Putting Safed’s heritage on the map

Aharon Botzer has realized a dream. Several decades ago, he established Livnot U’Lehibanot. Since then thousands of young Diaspora Jews have participated in the program in Safed.

Kahal Safed 521 (photo credit: Courtesy – LIVNOT U’LEHIBANOT)
Kahal Safed 521
(photo credit: Courtesy – LIVNOT U’LEHIBANOT)
Aharon Botzer has realized a dream. Several decades ago, when he was 31 years old, he established a program called Livnot U’Lehibanot (to build and be built).
Since then thousands of young Diaspora Jews have participated in the program in the Old City of Safed, which was named after an old Zionist song that went, “We have come to the land to build and be built by it.” Living amid history, the participants learned the tenets of an observant lifestyle while physically laboring on building projects to restore the neighborhood and build up the community.
“For 30 years we have been restoring the old city of Safed. Livnot is mainly an education program with a lot of hiking and exploring. We learn Judaism from nature, and we do a lot of community service.”
Botzer speaks with a rapidity that reflects his joy at his program’s success.But helping young Jews rediscover their heritage was just one of Botzer’s dreams. What makes him just as happy these days is the rehabilitation of a site called the “Kahal.”
On October 30, the government declared a 16th-century ruin in Safed to be a national heritage site, part of a larger plan to establish a series of heritage sites and a heritage route in the country. The 700-square-meter site in the heart of the city’s old Jewish quarter is owned and operated by Livnot. It contains a series of old structures and a warren of underground rooms and crawlspaces built with small stones. There is a beautiful view of the surrounding Upper Galilee hills.
Currently part of the site is safe only for guided tours, but Livnot believes it serves many important functions.
It is primarily educational as a learning experience that, in their view, helps connect Jews to their Jewish identity and the important history of Safed. In the future Livnot envisions developing the site further.
It is one of the few heritage sites from the 16th century, a time known more for Ottoman decline and the desertion of the rural countryside than grandeur. It highlights the “Golden Age” of Safed Jewry and provides a window into the past. Livnot estimates that 200,000 people will visit the place annually, with running costs of NIS 3 million.
Just a few years ago, the Kahal area was a neglected wasteland. Chaim Fialkoff, a lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who once served on Livnot’s board and was director-general of the Construction and Housing Ministry, recalls those early days.
“Aharon wanted to buy the land, and I had reservations about it due to finances, but he is a... visionary and we went ahead with it,” he says. “The initial photos show just a slope, but he had an instinct, [an idea] that there was something underneath, and he had the expertise to work with his hands. He is a believer in working with your hands... and he was able to see before others what was there.”
Botzer recalls that Livnot had the site for 15 years before being able to excavate it. “We only started digging it out about six years ago. Engineers said it was worthless because it was all rubble... but for many years we were digging, we were doing public projects in Safed. We have a permanent crew of workers, and we have volunteers.”
The importance of Jewish Safed in the 16th century is related not only to the development of Kabbala, but also to the Spanish Expulsion of 1492. In the wake of that event, which took place over many years, the great Jewish sages from the premier Jewish learning institutions that had developed in Spain wandered the Mediterranean. Many came to Safed, which had a Jewish community but was a relative backwater in a neglected part of an Ottoman Empire that was still atthe height of its power.
One of the most influential men in Safed in the first half of the 16th century was Jacob Berab. Fleeing from Spain, he made his way along the coast of North Africa, becoming the chief rabbi of Cairo before moving to Safed.
Among his students was Moses di Trani, known as the “Malbit,” the son of Jewish exiles from Spain living in the Ottoman Empire. He came to Safed at the age of 16 in 1521, eventually becoming the town’s head rabbi.
Another of those who came was Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz. Born in Salonika, in what is now Greece, he arrived in Safed in 1535. It was there that he penned, a year before his death, “Lecha Dodi,” the famous song that brings in Shabbat. Joseph Karo, author of the Shulhan Aruch and a native of Toledo like Berab, was also in Safed in 1535.
This community was close-knit. Many studied together and had made similar journeys via Salonika and Egypt. Some were related, such as the Ramak (Moses Cordovero), who was Alkabetz’s brother-in-law and a student of Karo’s. Cordovero himself taught Isaac Luria, the father of modern Kabbala.
Given this pedigree, 16th-century Safed is an essential part of Jewish history, but its learning and culture has been less accessible to Jewish tourists and youth seeking a short experience in Israel. Livnot has been trying to bridge that gap.
“This is the idea, we do a Jewish village of all sorts of activities, bringing to life the 16th century the Golden Age of Jewish wisdom and song and poetry,” enthuses Botzer. “In those days, every rabbi had a profession – for instance, one would be a peddler of spices.
These are things that we are going to do, to show people the meaning of the senses of taste and smell. We have a bakery there. Then we have a mikve from the 16th century, a whole bathhouse, and we are publishing books about the period and about local plants.”
According to Stef Foster, Livnot’s alumni relations director, “the Kahal project embodies what Livnot is trying to do. It is connecting us to our heritage so we have a Jewish identity for our future.”
But it is more than just restoring the Kahal, she continues. “A lot of restorations that have happened in Safed have happened because of Livnot. Just walking around the Old City, you see a lot of things connected to it. In the past, I did some excavations, cleaning and digging.
We had had probably 35 to 50 volunteers working on it this year.”
Fialkoff, too, is enthusiastic about the site’s potential.
“The Kahal project is an important heritage site, and the government designated it as such. The model that Livnot hopes to use is to work with the [Israel Antiquities Authority] and municipality and the ministries to develop the site as much as possible using volunteers,” he says. “This will strengthen the connection between the people who work on the project and those who visit the project and 16th-century Safed.”
The idea is to transform the northern city into another Acre. Not only is Acre a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it also has a well developed tourist infrastructure that highlights its historic sites.
“We have hopes of developing it into a living laboratory that shows ongoing preservation work, and long-term aspirations and ambitions to replicate what was done in Acre.... This will show how to do preservation and how it is meaningful to contemporary society,” explains Fialkoff. “Some of the preliminary reviews show that the Kahal complex is one of the few sets of buildings that survived the earthquake of 1837, [and] it has more recent significance as well as it may be connected to the riots of 1929 and 1936, so there are a number of milestones.”
One thing that has aided Livnot in its development of the Kahal has been a smooth working relationship with the Antiquities Authority and other relevant government bodies.
Fialkoff adds, “it is true that Livnot enjoys a close partnership with the IAA and Livnot sees the IAA as the professional body to make all determinations about the historic significance of the complex. The IAA sees Livnot as a grassroots NGO that has the ability to work with the municipality, the national government and citizens and fund-raisers to pull together all the pieces that are needed to develop the site. Livnot sees eye to eye with the authority that historical preservation and development are not contradictory.”
Safed Mayor Ilan Shohat is enthusiastic about his city and its potential, including what the Kahal and Livnot contribute.
“The development of Safed is connected to the infrastructure of the city in general. This includes the newly inaugurated medical school [Faculty of Medicine of the Galilee]. My vision is to make this a world center for Jews.
Part of that is what Livnot discovered and developed at the Kahal, and it can help make it so that tourists will enjoy a longer stay in Safed – for instance, two days instead of one.”
This vision, he says, “dovetails with the Jewish spirit of our city. We have an unbroken Jewish record of connection going back more than 2,000 years. The Kahal, which illustrates dwellings from the 16th century, represents the glory of Safed and the Jewish sages who lived here at the time. We hope this will strengthen the city and bring more people to it.”
Those familiar with the tourist infrastructure of the city are more reticent to express great hopes. Shaul, a tour guide in the city for Aish HaTorah, among others, thinks the site is interesting, but not necessarily a draw on its own.
“I think Safed is trying to rehabilitate itself after the decline in the art industry, which happened years ago, [and] this site can help.
I’ve honestly not taken people to it directly, only near it, but for those already in Safed on a tour, there is no reason that they wouldn’t go there and appreciate it.”
Gerald Sack, who lives in the communal settlement of Amuka near the city, seems to find more value in Livnot’s other projects.
“They get groups of volunteers from overseas, 90 percent from the US, and they do restoration work on old houses in Safed and do work for old people, doing up their flats. I work at the library and they send us volunteers.
In the past they also worked for people that wanted their houses restored and they did a nice job,” he says. “They get people all the time coming to them. I think it is a very good idea, some of the graduates come back to live in Safed.”
Botzer, meanwhile, has high hopes for the Kahal project.
“We want people to take something with them and not just have an experience,” he explains. “The stones of Safed speak; they have absorbed hundreds of years of music and heritage, and we are going to function in those stones.”