Shabbat in Zefat with Ascent

I used a weekend break in March during my year of study at the University of Haifa to spend a fascinating Shabbat in Zefat (Safed), a holy city in the north of Israel that is home to a vibrant Hasidic community (for more information on Zefat, see my previous blog entry). The Hasidim, who can be easily identified by their distinctive garb, are ultra-Orthodox Jews who emphasize Jewish spirituality and mysticism, as well as rabbinic scholarship. Along with two dozen overseas students from the University of Haifa, I experienced Shabbat Hasidic-style through a Shabbat hospitality program at the Ascent Visitors' Center and Hostel in Zefat.

Zefat is one of the holy Jewish cities in Israel. During the 16th century, after the Jews were expelled from Spain, Zefat became home to many revered Jewish philosophers and theologians. Zefat is also the birthplace of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism. The ancient town is home mainly to ultra-Orthodox Jews and artists. There are many beautiful synagogues in Zefat, and cars cannot drive down the narrow cobbled streets. I wish I could have taken photos of some of the ultra-Orthodox yeshiva boys since they are fascinating looking with their identical school uniforms and long sidelocks. But the ultra-Orthodox do not appreciate being photographed by tourists, and I can understand why.

On Shabbat, observant Orthodox Jews do not work, write, turn on/off electricity, use transportation, bathe, touch money, carry heavy objects, rip things, etc. On Friday mornings and afternoons, in preparation for Shabbat, people busily shop, cook, decide which lights/appliances to leave on, phone family and friends to wish them good Shabbos, and even pre-rip toilet paper. I can't say I was such a fan of every aspect of Shabbat observance, but it felt great to turn off my cell phone, put aside my work, and unwind from the week.

On Friday evening we went to Shabbat services at one of the many Hasidic synagogues in the old section of Zefat. During services the men davven ('pray') on the ground floor of the synagogue while the women davven on an upper balcony, shielded from sight behind a mehitza ('partition') which in this case was a thin white curtain. The women, many of whom had to stand in the packed balcony throughout the 1½ hour-long service, would intermittently push their way towards the curtain to take a peek at the men singing, dancing, and praying vigorously below. The men sounded like they were having a pretty good time, but the women's section wasn't particularly lively. I was kind of jealous of the guys in our group, since they got to actually see what I could only hear.

After services, we went to families' houses in small groups for dinner in the Chabad neighborhood about 20 minutes away (the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidim are one of largest Hasidic groups and are known for their widespread Jewish outreach efforts).

I walked with four other students to our assigned destination, and when our hosts answered the door I assumed there must be other families in attendance, given all the children darting around the room. But I was wrong; our hosts had seven (going on eight) children under the age of thirteen, and it took me several minutes actually to count them all since they kept appearing, disappearing, and reappearing in rapid succession.

I don't know how the mother maintains her sanity amidst the chaos, but apparently she does, and I very much enjoyed talking with her.

To my complete shock, I discovered that we have very similar backgrounds. She grew up as a Reform Jew in an East Coast suburb with which I am quite familiar, attended a small, rural liberal arts college, and came to study in Israel after graduation.

I can't even comprehend what it would be like to make such a radical life transition, but I'm certainly glad that I had the opportunity to meet her and catch a glimpse of such a different way of life.


[From BlogCentral/]

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