We first visited the city of Tzfat. It is best known as a center of Jewish mysticism and the study of the Kabbalah. I enjoyed learning about the history of Tzfat, the Kabbalah and Judaism in general, especially how Tzfat became a religious hub as a result of refugees from countries such as Spain in the 15th and 16th Centuries. Before arriving in Tzfat, we picked up eight Israeli soldiers who will be staying with us for a couple of days.
In Tzfat, we visited sights that helped to cement my understanding of Judaism and deepen my connection to Israel and its history. We visited two famous synagogues; the first one, the Ari, was Ashkenazy, but its interior was designed in the style of a Sephardic synagogue; with the bima in the center of the room and the seats surrounding it. The synagogues were beautiful and had ornate and colorful paintings on the walls and ceilings. The second synagogue, the Abohav, was destroyed in an earthquake in the late 19th century and beautifully rebuilt. Both synagogues, like many other buildings in Tzfat had blue detailing, a local tradition that believed that blue fought off evil spirits such as the devil and the evil eye.
We then had time to wonder around Tzfat and explore the many art galleries and gift shops. The art was attractive and suited the style of Tzfat: religious but with creative expression. Next, we saw a demonstration by Sheva Chaya on glassmaking. She also shared her outlook on life, in which she stressed the importance of self-improvement through seeing good in people and in otherwise negative actions. Her story was intriguing, as she started life as a Jewish American with little knowledge of Israel and suddenly picked up and left Denver Colorado to settle in Israel as a result of a trip to Israel when she was 17. It was interesting to see how someone’s life could change so dramatically as a result of a trip similar to a Taglit-Birthright Israel: Hillel trip. I could relate to her story because she came from the US and found her connection with Israel. While I don’t think my connection will mirror hers, I do see how Israel can dramatically change a person—both with its stunning landscape, rich history and unique political situation.
On our way back, we stopped in Tiberius for dinner at an Italian restaurant. The Israeli soldier Nir joined us, and rescued us numerous times with his knowledge of Hebrew. I enjoyed hearing his and the other Israeli soldiers’ backgrounds and stories. Possibly as a result of their service to the state, the Israeli soldiers seemed a lot more engaged in Israeli politics and culture in comparison to Americans their own age. This is more striking when considering that the Israeli soldiers had not yet been to college like the American students on the trip.
Once back at the hotel, we had a Hillel conversation on Jewishness and how it is viewed by Jews on this trip. More specifically, we discussed issues such as whether being Jewish makes one feel different or whether or not it is even important in today’s world. Scott brought up the issue of how Jews have viewed themselves as a chosen people—a kind of aristocracy of the world—and whether or not this had a positive impact on Judaism in general. My general feeling on the matter is that Jews for a long time have been a successful people both financially and culturally in wherever they have lived. This success comes as a result of strong values of education, family, and ambition. Unfortunately, this can inspire jealousy and hatred among others around them, especially when Jews have been in the minority. Therefore, it is important that Jews be conscious of how they act and are viewed, in an effort not to inflame tensions. Because in the end, Jews thrive as being a distinct ethnicity/religion in relation to and in cooperation with the rest of the world.
Daniel Boger, George Mason University