By Shayna Rehberg
When Livnot U’Lehibanot began in 1980, in the home of Miriam and Aharon Botzer, Tzfat was regarded as a dusty old pile of rubble on a forsaken hill. Tourists were few and far between and the effects of the earthquakes from the 1800’s were still strongly felt. Today, 1.2 million visitors flock to the holy city annually, drawn by its spiritual vibes and thriving artist community. In the last 34 years, over 25,000 Livnot volunteers and 6,500 program participants have poured their energy into reviving and rebuilding Tzfat and, in the process, ended up building themselves.
Livnot programs are geared for young Jews in their 20’s that are unaffiliated or haven’t remained actively engaged in a Jewish community into their adult years. Varying in length from a one-week extension (as a follow-up to Taglit-Birthright) to a six-week immersive internship, these short-term programs can easily fit into the schedules of graduate students and young professionals.
Based in the mystical northern town of Tzfat, participants have the opportunity to explore the Artists’ Quarter on their own, share meals and music with their new neighbors, and see the impact of their volunteer projects. Especially on a six-week Onward Israel internship (a service-learning program supported in part by The Jewish Agency and The Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County), participants become members of the community that they are helping to create.
“This program is nothing less than fulfilling, day in and day out,” Danielle Newmark from New York says about her Onward Israel program. “After I spend my morning volunteering at my internship at The Child Development Center, classes on Kabbalah, meditation sessions, or hikes abundant in DMCs (deep meaningful conversations) ensue. The thing that truly makes this place exceptional, however, is the ability Livnot has to create community. I can honestly say I’ve never been in such an accepting, comfortable environment.”
Livnot’s Israel programs were created to fill the gap between picking bananas six days a week on a kibbutz and sitting in yeshiva. Over the decades, and as many new programs have increased the options, the Livnot model has adapted to keep up with the current needs of its target demographic. But some aspects are timeless. While we have a lot of fun, it’s not your typical ‘party’ trip; groups are smaller and participants slightly older. The focus is creating a warm and open environment which allows for community building and spiritual exploration, without any religious agenda or dress code.
Originally from Texas, I didn’t grow up as a member of my local Jewish community, but made aliya shortly after my 18th birthday thanks to the Zionism that trickled down from my grandfather (who fund-raised for the JNF and was president of his synagogue). In my fourth year of working at Livnot, at age 30, I am the youngest and only female senior staff member. I identify strongly with our participants, setting off on a journey of self-discovery later in the game and feeling out of place or like something is missing. It was a rough journey for me and I’m glad to be in place where I can help others find their personal Jewish connection, in whichever way that happens to be for them.
Hiking is a central element at Livnot, with participants blazing the trails of northern Israel multiple times each week. More than just physical exercise, the outdoor excursions offer a chance to connect to Judaism and Israel through nature while fostering a sense of unity despite differences in personal Jewish expression.
“A Livnot moment I feel sums it up,” relates Louma Levin from Canada who participated in 2013, “was on the second day of our yam l’yam [sea-to-sea] hike. I was able to observe the rest of our group trickling down the mountain, supporting each other, laughing and singing together … the fear was overthrown by love and amazement for each other and the universe.” Levin married one of her fellow participants, Max, a year later.
There is a saying around Livnot that “when the program is over, the journey has just begun.” A recent study by Repair the World, and a Livnot alumni survey last year, both show that Livnot participants significantly change their attitudes and behaviors toward social justice and Jewish communal involvement. After a transformative experience during the program, thousands of alumni have gone on to work or volunteer in Jewish organizations including Federations, JCCs, Hillel, synagogues, and more.
“The Livnot trip was the start of my experience of living a life of radical amazement,” reflects Megan Goldman, who participated in a Livnot program six years ago and just graduated from rabbinical school at JTS. “Before Livnot I did not realize that I was a Jewish educator who could actually pursue a career in the rabbinate. I thought my lack of day school education or yeshiva year put me too far behind.”
The grounds of Livnot’s campus contain an archaeological dig from the 16th century, known as “The Kahal,” which was declared a National Heritage Site in 2011. Connecting past, present, and future is a core part of Livnot programs. Whether working in excavations of Tzfat’s Golden Era, building parks for local children or caring for the elderly, every activity is related back to Jewish values and education through hands-on experience.
“In the two weeks that I was at Livnot,” recalls Shawn Nicholson from California, embarking on his first Israel trip at age 28, “I had more deep conversations than I had experienced in the past two years.”
Shayna Rehberg is Director of Development at Livnot U’Lehibanot and lives in Tzfat with her four children.