For the first time since the Second Lebanon War, attendance at the annual Klezmer Festival in the northern Israeli city of Safed reached pre-war levels, as nearly 200,000 people filled the streets of the ancient mountaintop locale to enjoy a range of concerts and assorted exhibits.

There to welcome the visitors was a small group of organizations handpicked by the municipality, including Ascent, a Chabad-Lubavitch hostel and study center specializing in Jewish mysticism. Over the course of the festival, and extending to the following weekend, staff offered classes and music workshops, as well as volunteer opportunities in the local Jewish community.

According to Rabbi Yerachmiel Tilles, who co-founded the institution with Rabbi Shaul Leiter in 1983, attendance at Ascent went beyond anyone’s expectations.

“The base of people who were staying at Ascent was just a small percentage of those who came to the classes,” he said. “The response from tourists who had never encountered Ascent before was very positive.”

During the day, Ascent staff supplemented their regular classes on Chasidic thought with mini-seminars on Kabbalah and music. At midnight each day during the festival, when other stages in town were shutting down, the institute hosted its own bands and invited attendees to large Chasidic gatherings.

The first night, local celebrity and Klezmer enthusiast Chaim Kumer led an evening of traditional melodies. Safed folk musician Nissim Ben Chaim played the following night.

Ascent’s expanded programming during the festival came during a summer that saw the center literally burst from its seams. Whereas, the institute has largely made due with a building not far from downtown, organizers this year leased local apartments and space at a neighboring hotel to accommodate extra guests and provide more room for classes.

Guests at Ascent took part in several different workshops during the Klezmer Festival, including a hands-on painting class taught by local artist Gal Zik.
Guests at Ascent took part in several different workshops during the Klezmer Festival, including a hands-on painting class taught by local artist Gal Zik.

Attendance High

Many guests stayed longer than planned through taking advantage of a new program that allowed them to volunteer for several hours each day at local soup kitchens operated by Colel Chabad in exchange for lower rates at Ascent’s hostel.

“This has been one of the most memorable experiences of my life and definitely [my] best summer,” one traveler wrote in a letter addressed to staff members. “The experiences I’ve had at Ascent have helped me mature spiritually and to connect more to the Jewish people.”

“The overall response this summer has been tremendous,” stated Tilles. “We’ve had more than a hundred people here each Shabbat, and the seminars have all been overflowing.”

At one event this summer, Ascent’s “Lion of Safed” seminar on the teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria, the 16th century mystic known as the Arizal, more than 70 people showed up at 1 a.m. on the anniversary of Luria’s passing for the short walk to his resting place. Tilles said the group stayed up all night praying and studying the Arizal’s works.

More than 90 people attended another program, a seminar for Hebrew speakers on the importance and meaning of Tu B’Av, the 15th day of the month of Av.

“This summer will stay with me for life,” said Ayelet Abramson of Sweden. “I hope I make it back here soon.”