Aliyah profile: To build and to be built

“Our message is you do not have to be Orthodox to be Jewish,” says Botzer. “Young people are looking for meaning, and Judaism is a catalyst to raise the level of discussion and find deeper meaning."

(photo credit: NOAM BARUCH)
Aharon Botzer and his wife, Miriam, are the trailblazers who founded the Livnot U’Lehibanot (To Build and To Be Built) program in the mystical city of Safed. For 40 years they have maintained their passion for inspiring young Jews from around the world to make being Jewish, in whatever way they choose, central to their lives. Botzer recently lit a torch at Safed’s Independence Day ceremony in honor of his contribution to the city.
Before making aliyah as a young man and founding Livnot, Botzer went on his own journey. He grew up in Cleveland with five brothers and sisters. His mom, who had gone to college at the age of 15, and was one of the first women in Minnesota to get a law degree, sold World Book Encyclopedias. “She saw this as a mission,” says Botzer, “to bring knowledge to people, especially those in less privileged neighborhoods.”
Botzer grew up in the turbulent 1960s. He majored in education at American University, but when the school was closed during his junior year because of the anti-Vietnam riots on campus, he decided to take a year off and travel. It changed his entire life path.
While hitchhiking through Central America, he put together a Peace Corps group to help a small village build a bridge. When the project was completed, all the group members, other than Botzer, went home. A girl left him The Source, by James Michener, a riveting historical novel about the history of the Jewish people and the Land of Israel.
“While I was reading the book, I saw the northern lights [aurora borealis] in Mexico, which is very rare,” explains Botzer. “I took this as a sign and decided to go to Israel.” The year was 1970.
He spent his first few months on a non-religious kibbutz, but felt that was not what he came to Israel for. He went to Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu, which was religious, and milked cows and learned about Judaism for more than a year. When his mother begged him to return home to finish his teaching degree, Botzer agreed. Immediately after completing his degree he was back in Israel.
When he returned he began his love affair with Safed. “There is something so special about the city. It is magical and spiritual and every experience becomes magnified here,” he says.
Botzer bought a run-down ruin and fixed it up. He had five apartments and began renting them out to other teachers like himself. It became the go-to place for singles to gather for Shabbat meals. “Twelve marriages came out of this,” he says proudly.
BOTZER MET the American-born Miriam when she came from Jerusalem to visit Safed. She looked at the expanding house, which now had 10 rooms, and asked him what he was going to do with it. He told her he would either have 10 kids or start a program. He almost reached the 10 children (he and Miriam married in 1977 and have seven children), but they embarked together on building Livnot U’Lehibanot, which became an official program in September 1980.
The program introduces young Jews to Judaism and gives them a positive and dynamic Jewish experience to help them explore and begin to find their place in Judaism.
“Our message is that you do not have to be Orthodox to be Jewish,” says Botzer. “Young people are looking for meaning, and Judaism is a catalyst to raise the level of discussion and find deeper meaning.”
The program has gone through many transformations, from a three-month program, to a month-long program and now to being a Birthright Plus one-week extension program called Mountains and Mystics. But the elements remain constant: social justice and volunteer projects such as repairing the homes of poverty-stricken elderly people, working with new immigrants, rebuilding Safed’s ancient synagogues and sites, traveling the Land of Israel, and learning about Judaism and spirituality in an open and user-friendly way.
Botzer says the fact that the program has been running for almost 40 years is miraculous. He credits this to the initial support he received from Gesher, the incredible partners and donors who have supported the program, and the 7,000-plus program alumni.
“We get letters every day from alumni all over the world – the United States, Canada, Australia, England and South Africa – telling us how pivotal the program was for them,” says Botzer. “Each year is a struggle, but each year we somehow manage to keep going. This is part of Safed’s magic.”
While digging underneath Livnot’s continually expanding campus, a 16th-century ruin was discovered. In 2011, the Israeli government designated it a national heritage site, and together with Livnot, is restoring and turning the site into an interactive 16th-century village with learning activities for all ages. Beit HaKahal, as it is now called, is turning into a major tourist attraction in the Galilee, with thousands of visitors passing through each year.
With all of his energy channeled into Livnot, Aharon still had the time to raise seven children with Miriam, and now spends time with his 33 grandchildren. He served in the IDF Infantry Corps from shortly after he made aliyah until he was 56 years old. “It was the greatest honor for me to serve in the Israeli Army, and even when I was no longer called up for reserve duty, I volunteered,” says Botzer.
At 69, Botzer shows no sign of slowing down. He continues to develop new dreams, programs and plans for Livnot and for Safed. “I believe that everything in this world has meaning. When we search for that meaning, we also search for how to become a better person and make the world around us a better place. This is a message that we try to convey in the Livnot experience.”

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