Learning by Experiencing: Crusaders and Mystical Tzfat

By Evan Wertheim

Classes in Heller High are truly unique. In one day of class, we conquer a 12th-century Crusader castle in the morning and move into the spiritual realms of Tzfat and Kabbalah of the 16th-century by the afternoon.

We storm the 800-year-old Belvoir castle, discovering hidden passageways that soldiers would use to sneak out during a siege. While sitting in the inner sanctuaries of the castle, we use primary source documents from Medieval Europe to better understand the classical roots of anti-Semitism. By explaining where classic anti-Semitism stems from, we’re better able to help the students understand how it manifests itself throughout the centuries and in their lives today.

Before leaving Belvoir, we stop to take in the magnificent views of the Jordan Valley, Kinneret, and Golan Heights, all while learning about the area’s complicated geography. After breaking for lunch in Kibbutz Afikim, we continue on for the afternoon portion to the mystical city of Tzfat.

In Tzfat, we focus our studies on the development of the Jewish world in the 16th century. We look at modern graffiti in the city to paint the tale of the 2nd century sage, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (Rashbi) and the development of Kabbalah. We visit Rabbi Yosef Karo’s synagogue and learn about his work, the Shulchan Aruch and how it is still the definitive text used for Halakhic decisions to this day. While taking in a spectacular view of Mt. Meron (where the Rashbi is supposedly buried), we sing the modern Hebrew song Kol Galgal, which uses the ancient Kabbalah text as its words. We learn how our modern practice of Kabbalat Shabbat has its roots in the practices developed in Tzfat. During the afternoon lesson, we teach the story of the PaRDeS (Pshat, Remez, Drash, Sod – approaches to interpreting biblical text) and how texts often have more to reveal than meets the eye. We take the opportunity to reinforce the idea of lifelong Jewish learning and how Kabbalah is a level you built towards to try and learn the secrets in the writings.

After two meaningful lessons and as the sun sets, our students use their free time to explore the windy alleyways of majestic Tzfat, visiting the artist colony, and discovering local culinary delights.

Evan Wertheim is the coordinator of the Jewish History Department at URJ Heller High. Evan grew up at Temple Emanu-El in Atlanta, Georgia and made Aliyah in 2007. He and his wife, Ya’ara, and their children live in Modi’in, Israel.

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