It's where a nose-ringed backpacker, elderly tourist, undergraduate, yeshiva student and middle-aged secretary meet. It's where they ascend a mountain to learn, tour an ancient city and discover the mysteries and spirituality of their Jewish heritage. Welcome to Ascent of Safed, Israel.

"Ascent is a place where you can learn and experience the spiritual and inner aspects of Torah," says Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Mordechai "Big Mo" Siev, director of outreach and English programming at the part-yeshiva, part-hostel, part-retreat center that is Ascent.

Originally from Long Island, N.Y., Siev has been with Ascent since 1987. He calls the center "your home away from home in Safed."

One of Judaism's four holiest cities, Safed is considered birthplace of the traditional study of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism. The 2nd century sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai authored the study's primary text, the Zohar, nearby. In the city itself during the 16th century, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria plumbed the depths of the Zohar and began to teach its concepts. It was also in Safed that Rabbi Yosef Caro wrote his Code of Jewish Law.

Ascent co-founder Rabbi Yerachmiel Tilles says that the location – besides its mystical heritage, Safed commands a breathtaking vantage point over Israel's northern Galilee region – translates into the center's not being your typical Chabad House. Besides for its lectures and creative workshops, Ascent offers visitors musical performances, hikes through Safed's Old City and the surrounding forests, meditation lessons and more.

"Our laid-back approach helps us to reach people that no one else reaches," reports Tilles, who hails from the Bronx, N.Y., and directs Ascent's Web-based and print publications.

The center holds classes four times a day, operates three Web sites, runs a youth hostel and maintains purportedly the largest English library outside of Jerusalem. It hosted some 35,000 guests last year, a mixture of native Israelis and visiting foreigners.

"Our Shabbat in Safed can transform a person's life," says Siev. "Outside Israel, it takes more time. But the air in Safed is special. It's a different scope, a whole different world here."

Special Atmosphere

Housed in an old hotel in Safed’s Old City, Ascent has taught thousands about Judaism through the years.
Housed in an old hotel in Safed’s Old City, Ascent has taught thousands about Judaism through the years.
It was that special atmosphere that led Tilles to join with Rabbis Yosef Leiter and Moshe Yaakov Wisnefsky to establish Ascent in the early 1980s. Back then, people who learned with the three wanted to know if there was a center that catered to them.

"At the time, there wasn't a good answer to that question, 'Where can I find out more?' " said Tilles.

So the rabbis began running short programs for interested Safed visitors. Eventually, their groups, the first of which had just four attendees, became so large that they needed their own building.

Since then, Ascent has experienced tremendous growth since its humble beginnings in the founders' homes. Its current location, an old hotel, sports five public spaces, two porches, a garden and 70 beds. An auditorium is slated to be built in the near future.

"Thousands have passed through Ascent," says Tilles.

College students on Taglit-birthright israel trips provided by Mayanot make stops at the center, as did the recent Rohr Jewish Learning Institute first-ever mission to the Holy Land this spring.

Leiter expects the numbers to only grow, as the new craze of educational tourism picks up.

"We try to give a full Jewish experience," he states. "It's not always what you do in class that has the most profound effect."