Israel Letters

Unit 2: Masada, Tzippori, Tzfat, and Kabbalistic Art

Our second unit of Israel 21 focused on the adjustment Judaism made after the destruction of the second Temple. When the place where you connect to God through sacrifice and worship no longer exists, how do you maintain belief and connection?  To explore this question, we traveled to Masada in the Judean desert, the ancient village of Tzippori in the Galilee, and the holy city of Tzfat. Taking small steps at each place, we discovered the key element to Judaism’s survival: knowledge!

Shai took us with him as he hiked the snake path to the top of Masada just as the sun was rising.  Like so many others, he wrapped himself in his tallit for words of gratitude before taking us through the ancient rocks which tell an amazing story.  Considering the question, “what do we learn about Judaism from the archeological ruins at Masada?”, we explored a mikvah (ritual bath) and a synagogue which was for study, but not for prayer! Our first clue.

The students had so many questions about Masada! Sasha asked how were they even able to build Masada? The enormity of the structure, the size of the mountain, and the lack of materials and water? How could they build it? Shai loved Sasha’s question because it indicated that the students could feel Masada’s vastness and grandeur through a virtual visit.

Shai showed us the system of water cisterns that collected the rare desert rainwater, the Roman campsites where tens of thousands of soldiers lived during the siege, and the ramp which ultimately allowed the Romans to breach the walls and conquer Masada.  But did they?  What really happened on top of the fortress and how does this story fit into the theology of our modern Judaism. These questions provoked thoughtful discussion among our students who are beginning to see how history knits its stories together.

When we arrived in the ancient village of Tzippori, we really began to see how Judaism shifted to meet the new times. Tzippori is an archeological site, but unlike the massive rocks of Masada, it is through the gentle uncovering of beautiful, colorful mosaics that were buried for the last 1000 years, that we begin to see the rabbinic movement’s impact on Judaism. And it was the mosaic of a reclining sofa that was our next clue. Shai explained that the sofa was a symbol of people sitting together to converse and debate. We have been practicing debate for thousands of years to preserve the treasure of knowledge.

Our last stop was the holy city of Tzfat, the home to seekers. We loved seeing the colorful homes and winding alleyways that are iconic to this mountaintop city. Vivi started us on our explorations with the question: Can we really understand what we are doing when we read words in Hebrew that we really don’t understand? The essential nature of this question has drawn people to Tzfat over hundreds of years. The people of Tzfat have engaged in a continuous study looking for the why’s of our practice. Tzfat’s contribution to the Jewish bookcase is the Zohar, the book of radiance. It is the central writing of Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism.  The Zohar is not a book of instruction, but rather a book to find deeper meaning.  

We finished our visit at the studio of the Kabbalistic artist, David Friedman.  David showed many of his works to the students with the explanations behind each color, shape, number and design.  There is nothing in David’s work that doesn’t hold meaning.  Here is a link to his website if you’d like to see just a little of what our eighth graders are experiencing:

Before we move on to modern history, we wrapped up everything with a fun morning (and a little competition) to see how much the students have learned. The students are leaving these last couple of weeks with a much deeper understanding of Jewish history, along with great T-shirts and journals -  Thank you Shai!



  • 8th grade
  • Israel21
  • Israeli Art and Culture
  • Israel Trip
  • Judaism
  • Masada
  • Tzfat