JNF WIRE: Tzfat - A Journey Up the Mystic Mountain
October 27, 2016
Adam H. Brill, Director of Communications
Tzfat — A Journey up the Mystic Mountain
By: Leiba Chaya David
AMHSI-JNF students from North Carolina's American Hebrew Academy in the Israeli city of Tzfat.
Driving up the winding road that leads to the holy city of Tzfat from the Sea of Galilee, a first-time visitor might not know what to expect. For the sleepy-eyed Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI) students aboard the bus, it seemed like other Israeli cities they had visited so far—aging apartment buildings, busy supermarkets, and even mid-day traffic. Yet, as the bus made its way up and over the mountain, it became clear that they were entering another world.
The group of 11th graders from the American Hebrew Academy, a pluralistic Jewish boarding school in North Carolina, disembarked at the entrance to a narrow cobblestone alleyway, and made their way to a small courtyard in Tzfat’s celebrated Old City. Yossi Katz, a veteran Israel Instructor and guide, began with the following admonition: “There will be things that you hear and see while we’re in Tzfat that you don’t understand—and that is OK.” Katz was referring primarily to the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah that permeates the centuries-old city, and that continues to draw spiritual seekers of all ages.
Overlooking the very synagogues and study halls which they once frequented, Katz introduced legendary Jewish mystics and scholars such as Shimon Bar Yochai, Joseph Caro, and Rabbi Isaac Luria, also referred to as "Ha'ARI" or "the Arizal." This visit to Tzfat was the experiential counterpart of the Middle Ages unit that the students were studying in their classroom at AMHSI’s Hod HaSharon campus. Students were captivated and interested in soaking up the details of Katz’s riveting anecdotes as they tried to make sense of who came from where, when, and why. But along with scribbling down names and dates in their notebooks, they also began to understand the essence of Tzfat.
As Katz poetically worded it, “High up on this mountain, in the cool, clear air, these Jews believed they could pull God’s ideas right out of the sky.”
For most of the students, this visit and accompanying lecture represented a first introduction to some very lofty spiritual concepts. Back in their pluralistic Jewish school, teachers don’t usually talk about angels, evil eyes, and the messianic age. But something about Tzfat—about being in Israel in general—opened them up. Others had a more matter-of-fact reaction to Tzfat’s picturesque blend of synagogues, galleries, and homes. Sarah Meadows, 16, who hails from Bowman, North Dakota, was taken by the ordinary life in the streets. “Before I came to Israel, I thought it was all just synagogues and archaeological digs, especially at older locations. But walking around Tzfat, I am learning that it is a ‘real place’ with all sorts of people living their lives—playing, hanging laundry, going to work.”
For Hillel Friedland, 16, and a native of South Bend, Indiana, spending a day in the heart of Jewish mysticism served to highlight his growing ambivalence toward his own spirituality. “I’m not sure why,” he reflected, “since we do a lot of spiritual stuff and there are times when I feel like I should be feeling something, but, since arriving in Israel, I find myself questioning more and more things about Judaism that I used to blindly accept.”
The bright, cheerful teen seemed to find his doubt troubling and perhaps a little ironic—after all, he was in Israel, the Jewish homeland, on his first Jewish heritage trip. Yet asking questions is considered a normal and important part of the educational process purveyed at AMHSI. As Katz explained, “We are here to get them thinking, not to encourage or insist that they take on a specific set of beliefs.”
AMHSI facilitates this process expertly, offering the students a relatively neutral “storyline” that fuses Jewish philosophy, history, art, and contemporary life. The Tzfat storyline, for example, included a visit to the Arizal synagogue, a tour of a local candle factory, souvenir shopping, and some reflective time in both the ancient and new Tzfat cemeteries. Earlier in the day, a visit to Belvoir Castle provided a backdrop for an exploration of the Crusades; later, they marked the modern tragedy of the Ma’alot massacre with a special ceremony.
For young Jewish teens visiting Israel for the first time, the barrage of information, ideas, and emotional stimuli can be overwhelming. Not coincidentally, the trip takes place during one of the most formative periods in a teenager’s identity, when he or she begins to explore concepts of spirituality, heritage, family, community and purpose. For the curious, open-minded AMHSI students, this late-summer visit to Tzfat added another new piece to the Jewish-Israeli puzzle. “A lot of what we are seeing and talking about is very foreign,” summed up Mollie Zoffer, 17, of North Carolina. “Tzfat is definitely a little out there, but that’s the beauty of it and I love every moment.”
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JEWISH NATIONAL FUND (JNF) began in 1901 as a dream and vision to reestablish a homeland in Israel for Jewish people everywhere. Jews the world over collected coins in iconic JNF Blue Boxes, purchasing land and planting trees until ultimately, their dream of a Jewish homeland was a reality. JNF gives all generations of Jews a unique voice in building a prosperous future for the land of Israel and its people.
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