Life at Ascent

Exploring Jewish Mysticism Through Art: an Ascent-in-Safed Retreat

by Yehuda Sugar

July 16, 2012 2:00 PM (as posted on //

When most people think of Safed, two things immediately come to mind, aside from the city’s sheer beauty and vistas, perched as it is atop Israel’s Upper Galilee region: Jewish mysticism and art. Home to much of the esoteric Torah concepts known as Kabbalah, there’s no shortage of either in Safed, where artistic creations take their inspiration from Judaism’s supernal teachings and works of art become part of the background of its cobblestone streets.

But until recently, an intensive program had yet to offer students a way to discover Kabbalistic wisdom through art. Enter Ascent, a Chabad-Lubavitch institution that is part hostel and part yeshiva to both local Israelis and foreign tourists. Its new mystical art retreat begins next week, taking a place alongside a program of tours, lectures, and inspirational gatherings that has been in development since Ascent’s founding in 1983.

“There are a lot of artists in Safed and workshops on art, but no ongoing program where a person can learn how to express themselves artistically in a mystical way,” says Elliott Tucker, a 30-year-old London filmmaker and Ascent’s new artist-in-residence, one of the retreat’s organizers.

Tucker and the Ascent staff will host the 10-day “art intensive” retreat beginning July 21, entitled, “Art and Soul: Re-creation.” A second four-day arts retreat will be held Aug. 26 to 30. The agenda will feature art workshops and classes, and provide studio time for participants with local artists. It will culminate in an art fair featuring live music, films and other works of art produced by the participants.


“ART & SOUL: Re-creation” Retreats

First retreat-ten days: July 21-31

Second retreat-four days: Aug. 26 to 30.


The program, not only geared for artists, will also feature Ascent’s usual line up of hikes, spiritually-focused guided tours, two meals a day and lodging, and classes on Kabbalah and Chasidic thought at its 34,000 square foot facility and adjoining hotel in Safed’s Old City.

Another of the program’s designers, Izzy Greenberg says developing an art-centric curriculum fits into Ascent’s long history of creatively engaging people of different backgrounds and interests.

“People are unique and they connect to Judaism, spirituality and mysticism in unique ways,” he explains. “Everyone has a creative spark within waiting to emerge. The arts focus is an attempt to expand Jewish spiritual discovery through imagination and creativity, and to explore the avenue further.”

The trend has its beginnings in the ongoing classes led by an unassuming, yet talented artist and writer on the Ascent staff, Devora Levin, who doubles as administrative assistant for Ascent executive director Rabbi Shaul Leiter.

Tucker arrived on the scene in March and began engaging diverse groups of Ascent guests in workshops focused on producing art based on their visualization of their highest aspirations for the world. Patrons of the upcoming retreat can expect similar sessions with Tucker and Levin.

Staff decided on “Re-creation” as a subtitle for the program because it fits well with the artistic theme of creativity and, more importantly, two foundational principles engendered by the institute and in the teachings of the Rebbe, Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory: The themes of rebuilding the self and the world.

It was by no mistake in planning that the retreat is taking place within the three-week period of the Jewish calendar that precedes the anniversary of the destruction of both Holy Temples on the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, says Tucker. The Rebbe, he notes, encouraged Jews worldwide to use the seemingly mournful period as a time to look to the future and focus on rebuilding.

Aligned with the reconstruction theme, the program will include painting Kabbalistic murals to spruce up the walls of local synagogues. Also planned is something Tucker calls “upcycling,” a version of recycling in which participants sculpt creations with Jewish themes from discarded items.

“At the end of the day,” quips Tucker, “it’s all about the rebuilding of ourselves and the rebuilding of the world.”


[Yehuda Sugar is a former wire service journalist from Chicago who currently freelances for, and other news outlets. He lives in Tsfat with his wife and four children. ]


Safed artist Yom Tov Blumenthal, whose works include an image of a tree of esoteric wisdom emanating from a Torah scroll, will run workshops at the Ascent retreat.

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