Kabbalah, the mystical school of thought with origins in Judaism, experienced a resurgence in the mid-to-late aughts due to interest by artists and actors such as Madonna, Ashton Kutcher, and Britney Spears, some of whom even traveled to Yehuda Berg’s Kabbalah Center in central Tel Aviv to show commitment. The trend among famous people has since waned, but the ancient system of Jewish theosophy and mysticism dates back centuries.
It is now serving as a theme for a Kabbah-inspired hotel in the northern Israeli city of Safed, the spiritual home of Kabbalah, where a married couple is transforming hospitality and spirituality.
Native New Yorker Genine Barel and her husband Israeli-born Rony Barel wanted to capture the intrinsic qualities of the ancient spiritual wisdom and “received tradition” (Kabbalah in Hebrew means receiving) in its spiritual capital, Safed, with their boutique hotel The Way Inn, dubbed by Barel as the “world’s first Kabbalah hotel.”
Safed’s links to Kabbalah can be traced back to the 2nd-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, commonly known as the Rashbi, a harsh critic of Roman rule who escaped certain death by hiding in a cave in the northern town of Peki’in, teaching there for thirteen years, according to Jewish history. He is said to be the author of the Zohar, the foundational literary work of Kabbalah. Over the next millennium, the study of Kabbalah was limited to select scholars who flocked to Safed in part because of its proximity to the gravesite of the Rashbi on Mount Meron. One of those scholars, Rabbi Isaac Luria developed and popularized Kabbalah to the extent that most people today who study Kabbalah, in fact, study Lurianic Kabbalah.
Barel describes her own idea of Kabbalah as a contemporary take on Jewish renewal and spirituality, but her hotel, running for two years now, does pay homage to the traditional characteristics of the movement in a number of ways. She has no affiliation with the Kabbalah Center in Tel Aviv.
The hotel’s seven suites (four for families and three for couples) are named after and inspired by seven of Kabbalah’s sefirot (spiritual principles) found on the Tree of Life, a central mystical symbol used in Kabbalah. Those sefirot, Gevurah (Discipline), Hesed (Kindness), Tiferet (Adornment), Netzach (Eternity), Hod (Majesty), Yesod (Foundation), and Malchut (Kingdom), are showcased in each room’s color, based on the energy of each sefira. Barel says the effort is “to manifest the spirit of Tsfat (Safed) in concrete form.”
Nestled into the Artists’ Quarter in the heart of the Old City of Safed, guests will find the ancient stone buildings that house The Way Inn suites off the street and along a cobblestone alley where walking down a flight of stairs leads into a central courtyard with a picturesque view of the Galilee mountains. The stones themselves have their own history; Barel says the building is at least 250 years old and was once the home of Israeli writer and artist Benjamin Tammuz. It was also used to represent the city of Safed on a poster for El Al Israel Airlines
Barel says she wanted to capture the “holy vibrations” of the city of Safed within the walls of the hotel and tells guests that part of the “experience” of The Way Inn is exploring the city. “It’s so easy to get lost in this city, and it’s so nice, too. I always tell our guests to get lost in the city,” Barel says, “You have to get lost to find yourself.”
Each room at the inn has paintings of leading Kabbalah figures on the wall created by local Safed artists and is arranged with vintage furniture for a minimalist and modest look that allows the guest to focus on the energy of Safed and bring that energy into himself, Barel says. For that reason, Barel says, you won’t find television sets at the hotel. “The spirit here is so strong,” she says, “It doesn’t matter if you’re immersed in a workshop or sitting in our courtyard with a glass of wine, you will feel it.”
The Way Inn offers a number of Kabbalah-related activities, including tours, meditation workshops, lectures with renowned rabbis and teachers, and trips to Mount Meron to visit the Rashbi’s gravesite.
The hotel can also organize programs for people on Kabbalah study or spiritual development. The workshops are held in the hotel’s Womb Room, a relaxed space tucked into two Safed-style dome structures complete with stone floors, cushions, and fabrics. Barel says they host Shabbat dinners and even had her son’s bar mitzvah in the hall last year.
The Way Inn also includes an authentic Turkish hammam and spa with massage therapists and chi gong sessions. Prices at The Way Inn range from $265 for a Shabbat weekend (two nights) to $610, depending on the suite.
“Kabbalah is at the heart of the spirit of this hotel,” Barel tells NoCamels, “We’re all yearning for that connection. This is about being receptive to that energy.”
Adding to the experience is the gourmet spread prepared in the chef restaurant by Barel’s husband Rony, who has classic French training. Dishes are a mix of pescetarian and vegetarian, with a variety of Mediterranean, Asian, South American, and Galilean flavors. The Barels are slowly adding gluten-free and organic items into the menu.
“We want people to open up their consciousness” even through food, Barel says.
She hosts a number of groups every year from the US, including from Jewish federations of North America, and the Anti-Defamation League. Israeli guests, including employees and leaders of high-tech companies, host a number of corporate events at the inn as well.
The Barel Story
Barel has many stories to share of Safed, her hotel, and of Israel itself, but perhaps the most interesting is how the Barnard College graduate daughter of Holocaust survivors came to reimagine a 250-year old home in the highest city in the Galilee into a hotel, after backpacking through India. Barel says she was raised in a religious Zionist family in New York and worked in the Israel Consulate for four years. Her then-boss went on to become the director of the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv and she followed him to Israel to become the director of international relations.
After three years at the theater, she decided to find herself in India as a 32-year old. There she studied yoga and Hinduism, decided she wanted to find a cross-denominational connection and spirituality in her modern-orthodox upbringing, and met her now-husband Rony, a secular Israeli.
The two went off to Hong Kong and ended up staying with a Chabad rabbi and his family during the high holidays, an experience which had an effect on them both. Roni eventually enrolled in yeshiva in Safed, and the rest, you could say, is history.
Barel says she and her husband fell in love with the spirit of the city and went on to renovate the property that became their boutique hotel for a year.
Today, the hotel has highly favorable reviews on Booking.com, Tripadvisor, and Facebook – one guest called it “the Jewel of Safed” — and 21 years after Genine Barel’s aliyah, the Barels, who are now a family of five, have decided to buy neighboring properties.
For her next project, Barel tells NoCamels she wants to create a spiritual healing environment for older people to spend their later years, sharing their wisdom and engaging in activities in a community “close to the Earth.” The retreat will double as a hospice, but one that brings comfort to those who are living their last years there.
She says she will call it The Way Out.