Rafi Kaplan wasn’t looking for inspiration.
The 22 year old L.A. native, exploring the world with a backpack and a buddy in the early months of 1997, found himself at Ascent, an outreach center-youth hostel in the mystical city of Safed in northern Israel, for one reason: he needed a place to stay.
“We were in Tel Aviv for two weeks and figured we had seen all there was to see in the country,” he recalls. Then the next stop on their travels, an expedition through the mountains of Uzbekistan, fell through. Kaplan, brought up with a vague awareness of his Jewish roots and not much more, decided to travel up the coast of his ancestral home, and explore. At a bus stop in Haifa, two guys mentioned Ascent, an inexpensive youth hostel in Safed that offered daily classes on spirituality and hiking tours of the region along with a clean room and kosher food. The hiking sounded good, Kaplan and his friend reasoned, and they had no place to stay in Haifa. So they took the next bus to Safed and arrived at Ascent late on Friday afternoon.
It was a Shabbat to remember. The combination of Safed’s mystical air, the people he met and the warm Shabbat atmosphere at Ascent struck a chord somewhere in Rafi Kaplan, who discontinued his world tour after that weekend. For the next five months, Kaplan remained in Israel, shuttling back and forth between Safed and Jerusalem, studying in a Yeshiva and coming up to Ascent regularly, and exploring his land and heritage for the first time.
He’s not the only one. A small poster on Ascent’s wall reads:
‘This is your inheritance—Cash in!’ Kaplan, who feels that sign is representative of the Ascent experience, says there are hundreds each year who, like him, take it seriously, following through with further Jewish studies after their stay in Safed.
“Many people who land up at Ascent aren’t necessarily on a search for spirituality or meaning,” he says, “When you’re traveling, it’s all about the cheapest place to stay.” And even those who, while exploring Israel, feel some curiosity about their Jewish connection and want to study more, “walking into a Yeshiva or synagogue is very intimidating.” But Ascent, he says, with a warm and wise staff, and a no-pressure opportunity to explore the inner dimensions of Jewish and Kabbalistic thought, “opens a window into Judaism that a lot of people respond to- whether or not they were searching for one.”
By now, twenty years after its founding in 1983, Ascent has become a requisite stop on the itinerary of thousands of backpacking Israeli and American youth exploring the sights of the holy land. In a free-style hostel setting, Asecent offers a spiritual experience that allows people to explore Judaism at whatever level they feel comfortable.
“Young people, especially Americans, are traveling around Israel, getting exposed to things they’ve never heard of before, and they want to know more,” says Rabbi Mordechai Siev, known affectionately to thousands as ‘Big Mo’, who has been running the English-speaking programs at Ascent for sixteen years. Israeli youth, a large percentage of Ascent’s clientele, especially in the winter months and with the current political situation, often come to Ascent after spending several years backpacking in the Far East. “They’re open to spirituality and they’ve explored everything else by then; they’re very curious about Judaism,” he says.
This summer, as in years past, there’s a full house at Ascent—all 85 beds are occupied and then some. Overflow crowds—there’s one every week in the summer, say organizers, sometimes topping the 100 mark—are put up at local hotels. Weekend Shabbatons add considerably more volume, but the center is alive with activity round the clock, with a full schedule of classes, lectures, hiking tours, informal and formal discussion groups, impromptu concerts and kumzitzs and more.
“Ascent has none of that institutional feel,” says Orlie Schuller, a native of LA who is managing Ascent’s office this summer. Schuller’s encounter is typical of the Ascent story: After discovering Ascent online, she arrived in Safed for a brief stay six years ago and then followed up with further Jewish studies at her local Chabad back home, and has come, full circle, back to Safed this summer to study in a Chabad women’s Yeshiva. She says the easy, “come-when-you-want” attitude at Ascent is likely responsible for much of its success in warming people up to Judaism. “You can stay for one night if you want, with no pressure,” she points out, “or you can stay for three months.”
It was a lesson learned early on in Ascent’s history, says Rabbi Shaul Leiter, who, with his wife Chaya Bracha and two other young American-born couples living in Safed, Rabbi and Mrs. Moshe Wisnefsky and Rabbi and Mrs. Yerachmiel Tilles, founded Ascent. Though the initial month-long Yeshiva style program 1983 was well advertised, four young people showed up. “So we learned our lesson,” Leiter says. “Shorter is better. No one’s committing to a month-long stay. Three days, a week- anyone will give that to learn about their heritage. Jewish mysticism was a big buzzword then; people were very curious to check us out, as long as they didn’t have to commit to a long stay.”
After two years of hosting programs in their own living rooms, Ascent’s organizers rented a former hotel in Safed’s old city, which they purchased one year later. Now functioning for close to two decades as a full time center for Jewish spiritual growth, Ascent provides a fully well-balanced experience: a clean, safe place to stay, kosher food, and the opportunity to explore Judaism through classes, workshops, hikes and an in-house multimedia Jewish learning library, says Leiter, who has served as executive director since the center’s founding. And recent additions to Ascent’s programming have expanded the center’s reach well beyond Safed, he says. Ascent seminars and workshops in various Israeli cities and a vibrant presence at yearly festivals for Israeli youth bring Ascent’s message to over 20,000 annually across the country, and the center’s three websites take it even further. Leiter estimates that over 100,000 are reached yearly through Ascent’s Hebrew and English websites.
But Ascent is more than just a learning experience, says Rabbi Shaul Leiter. In Ascent’s twenty years, Leiter and his staff say, they see the power of Israel’s inherent spirituality ever day. “People come here,” says Mordechai Siev, “And there’s a Jewish spark in them that lights up.” That spark, he says, often takes them on a full-blown Jewish journey. And for thousands, including Rafi Kaplan, now married with children and studying full-time in a Kollel Yeshiva in Morristown, New Jersey, it’s a Jewish journey that goes on and on.