“We help people connect with an innate spark inside of them spiritually attached to the Land of Israel,” says Livnot visionary Aharon Botzer.
By Ebin Sandler, United with Israel
Aharon Botzer, founder of Israeli outreach program Livnot U’Lehibanot, was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, but found himself searching for deeper meaning in life during a post-college hitchhiking sojourn through Central America in 1970.
“During that trip, someone gave me a book by James Michener called The Source, which is about the relationship between the Land of Israel and the spirit,” Botzer recently told United with Israel (UWI).
“While I was reading the book, I saw the northern lights [aurora borealis] in Mexico, which is very rare. I took this as a sign and decided to go to Israel,” Botzer recounted in a 2019 interview with The Jerusalem Post.
After working on a religious kibbutz, serving in the Israeli army, embracing Jewish observance, and making Aliyah, Botzer began his quest to share the Jewish people’s connection to the Land of Israel with young Jews from the diaspora, many of whom he discovered lacked even a basic understanding of Jewish history, values, and tradition.
“Young people are looking for meaning,” Botzer told The Post, “and Judaism is a catalyst to raise the level of discussion and find deeper meaning.”
‘To Build and To Be Built’
To pursue his mission, Botzer launched Livnot U’Lehibanot in 1980 from his home in the holy city of Tzfat (Safed), an intensely spiritual town in the Galilee region of northern Israel that is widely viewed as the capital of Jewish mysticism.
Livnot provides immersive Israel programs for young English-speaking Jews in their twenties and thirties with minimal formal Jewish education, combining rigorous hikes, volunteering, Shabbat experiences, and “learning about Jewish spirituality through the lens of nature.”
“Livnot has survived seven earth-shattering crises,” Botzer told UWI. “In 1982, My wife Miriam ran the program for 11 weeks while I was in the army during the First Lebanon War. Our volunteers worked in hospitals, helping the wounded.”
“Livnot volunteers also provided help to the first wave of Ethiopian immigrants, including painting a massive 70-meter mural of actual people making the trek from Africa. An officer in the IDF saw her grandfather in our mural, which was the first moment she knew he survived to make Aliyah from Ethiopia.”
“In the Second Lebanon War, we worked on 220 bomb shelters and 250 of our volunteers took care of the elderly after almost all of the health workers left the country due to the rockets raining down on Tzfat. We provided 24-hour care in the city and ran the emergency services.”
Botzer picked the name Livnot U’Lehibanot, which means “to build and be built” in Hebrew, to communicate both “the physical contribution of participants to building the Land of Israel” and the “knowledge and experiences they gain during the program.”
For many participants, their experience includes excavating a structure affectionately named “Beit HaKahal,” a 16th-century ruin the program discovered while digging underneath Livnot’s campus, which is nestled between Tzfat’s artist colony and a Hasidic synagogue.
The tunnels included a Jewish ritual bath (mikva) and bakery from over 500 years ago during the era of the Kabbalists.
The Israeli government designated Beit HaKahal a “national heritage site” in 2011 and Livnot and its volunteers transformed it into an “interactive 16th-century village with learning activities for all ages . . . turning [it] into a major tourist attraction in the Galilee, with thousands of visitors passing through each year,” The Post reported in 2019.
Questions, Not Answers
“Tzfat had an innate spirituality, not only for Jews, but also for Sufi Muslims and Christians,” Botzer told UWI.
“This ties into one of our main lessons in Livnot, which is that everything around you has meaning. Things don’t ‘just happen.’ In Tzfat, you feel that. And we try to open people’s eyes to see the beauty of nature, which helps reveal that literally everything has meaning.
“The important thing at Livnot is getting people to ask questions. The answers aren’t the focus. It’s the questions that matter – getting people to look into themselves and discover the answers within themselves. That’s what we encourage.
“People have an innate spark inside of them that is spiritually connected to the Land of Israel. It’s where the Jews became a people, and the land became part of our spiritual DNA.”
While Livnot’s founders and most of its staff are orthodox, the program provides “an open but challenging environment that encourages questioning and helps every individual choose their own path.”
“We provide a powerful and transformative experience to all,” explains the organization, “building a strong sense of Jewish community and encouraging personal growth through challenge,” which “develops a meaningful sense of identity, belonging, and connectedness.”
The environment and the “physically and spiritually challenging” experiences that Livnot provides have proven a successful combination, reaching tens of thousands of participants, with over 1,500 Livnot alumni becoming “active professionals throughout North American Jewish communities including Federations, Hillels, Jewish Community Centers, synagogues, and Jewish camps and day schools.”
Countless others have immigrated to Israel, placed Shabbat at the center of their lives, and started families of their own dedicated to passing on Jewish values and love for the Land of Israel and the Jewish people.
Livnot alumni credit their experience in Israel, and the ongoing relationships they formed through it, with everything from meeting their spouses to making Aliyah and becoming grandparents.
One past participant named Yaron said his experience actually saved his life. Yaron was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer seven years after he participated in a Livnot program and he said that the spiritual lessons he learned through his Israel experience and support from his Livnot group helped him win the battle against a life-threatening illness.
Former program director Meir Paltiel recently shared with UWI his own experiences designing and overseeing programs for participants like Yaron.
“The Jewish world is struggling with what it means to be Jewish,” Paltiel told UWI. “A divide is growing between progressive and traditional circles that is becoming more pronounced. Unfortunately, there is a focus in the larger world on victimhood, and it’s important to not let that dominate discussions about the deep meaning that Judaism can bring to your life.”
Paltiel continued, “There’s also a lot of animosity toward Israel in the world and people confuse Jews and Judaism with things they perceive as negative within the establishment. So Jewish organizations find themselves encountering even among participants hostility toward the Jewish state, including BDS support. The best remedy for that is cultivating a deeper understanding and appreciation of the beauty of our own tradition.”
Places like Livnot can “educate people to get rid of [anti-Israel] distortions,” he added, while providing tremendous opportunities to develop their own sense of spirituality and connection to the Jewish people.
“Livnot participants return home and they impact family and friends, and hopefully those circles grow,” Paltiel concluded.
Outreach in the Time of Corona
Not even the coronavirus pandemic could stop Livnot and its volunteers from pursuing theit mission in 2020
To that end, Livnot supplemented its traditional programing with Zoom sessions and other online programs, including 60 Zoom reunions for past participants.
This year will also be no different when it comes to Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish new year for trees, which Livnot focuses on to share Judaism’s approach to appreciating nature.
Livnot provides a booklet for people to conduct their own Tu B’Shvat seders, including eating various fruits native to the Land of Israel. This year, Livnot will host a worldwide Zoom Tu B’Shvat seder on January 24, which is the week the holiday falls.
The online event is open to everyone and will include music from the popular husband-and-wife duo Yonina, in addition to Jewish learning with a number of teachers.
To keep the momentum going, Livnot embarked on its “Build it Forward” campaign at the end of 2020 to “expand and reach thousands more, so that young Jews from all over the world can choose their own Jewish path too.”
In 2021, Livnot looks forward to running programs for around 1,000 young Jews, offering Birthright extension trips and longer programs with Onward Israel.
“We get letters every day from alumni all over the world – the United States, Canada, Australia, England and South Africa – telling us how pivotal the program was for them,” Botzer told The Post last year. “Each year is a struggle, but each year we somehow manage to keep going. This is part of Tzfat’s magic.”
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