As I climbed the green Galilean hills of Tsfat to reach the family hosting me for Shabbat, I wondered how it had changed since the last time I was in Israel's mystical city.
I was here to visit with the Lipshutz family. They had moved here 12 years ago and are currently active in building programs and events to call attention to Tsfat's power and beauty, both physical and spiritual. The town's kabbalist past drew Madonna, who made a prayer stop of this prophesized center for the beginning of redemption.
When I first arrived here a decade ago, there was nothing "special" or "spiritual" about the experience, unless eating fish heads dipped in mayonnaise is considered a transcendent ritual.
Back then I was a seminary student, studying in Tsfat's sister city of Jerusalem. My friend, Mya, and I were set up at the home of an elderly modern Orthodox couple for Shabbat, a common practice for seminary girls who quest that "special" and "spiritual" Shabbat experience.
Tsfat is supposed to be a place to commune with God, to experience an awakening, to have prayers answered. My teachers touted it as the home of spiritual seekers and leaders -- from the patriarch Jacob who studied at the yeshiva of Shem and Ever, to the great 16th century kabbalist Rabbi Yitzhak Luria (the Arizal), to contemporary artists drawing inspiration from the historic city.
All we ended up praying for was to get out of the apartment we were staying in, which was as inspirational as a "Golden Girls" rerun.
We snuck out, with Mya wearing torn jeans as a ruse to attract some religious guru seeking to bring us closer to God. We roamed the streets of Tsfat, walking through stone alleyways like two lost dogs hungry for spiritual inspiration -- and a decent meal.
We took solace in ornate gates painted in mystical blue, peeked through the doors of ancient synagogues and read names on the tombstones of women whose lives must have been more simple and spiritual than ours.
It wasn't long before our search finally came to an end. We happened upon a modern Orthodox couple sitting in their balcony who noticed Mya's jeans and invited us in.
Not only did they feed us, but they told us what we wanted to hear. They explained that contrary to what many of our rabbis taught, Judaism demanded that we be good people first, and that religious practice should come at our own pace.
Convinced we'd found the answers we'd come to seek in Tsfat, we returned to our elderly hosts, spiritually and physically sated.
"Tsfat has always been somewhat esoteric," said Talya Lipshutz, head of the new program, Access Tsfat, and my host. "Tourists came to view the historic sites and to buy art, but they never dug deep enough to unlock the spiritual power of the city -- to be healed, informed and uplifted."
Lipshutz is hoping to change that with Access Tsfat, a program open to anyone -- singles, families, Jews and non-Jews -- who seek to draw inspiration from the city. The wife and mother of eight is working with the Nachal Novea Tsfat Fund to revitalize the city as a tourist destination by easing visitors' spiritual and physical search and offering Shabbat hospitality.
Access Tsfat provides a variety of tracks to explore the city and its surrounding area. Weekday half-day tracks offer an in-depth look at the city, with walking tours of historic synagogues, the artist colony and its ancient cemetery; visits to Galilean landmarks; classes in history, Judaism, mysticism and Chasidut, as well as arts and crafts for kids.
An outdoor track called Northern Xtreme will provide visitors with a totally new perspective of Tsfat. Licensed Breslov Chasidic guides lead tourists in rappelling and hiking in the caves, mountains and valleys of the Upper Galilee.
"But probably the most important experience will be Shabbat hospitality. You can't really get a whole feel for Tsfat without being here for Shabbat," Lipshutz said.
Compared with my last visit, this Tsfat experience was handed to me on a silver platter. A great Shabbat meal, handheld walks on the ancient steps and deep discussions about Madonna's spark of holiness.
Had Lipshutz's program been in place 10 years ago, I would have been spared a lot of heartache. But as I read in a book on kabbalah, true spiritual meaning is often achieved through suffering.
So while Access Tsfat is an ideal way to begin a trek through this city, no one should fear exploring its alleyways alone or with a friend. Look beyond the city's blue gates when visiting, and up to the blue sky. For it's there you'll find the hidden treasures of the city -- and of the heart.
Access Tsfat tracks are slated for Aug. 18-22 and coincide with the second annual klezmer festival being held in Tsfat from Aug. 15-22. For more useful information on Tsfat and Access Tsfat, visit www.tsfat.com.
Orit Arfa is a writer living in Tel Aviv. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.