot got started, to hear why it exists. If he could describe what we do here, in his own words, what would he say? What makes us special? I believe that I found all that out, and more. And, frankly, if I didn’t feel strongly about the program before 9:30am (I did, but let’s just say for argument’s sake that I was on the fence), I do now. Aharon’s passion and enthusiasm for Livnot is absolutely contagious. I’m more proud than ever to have had the privilege of being a part of this place.
Aharon first came to Tzfat in the early 1970s, just for a visit. It was some years after he had read James A. Michener’s The Source, which is a work that had a large and lasting impact on the Livnot founder’s perspective. The Source included a few chapters about Tzfat, too, and now was his chance to see it for himself. He describes that first day in the mystical, northern city as one quite like today, misty and musty; but the weather didn’t put a damper on Aharon’s earliest impressions of Tzfat. He loved his first visit to the Citadel (a site that Livnot later helped to restore), and simply fell in love with the Old City. “Something about the stones just pulled me here,” he said to me.
Given that a large part of Livnot is about stones just like those (Livnot U’Lehibanot is Hebrew for To Build and Be Built), I asked Aharon if he had had any building experience before coming to Israel. The answer was yes, of course: Aharon had done a bit of house restoration work while in college in the States. He told me about two memorable projects, both of which took place in Ohio, where he was studying at the time:
While working on one house in a town of about 20 families, Aharon decided–out of sheer curiosity–to walk into the town’s Nazarene church. He sat in the back row and listened in amazement as the whole town, systematically and loudly, confessed their wrongdoings to the room at large. When it came to be Aharon’s turn, he confessed, too: “I came to the wrong place,” he told them.
The other Ohio house was actually a small cabin behind the oldest house in Southern Ohio (built in 1833). About twenty years after renovating the cabin for the elderly pastor who owned it, Aharon returned to the site with his mother while on a trip to promote Livnot at his alma mater, Ohio University. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much left of the cabin to show Mrs. Botzer. The pastor was long gone, and there was a man working to tear apart Aharon’s work. He greeted the visitors: “I don’t know who built this bathroom, but he did a horrible job!” (Don’t worry, future Livnot chevre–Aharon’s bathroom-building skills have improved a lot since then.)
But enough with the background. Here is what Aharon had to say about Livnot U’Lehibanot today.
Straight from the Founder’s Mouth
What are the goals of the program?
“The reason that Livnot was created in 1980 and the reason it exists today are the same. Jews come to Israel because they have a Jewish neshama, a yearning, something that deep down wants to connect them to being Jewish.
“This is very, very revolutionary what I’m going to say. You’re not going to believe that this is coming from me. I believe that Judaism ought to be part of the Israel experience… I also feel that Judaism has to be presented in a way that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Those two sentences make us very disliked and unwanted.
“From a secular perspective–if you ask every single person who comes to Livnot who has family in Tel Aviv,” they’ll tell you that their family said, “‘Tzfat is fanatics.’ That’s how people look at it. On the other hand, in the Orthodox community they’ll say, ‘Don’t go there, Livnot is Reform.’ We’re either too religious or too secular.
“A major Jewish donor sent his staff person to Livnot on a Friday night. His response was: ‘Why do you call this Judaism? Call it humanism.’ That’s how we’re looked at.
“What I believe…[is that this] should be the foundation for what they have to go back with. When people visit and it’s just going to Yad Vashem and Masada and Bar Kochva caves, it’s amazing. But there are none of those things” back home. “But there is Shabbat. I believe that in order to have a follow up, you need something to follow up with.”
Livnot is “an attempt to get people to connect to Judaism so that it happens afterwards.” It wants “to give you a lasting experience to take home with you,” and the pinnacle of that experience is Shabbat, which is why we start on Sunday.
“That’s why you need an educator to run an Israel program, and not just a tour guide.
If people can walk away from Livnot with one thing, it would be “to feel that being Jewish is very important in my life, and I’m going to do something about it.”