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Can I leave not? Reflections on a month at Livnot

Re-posted from Emily Rapport’s blog; The Travelers’ New Groove

When I told people I met in Israel that I would be participating in a month-long program in Tzfat, they looked at me with varying degrees of skepticism. “Tzfat is a really religious place…what could you possibly have to do there for a month?” I grew nervous that I had chosen the wrong program, and when I got off the bus at Tzfat central bus station and started out on foot to find the Livnot U’Lehibanot campus, the sky growing dark around me, I had no idea what I was walking towards.

I knew within five minutes of walking in that I had found a new home.

On the surface, Livnot is a 1-4 week long hiking, community service, and spiritual learning program for young adults. But any former chevre (participant) will tell you that it’s a lot more than that. Livnot is the kind of place where you can sit for hours on the roof under the stars talking about relationships, life goals, and God with people you met several hours before. It’s the kind of place where people rush to the kitchen to help with dinner and dishes because with music blasting and many hands, chores aren’t really chores. It’s the kind of place where a long hike through the Golan Heights culminates in a text study about radical amazement followed by cliff jumping through a waterfall at the bottom of a vast canyon.

20140703-095220-35540652.jpg Final moments of a hike to the Kinneret. Photo cred: Taylor Wood.

Despite Tzfat’s status as…how do I put this delicately…not the most happening spot in Israel (we would all get panicky as 9 pm approached trying to remember if the grocery store was still open), Tzfat is actually key to the program’s magic. Tzfat is one of Israel’s four holy cities, and it has been the center of Kabbalah, Jewish spirituality, since Sephardic Jews moved here in the late 15th/early 16th century after the Spanish Inquisition forced them out of Spain. I know what you’re thinking when you hear the word Kabbalah, but I’m not talking about Madonna with a red string bracelet around her wrist. Kabbalah is the rich mystic tradition within Judaism that provides deeper interpretations of early Jewish texts to suggest connections between the physical and spiritual worlds. Modern Kabbalah was theorized and studied in Tzfat by several important “Jewish Jedi masters” (a Livnot term), including Ha-Ari, or Yitzhak Ben Luria, who the Rapport family evidently descends from. On Friday nights here, you can feel Shabbat in the air. Little boys with payot (sidecurls) peeking out from under knitted kipahs run through the streets past their parents who greet each other joyfully at synagogue doors.

20140703-100714-36434860.jpg Kabbalat Shabbat on our campus’ roof. Photo cred: Nick Henderson.

I’ve had such diverse experiences in my time here, but the best moments have a common theme: song. There’s a crusader citadel from the twelfth century AD at the top of a nearby hill with a huge echoey cistern on top where we sometimes go on nighttime adventures. On one citadel night, a group of us hung around talking until a street musician wandered in and sang and played guitar for us, filling the cistern first with slow, contemplative melodies, then upbeat songs that we danced along to. On another, we were met by fireworks at the top of the hill, and we sat around singing in the cistern for hours, everything from Hatikva to House at Pooh Corner to Wonderwall (not to mention the way back, when we followed the smell of bakery air to a Jerusalem street pastry shop where a worker let us buy rugalah hot out of the oven at one AM). We explored a second century cave system in the Golan Heights that Jews used to hide from Romans for months at a time, and we turned off the lights to experience complete darkness and joined voices in a round of Oseh Shalom. There were constant renditions of a few favorite Livnot tunes (“deep inside my heart…”) that gained special significance in particularly intense moments: at an old age home where we sang, danced, and cried with the elderly, and on the final mile of the intense three day long hike, when a sprained ankle forced us all to put our exhaustion aside and team up to make sure we all reached the Mediterranean Sea together. These musical moments of joy and connection will stick with me even longer than the tunes will stay stuck in my head (apologies in advance, Grace, for when I start singing them randomly in our room next spring).

The chevre at Livnot are eclectic, passionate, serious-minded but fun-loving, from a wide range of Jewish backgrounds. The program has participants aged 20-30, so it was amazing to meet people across the entire range of their 20s who have taken all kinds of winding paths to get to where they are now. I’ve met a tech industry analyst who is considering rabbinical school and a Scot who, after two visits to Israel, dropped everything to make Aliyah (move to Israel). I’ve met social workers, organic farmers, and engaged and married couples. I’ve met people who are taking gap years or time off before college, mid-college, post-college – and they’re all okay! It’s funny how life at Davidson has convinced me that there’s a path that looks one way: high school, 4 years of college, job (or fellowship! Or well-known, prestigious service opportunity!). Meeting so many intelligent and kind people taking so many different journeys through their twenties has reassured me that there are things in store for my next ten years that I probably can’t even imagine yet.

20140703-095424-35664751.jpg Some of my favorite chevre dressed up for our Purim-in-June celebration. Photo cred: Adam Yasinow.

In Brene Brown’s beautiful TED talk “The Power of Vulnerability,” she defines courage in a way that has always stuck with me: “Courage is to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.” Livnot is the only place I’ve ever seen where everyone is doing that almost constantly: in group activities, in chevrutas (one-on-one learning discussions), in casual conversation. So much of the learning I’ve done here has come from listening to people around me, some of whom are very different from myself, and feeling very present to the even deeper things we have in common. It has reassured me that whatever I decide to do with my life, I want deep connections with other people to be at the core of both my work life and my personal life.

I know I’m walking out of here with a confidence in who I am and what I want in life that I didn’t have coming in. It’s a feeling that I can’t wait to take with me on the next adventure.

Emily Rapport

Galilee Fellowship June 2014 #262

Nick Henderson
Nick Henderson
nick@livnot.org

Before making Aliyah from Scotland, Nick ran an international NGO called Youth End Poverty and worked with a number of non-profits and social change organisations, including the British Council, Oxfam and Save the Children. Nick was previously Social Media Manager / Alumni Relations Manager at Livnot. Now he lives in Jerusalem and is passionate about public health issues, and represents Israel at various international conferences on health policy.