From indifference to awareness

Participants discover Judaism’s palatability at Livnot U’Lehibanot’s program in Safed.

IND 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
IND 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
Uninspired and roasting a pig on Yom Kippur, 20-year-old Lily was looking for more.
Like so many young Jews from the Diaspora, Lily came to Israel seeking to connect with her roots; traditional seminary was too intense and the kibbutz was way too secular, but like the porridge that Goldilocks found, Livnot U’Lehibanot was just right.
Lily attended this year’s Succot program run by Livnot and says the week changed her life. She has gone from being uninspired to connecting with “a higher power.” The week in Safed, where Livnot is based, has allowed Lily to see things in Judaism she never had before, and to bond both with the land and her fellow Jews.
A recent poll by the Pew Research Center indicates that nearly one-third of Jews under 32 do not identify as Jewish by religion, are intermarrying at a rate of 58 percent, and the majority of those who intermarry are not raising their children as Jews. This brings attention to the need for programs that provide a bridge between Jews and their roots. Livnot U’Lehibanot claims to be the answer to this problem.
Reform or Conservative, Humanist or Reconstructionist, Livnot is for you – that is, unless you are Orthodox.
Livnot aims to create an open environment and feels that having Orthodox participants would create too much pressure on those who are lacking similar knowledge. The aim of Livnot is not kiruv, or to make Jews religiously observant, but to create a connection to Judaism that for many young people is not there or is quickly fading.
This, Livnot says, is what sets it apart from the myriad other Israel programs. Livnot seeks to show participants that Judaism is not all or nothing, illustrating that it is instead what you make of it. The program compares Judaism to a grocery store – encouraging participants to come in, look around and take only what they want, because according to Livnot, there is no one path, but is all about a personal connection to Judaism. In this way, Livnot does not deal with Halacha; it is respectful of Shabbat but does not strictly observe it, because as Livnot says, it is not an Orthodox program, but simply a Jewish program.
This may seem odd at first glance, since the staff at Livnot are clearly Orthodox Jews themselves. But they insist they are not trying to “convert” anyone, they simply want all Jews to feel connected in whatever way works best for them. Staffed with three women doing national service, as well as educators, tour guides and program directors, many of the staff teach through personal example, well aware that for many participants this is their first real exposure to observant Jews.
The dedication of the staff is certainly a pull for participants.
In one such instance, a program this past summer was canceled due to lack of funding. Max, a 22-year-old from Chicago who had signed up, was disillusioned.
However, when he got a phone call from one of the women doing national service, who play a large role in the day-to-day activities of the program, personally inviting him to the next session, he was touched by the outreach – and this is what brought him back.
Max, like so many Jews his age, says he lost his connection to Judaism, but that after college something was drawing him to Israel. He had been to the Jewish state several times before, even living here as a teenager, but had never truly connected. Now, after Livnot, Max is considering aliya and planning to attend an Orthodox yeshiva, something he says he would not have considered before.
Several participants come with a preconceived notion of what Judaism is, believing the true religion is Orthodoxy and that if they choose not to live this lifestyle they are not Jewish at all. Others believe that Reform Judaism is the path, and have very negative ideas about the Orthodox. What participants say they find at Livnot is a busting of these stereotypes – experiencing a gray area within Judaism and loving it. That, organizers say, is exactly what they aim to accomplish.
The majority of participants come for the hiking, to see the North of Israel. Instead, what many unexpectedly find is a kinship with Judaism, a relationship with fellow Jews and a family. While it is hard to believe the feeling of family can be created within a matter of days, it is exactly what program participants say happens – sometimes literally. While marriages have been born from meetings at Livnot, what is more common is participants opening up, losing all inhibitions, asking questions they were always scared to pose, sharing secrets they thought they never would, and finding a connection to their heritage that many thought was a part of their past. Numerous participants say that if they had known in advance about all the “mushiness” they would not have come – and yet it is these same sentiments, this atmosphere of intense sharing, that many say has changed their lives.
So with these rave reviews, why are programs being canceled and dorms sitting empty? Livnot owns a building in Safed that currently is being rented out to visitors and other groups; its goal is to fill it with participants year-round. According to director Aharon Botzer, it is a matter of funding, since while participants pay $150 a week, it actually costs $550. Botzer believes if more people knew about the program, more would participate.
Botzer, like the rest of his staff, is clearly dedicated to the program he founded over 20 years ago, truly believing that Livnot can help save Am Yisrael. He is concerned for the future of the Jewish world and strongly believes strengthening Jewish identity is the key to solving the problem of assimilation. The director says that his goal is to put Jews on a path to be proud members of the Jewish community, and ultimately ensure the continuity of the Jewish people.
Perhaps it is the kabbalistic nature of Safed; the beauty of the surrounding scenery is undeniable and participants rave about the “amazing” hikes. The supportive atmosphere and even the amazing food (meals are made together in the communal kosher kitchen, which is kept kosher through the round-the-clock presence of a staff member) help create the family atmosphere that participants say keeps them connected long after their week has ended.
While the recent Pew poll has many fearful that young American Jews are in a freefall to total assimilation, Livnot participants are proclaiming that this program has made them determined to marry a Jew and raise Jewish children. As Jewish leaders across America are scrambling to solve this “crisis,” Livnot says it already has the solution.