Birthright 2001 at Ascent

What an experience! We knew even before we came that Zefat was a special town and we greatly enjoyed the in-depth tour our Birthright guide provided us. But Ascent of Tsfat was a great extra, a highlight even.

Our bus arrived at the Ascent complex at 6:30 in the evening, a quarter of an hour late. A nicely dressed, pleasant young woman about our age met us at the door and led us on a winding route through narrow corridors and an expansive balcony with a magnificent mountain view, and then down an incongruous red cedar wood staircase that descended into a small courtyard with a large room on each side of it.

Through the glass doors we could see that each room was filled with some of the other Birthright groups that were staying at our hotel, and that some sort of class was going on.

Our escort told our group to enter into the larger room, assuring us "there is plenty of room." Ha! But somehow we all managed to squeeze in, with the exception of a few who spotted some comfortable couches in the adjoining lounge and promptly staked their places and went to sleep.

I managed to find quite a good seat by following a tall, smiling, somewhat overweight gray-bearded gentleman through the lounge and passing under a striking arch near the front which allowed me to slip into one of the first rows.

A nice-looking blond lady (I found out afterward that she was the mother of ten children! who still leads grueling nature hikes for Ascent!!) was speaking about the mystical significance of the current Jewish month (Tevet), and its tribe (Dan), its astrological constellation (Capricorn), and its associated body organ (liver), sense (anger), and Divine attribute (I never got clear what that was or what it means).She was pointing at a huge pie chart of the Jewish months and their symbols, hand-drawn with beautiful colors and graceful calligraphy. It took two people to hold it, one on each side, and really there should have been another person dangling for the ceiling to hold it from the top. What she was explaining seemed fascinating, but it was hard for me to follow because we came in the middle.

Actually, it didn't last very long after I sat down. She drew to a close, saying she was going to switch to the other group while her husband would come from them to speak to us for another twenty minutes. That same grinning bearded man then jumped up and announced that at the meal he intended to take a survey as to which of these two speakers "is the better half." He whispered some instructions to her, as I had seen him do with someone else earlier. Does that mean he was in charge? She left, distributing some of her homemade chocolate-chip rye cookies, and almost right away her husband came charging in, full speed, gyrating his arms wildly.

He talked nearly as fast as he moved, and he was so full of excitement that I could barely understand a single word. But then he calmed down and began to speak very precisely and charismatically.

He wanted to teach us how to say a Jewish blessing, and how to do so kabbalah style by understanding clearly all the words, and saying them with the proper concentration and intentions. It was very interesting, with lots of ideas I had never heard before. He gave us a handout, which diagrammed and synopsized his talk, which I still have.
When he finished, it was announced that there would be a break of twenty minutes in order to allow them to bring large tables into the two rooms and set them for supper.

I was relieved to hear about the food, and even more about the break. I was exhausted from the packed day of traveling and exploring. It was our first full day in Israel and we were all still tired from the long plane trip the day before. Maybe I could capture a spot on the couch and close my eyes for a bit.

No way! Two exotic-looking chassidim darted into the courtyard and began filling the building with the lively music of their clarinet and drums. They were really cool. Soon a large number of people were dancing and the rest of us were watching. The girls' group seemed to know better tricks than the boys. But in the middle of the guys was this huge heavy-set character that everyone was calling "Big Mo," who was pushing or banging or lifting with his burly arms anyone he thought wasn't dancing lively enough. They said he is one of the main teachers at Ascent. This is a Rabbi? Are you getting the idea of what kind of a wild place this Ascent is? Apparently they have 3-4 day seminars fairly often, and Shabbat parties every week and they are into touring and hiking too.

In the midst of the dancing I became aware of a string of people filing into yet another room, at the end of the courtyard. This one didn't have a transparent glass wall, so I had to go in to find out what was going on. It was amazing.

The room was crammed with videos, and audios, and what must be thousands of books neatly catalogued on shelves, but the center of attention was two people, another beard and an attractive young woman who were sitting in front of computer screens.

They were generating for some people in our group a matrix of their Hebrew name coded in the Torah portion closest to their date of birth. It was really neat! It seems there had been an announcement about it, but I had missed it. I wanted to get mine done- I didn't even know that I have a Jewish birthday date that is not the same every year on the world's calendar-but the line was too long. The rabbi-looking man took an exacerbatingly long time explaining details, while the young woman insisted on speaking only to women. I went back to the music and dancing.

Finally, they called us in to eat. I was expecting the usual Israeli main course of turkey schnitzel, rice and peas, but --- you won't believe this---the crazy Ascent crew served us hot dogs! With mustard and sauerkraut on a somewhat bizarre Israeli version of a frankfurter roll, and lots of other salads and French fries. I guess these guys are really trying to hang on to their American heritage.

They announced during the meal that the Codes crew would continue to accept individuals in the Media Center. I ate quickly and went back but the line was still long. I decided to wait anyway, but shortly after, around 8:30, the group leaders announced that our buses were leaving for the long ride to our hotel near Haifa on the Mediterranean coast. That's all right. I intend to go back to Ascent and to Tsfat-such a lovely town and such inviting green mountains- on our free days at the end of our trip.

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