My name is Heather Brody and I have been traveling for the last two years since graduating from college. Unfortunately for my parents, there is no known cure for the travel bug. I will most likely be traveling for a while, meeting more incredible people and hearing new and unique perspectives on life and the world around us.
A lot of the ideas that I most connected with throughout my travels sound pretty hippie-esque, but in reality, actually stem from Judaism. It is pretty amazing how much you can learn from Judaism and how relevant these Jewish values can be to our lives. Growing up, I didn’t think much about Judaism outside of the conservative Jewish movement, and outside of the rituals that my family and I practiced. As I got older and met more Jews from other sects, I began to question things a bit more, sparking a desire to search for answers. A friend told me, two weeks ago actually, that Jewish journeys are not linear. I always kind of thought that my Jewish journey was pretty typical, pretty linear, until about two years ago.
My story begins, as many do, in the Old City of Jerusalem, a place where so many Jews far and wide have found deep deep connections to Judaism in one way or another. I’ve definitely had some of those moments in Jerusalem in the past, but things were a little different this time. My best friend and I had just graduated from the University of Delaware (go Blue Hens!) and wanted to spend time in Israel. We chose a seemingly-perfect program in Jerusalem – 1 month of ulpan, 3 months of an internship, and 1 month on a kibbutz. Some advice: do your research before signing up for ANY program. Basically, it was not what we had expected at all. Part of the program was taking weekly classes with Rabbis, which can be great. Some of those Rabbis were fantastic and really inspired me. However, they were all from the same yeshiva, all teaching us the same perspectives, and by the end of those 4 months in Jerusalem, we were all so drained. I did not connect with what they taught, and, sadly, I felt very lost and disconnected from Judaism for a long time after that. However, the final month of the program is what gave me some hope that there was still something in Judaism for me. We were supposed to live on a kibbutz during our last month, but, like much of the program, what had been previously advertised was not the reality. Instead, we hopped on a bus up north to Tzfat to participate in a program called Livnot U’lehibanot for 2 of the greatest weeks of my life thus far.
Livnot U’lehibanot means “to build and be built.” It is a week-long program for Jews in their 20s and 30s filled with community service, Jewish mysticism, and full-day hikes. The “to build” part of its name references our literal building and refurbishing of ancient ruins directly underneath the Livnot campus. Thousands of years of Jewish history lived right below us and, fun fact, you do not need to be a Livnot participant to tour the tunnels! The “be built” part is more of a reference to what will happen to you after experiencing the magic that is Livnot. The atmosphere is exactly what we needed after those 4 months in Jerusalem – we were immediately told that while most of the staff are Orthodox, they do not expect us to practice that type of Judaism. No, at Livnot we are encouraged to be Jewish in whatever way we want, to connect with whatever we feel a connection to, and to experience everything with an open mind, while also making sure that we are as comfortable as possible.
What a perfect 2 weeks those were. I rebuilt ruins. I accomplished hikes that I never imagined I could. I took classes that I wanted to take and learned about new Jewish perspectives. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so truly happy. So happy that I returned this past January for about one month as an intern. This time, I was able to really experience the city of Tzfat. I got to know its people, its cats, its mountains, its sunsets. I continued to learn about Kabbalah and breath in the Jewish mysticism around me. Kabbalah is a branch of Judaism that stems from a commentary on the Torah called the Zohar, “concerned primarily with understanding the divine world and its relation to our world.” People say that you cannot study Kabbalah until you are 40 years old, but this is a myth. And I’m glad! Because with Kabbalah, I felt like I had finally found a type of Judaism that I could truly and deeply connect with.
The Livnot program coordinator, Yifat would always talk about “returning to ourselves,” which, at first, I didn’t understand. How could I return to myself? I am already here! What is there to return to? But the more time I spent in Tzfat, the more I understood what she meant. We are born as pure souls, untouched by the world. As we go on through life, many things shape us into who we may become – our parents, our friends, our educational systems, where we live, the society that we live in. We move farther and farther away from that pure being that we once were. It’s inevitable; that’s just how life works and how we work as humans in this world. But, what if we took some time to try and return to that initial state of being, to try and connect with our soul, with our truest, purest selves. I think that even if we think that we are being our true selves nowadays, we still tend to hide parts of us away. Maybe as a form of protection. Or maybe there are parts of ourselves that we didn’t know existed. Either way, we never really show the world our true selves. The people that we were literally born to be. But while I was in Tzfat, exploring, questioning, and connecting with the world and the kind-hearted people around me, I finally felt like I was returning to myself. When I saw others accepting me completely for who I was, no matter what my background or my beliefs, simply because I was there in the same space as them, I felt like I could come forward and show them, and myself, who I was and who I wanted to be.
As I began my journey of returning to myself, I also learned some other concepts along the way that I have tried to take with me wherever I go. Of course it is difficult to remember outside of the environment that Livnot has so intentionally and lovingly built, but it is definitely possible, and, I believe, can lead to a more fulfilling and meaningful life.
I learned that we should love ourselves and the people around us, very simply put, because we are all here, existing, living, on this planet. We are connected by this big universe that we are all a part of. And even if you don’t believe in a god (I’m still figuring out whether I do or not), you can still see the godliness in others. Everyone and everything around you has a divinity in that it is alive, here and now, and will be alive in the minds of others long after. Think about it. If you went about your life treating the world with kindness, if you made the deliberate decision to see others as special beings, to treat them as though there are bits of this thing we call god inside them, how would your actions and perceptions change? If we all chose to see the world around us in such a way, how would that world change?
One of the most impactful concepts that I learned at Livnot is a term called “radical amazement.” Radical amazement is exactly as it sounds, being so incredibly amazed by and appreciative of the world around you. We could try to be radically amazed by this sanctuary right now. I mean, look at how huge this sanctuary is! Look at how many seats it has, how many people that means it could hold together in this one room! How long do you think it took to build this place? To make the seats your sitting in, to bind the books that we have been reading from all morning? It’s amazing! It’s truly amazing. And we never really think about it. Unfortunately, we don’t always have time to feel radically amazed by all of the things around us. However, there are small things you can do each day to capture that same feeling. I know people who do a daily gratitude exercise, where at the end of the day they write down 5 things that they were grateful for that day. Rabbi Berkowitz mentioned that he practices radical amazement in the form of saying brachot before eating – he said that “saying the blessing makes the eating more intentional, and reminds [him] that it took a lot to get that food from the place it grew all the way to [his] plate.” I often feel radically amazed by being in nature. Even just looking out the window each day and noticing the grass, the trees, a sunset, or rain, makes me feel so awe-struck.
I see a lot of these concepts play out in real time through the kids that I teach. I am a preschool teacher for a class of toddlers at the JCC right down the street. The kids in my class have all just turned 2 years old, and yet they inspire me every day to continue living out these ideas despite not physically being in the mystical city of Tzfat. They look at everything with radical amazement – everything is fascinating to them and there is always a question to be asked. They see the godliness in others – it doesn’t matter what kind of person you are, you are there, someone offering love, kindness and safety to them, so they offer the same back (along with lots of hugs). And they absolutely do not hide a single thing about themselves from you at age 2 – each of their personalities is so unique and yet so apparent. When we think about the concept of “returning to ourselves,” I think a lot about my students and how authentic they are, how purely “them” they are. I also often wonder why I see more of these values in young children than in adults. Aren’t we supposed to be the wise ones?
As we grow older, we become more aware of the world around us, and as a result, the world affects and shapes us. This can be good, and it can be bad. We base our lives off of what other people think, what we think we want, what society thinks and what society wants. We forget to live with intention. I think that is the biggest thing I learned from my time at Livnot, though it wasn’t necessarily taught to us. After returning home from Livnot, and shortly after losing my grandmother, I thought about how I want to live my life. What would it mean for me to live my life with intention? It is different for everyone, but to me, it means doing things that make me happy. I realized that I find so much joy in going to work each day at the preschool, so why not continue to do this thing that makes me so incredible happy? It also means surrounding myself with people who make me feel good, safe, and loved. People who inspire me. People who I can have deep, meaningful conversations with, or “DMCs” as they say at Livnot. It means spending more time in nature and strengthening my connection with the world around me. It means always exploring and questioning and wondering. It means being Jewish! Practicing the Jewish customs and values that I most connect with and that I feel enrich my life.
Now, I’m not saying that we should regress to our two-year-old selves, but I do think that as adults we become a little lost. We focus on things that do not necessarily bring more meaning and gratitude into our lives. So, I’d like to offer up a challenge. Think about one of the values that I mentioned today, or even a different one that you feel may be lacking from your everyday life. Find one way, one easy practice that you can do each day this coming week to incorporate that value into your life. Live with a little more intention, and see if it makes some sort of positive impact on your week. If it does, that is amazing! Try to continue with that practice, get more creative with it, even share it with others! If not, don’t worry, it was only one week of your life! You have many more ahead of you and many more opportunities to figure out what makes you feel a little more connected to yourself and to the world.
If you have any questions, or want to engage in a good ole DMC, feel free to come up to me later today. Thank you so much for listening, and Shabbat Shalom.