ASCENT began humbly in 5743/1983 when three young American olim couples
became frustrated with not being able to answer the barrage of seekers
in the streets of Tsfat, asking "Where can we learn more?" Sure, "barrage
of seekers" sounds hard to believe, but that's the kind of place Tsfat
is. Jews that are uninterested in or even antagonistic to Judaism often
take a completely different attitude when they arrive in Tsfat. Maybe
it's the air, or the streets, or the blue, or the history, or all those
souls, but all of a sudden people who blitzed through Jerusalem without
being aroused want to know about Kabbalah, and then about Judaism in general.
"Get thee to a Yeshiva," is an easy, reflex answer, but most short-term
visitors don't have available the kind of time necessary to make yeshiva a realistic
option. Nor was "Discovery," "Roots," "Basics," etc. etc. an option, as they didn't
even exist yet.
In September 1983 we offered a three-week intensive program,
which we advertised all over the world. Four people came. Meanwhile, on each of
the three Shabbatot, we had 20-30 extra guests. We never figured out exactly where
they came from or how they found out about us, but we certainly got the message:
short-term programs for short-time visitors.
The next month, we pasted
a funky, oversized, hand-calligraphy (!) poster all over Jerusalem, announcing
"Living with the Times–Chassidic style": a seven day seminar to be held in Tsfat
the week after Simchas Torah. Nearly fifty people came to study, tour, hike, sing,
dance, swim, eat, drink, celebrate Shabbat and just plain hang out with us. It
was a great success. We had a good instinct for what had to be done; it wasn't
so long ago that "we" used to be "them"! And we had our experience of the summer
and all the built-in advantages of Tsfat too. Everyone learned a lot AND had a
great time, and ASCENT took off.
The founders themselves did not know where things would lead, but a whole
year of working out of our apartments with students sleeping on the floor,
rotating kitchens for the meals and using different shuls as classrooms,
was draining us of energy and focus. Finally, Rabbi Shaul Leiter announced
he would take the plunge and voyage overseas to try to raise funds to
rent a building. The rest of us cheered and promptly elected him Executive
Director. He proved himself worthy and "Real Beginnings, 5745" (Oct. 1984)
opened in our four-apartment courtyard. We stayed there until Summer 1990,
when the current building was purchased and opened to visitors and students.