What makes Tzfat “holy”? — account of spiritual retreat at Ascent Center

It took me two hours by bus to get to Tzfat from Haifa. Most of the journey I slept, though my husband said I would enjoy beautiful countryside views. After a stressful work week, I was too exhausted to stay awake. Well, that is part of the reason I chose to go to Tzfat, one of the four holy cities of Israel. I heard that it was a great place to get recharged and be out in nature.

When I finally opened my eyes our bus was entering the curvy road of the mountainous area. For a second I could not believe I was in Israel. Lofty hills and mountains, dense shrubbery, rich flora and fauna lay before me.

Photo: view of Mount Meron from above/topsimages.com

It is true when you get to Upper Galilee region, where Tzfat is the highest city, the road gets very scenic, especially as you pass Mount Meron and the nature reserve. It is almost ethereal here.

By 2:30 PM we arrived at the Ascent Center, which was putting on a special Tu Bishvat weekend Shabbaton. I was greeted by a lovely English speaking girl at the reception. She gave me keys to my room and a detailed program of the retreat. I checked around the premises of the center – dining halls, kitchen, reading rooms, library, outside sitting area and sleeping rooms, all in one building. It all looked simple, yet very cute. And in almost every part of the building leads to a balcony that has a breathtaking view of the mountains.

Oh, and what is this lovely smell? It was the smell from the group activity from 1:00 – the challah baking workshop that I apparently missed.

Photo: view of the Ascent Center entrance/myascent.org

Down in the guest hall, I met youngsters and adults, men and women, people of all ages and looks. I also met my roommates – I was going to share this night with three other girls – retreat visitors just like me, who came from Jerusalem, the US, and Australia. I was warned by my secular Israeli friends that there would be a “high concentration of religious people” in the Ascent and I might feel quite awkward. So far, all went well; I did not feel like an outcast.  Plus, most of the center’s guests sounded very open-minded, spoke English and were extremely friendly. However, I was still worried about what I’ll do when the Shabbat starts. I thought it was going to be a lot of prayers and religious stuff.

I sat in the hall with one of the books I found in the library; cheerful girls run past me with greetings and exclamation – “Nadia, so nice to meet you, hope to talk to you later! Gotta go get ready for Shabbat…” Oh well, here you go, I thought.

I hesitated to get upstairs to my room because I did not want to disturb my roommates, who were surely doing some holy ritual to get ready for Shabbat, praying perhaps? It surely should be something spiritual that needs privacy and solitude. Well, to my surprise, as I found out later, “getting ready for Shabbat” meant to take a shower, put makeup and dress up in beautiful gowns. Just to remind you, my readers, for observant Jews, it is forbidden to use any tools at Shabbat, even “tools” like makeup brushes or comb. Simple, yet complicated. As I observed the girls around, who in an instant turned into beautiful princesses, I wished I also brought with me one of those beautiful dresses I have from my good old times in Moscow’s social circles. Only my husband knows how much I wanted to get social, dress up, but gave it up as I was afraid to be out of general Israeli jeans and t-shirts look.

In the evening all of us gathered in the big hall full of music, candle lights, beautiful looking men and women. The atmosphere was holiday-like; it reminded me of the eve of the Russian New Year celebrations back in Moscow.

By five in the evening, we were all picked up by our local host families, who took us to Shabbat dinners according to invitation letters distributed at the checking-in. Later my host for Shabbat dinner – Tanya, an ola hadasha from the US, explained to me, that “women get dressed up to greet the “King”, G-d and the Shabbat Queen”. True, simple acts like – washing your body, putting on your makeup and your best dresses become a “holy” act – if you set the intention. The table at Tanya’s place also looked like “a royal feast”. Three courses meal, the best wine and a lot of singing and joy.

Besides me, there were more guests — students from the US, who were doing Torah studies in Jerusalem, a local family, and Tanya’s neighbor. I must admit,  I did not feel I was “brainwashed” over the Shabbat dinner or any other events I attended at the Ascent center, as it was the concern of many of my other Jewish Israeli friends, who chose not to travel with me to avoid being “evangelized” into Torah. Yes, everywhere we talked about the Jewish religion, Kaballah and meaning of Tu BiShvat, a special Jewish holiday that commemorates the New Year of the Trees.

Photo: Ascent visitors at the balcony of the hostel/myascent.org

Indeed I loved listening to the weekly Torah portion that was presented by a lecturer at the Ascent library later on. I listened to Rabbi Shaul Leiter, one of the founders and Director at Ascent Center, a Torah teacher, with childish curiosity. This cute old man with a hat, glasses and a grey beard looked like a storyteller, a magician.

“I love stories”, I told my host Tanya, who also talked about the Shabbat seder, the Torah, the Jewish people, and their history with such inspiration and enthusiasm. No wonder, I thought, she was an actress in the past. “Look, Nadya. You are right, Torah is a real story. History!”, – she said. His-tory, – Tanya repeated again and again.  I could not understand what she meant until one of our Russian speaking guests at the Shabbat table said – “History sounds in Russian like –  “Iz Tory!”. Indeed, if you translate it into English, it means – from the Torah! What a wonderful play on words, I thought.

The next day we woke up to another feast that developed into a guided tour around Tzfat. No doubt, the beauty of the surrounding nature can impress even the most indifferent person. Crispy air, the sound of spring running from mountains, birds, kids with parents in the streets, smiles, greetings, and conversations. I remembered how once I heard from an observing friend – Nadia, if you are calm and peaceful enough you can hear trees praying…”

But the most fantastic experience was the people. The locals, who are smiling and greeting you in the street. If there is something “holy” in this city, it is this very atmosphere, I thought. It is these people, their friendliness, joy, and wisdom they draw from Torah, from the
Kabbalah…

Photo: sunset view from Ascent Center hostel/myascent.org

As my return bus entered the busy streets of Haifa, lit up with neon advertising lights and the traffic noise, I felt relieved in a sense. The bustling atmosphere did not accommodate too much thinking, reflecting on the environment, past, and future, on my life mission …

It must be hard to be an observant Jew, to always accountable to G-d, to feel watched from above, not only for protection purposes but to constantly bear the weight of good and evil, and constantly striving to make the right choices.

But the people I met in Tzfat did not give up… They did not give up their history, land, tradition, and mission to keep it and pass it to the next generation, even though the whole world seems to be against it. That is why it is so important to have places like Ascent Center that has the main purpose to help Jewish people connect to their roots, history, spiritual tradition, and source.

“This does not in any way cancels our efforts as the Jewish people to be a ‘light unto the nations’ and help non-Jews seeking spirituality. Non-Jews are welcome at our hotel and can also engage in part of the program. However, in order to be as effective as possible, our primary purpose is to bring Jews closer to Judaism. There are other Jewish organizations who are focused on bringing non-Jews closer to spirituality, such as 7for70.com, which are more focused to and geared upon helping non-Jews to get closer to spirituality”, said Yaron Mierowsky, Director of English Speaking Programs at Ascent Center.

I returned home full of gratitude from the hospitality, friendliness of the people I met in Tzfat. I felt welcome and accepted. If there are readers, who suspect something, I am sure it was not “evangelical” friendliness. After all, I am not Jewish and Jews are not interested in “converting” non-Jews. It was more about sharing – sharing joy, love, and humanity.

About Ascent
Ascent center and hostel provide a great place to stay for people looking to relax, reflect, interact and explore spiritual life of Jewish people. Visitors experience a wide range of volunteering, creativive, learning, and other activities, including seminars at Ascent and guided tour in the Old City of Tzfat. Guests can join for the weekend or weekday retreats, or just come to relax and attend some of the study and meditation sessions offered all year round. Check the ongoing program and prices here.

About the Author
Nadia Katzir is a young woman from Russia - Siberia, who came to live in Israel and loves it. As someone, who chose to be in Israel not as a returning jew, she cannot count on the extended family network, the institutional help of absorption or Jewish agencies. Nadia makes her way based on the social connections found mainly through her networking and social media. She writes about people, who create art, communities, opportunities and her life in Israel at Haifisha.com, a website for social events updates and community life for English speakers in Haifa. In the past, Nadia worked in different international cooperation, education and NGO promoting projects in Russia, including the only news agency for social subjects in Russia - Agency for Social Information.
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