Israeli Life: Country Road, Take Me Home
Its route meanders past war memorials and ancient ruins; through rivers, over desert sand dunes and up mountainous terrain. Its 584 miles of marked trails are fast becoming known as some of the most rewarding hiking treks in the world. For Israelis, however, the Shvil Yisrael, the Israel National Trail, is a Rorschach test of Israeli life. Modeled after America’s Appalachian Trail, the Shvil, or INT, winds up and down Israel, from Dan in the north to Eilat in the south, and has become the way Israelis walk their country. And—as can only happen in the Jewish state—the length of pathways and stops have become a way of connecting to the land as well as a forum for exchanging ideas about Israeli identity, ecology and Judaism.
Tens of thousands of people hike the trail every year, as individuals and in groups; some bike it (though not all of the trail is open to bicycles). According to the INT Website, www.israelnationaltrail.com, the entire trek can take about a month for experienced hikers. The inexperienced or those who choose a more leisurely pace may be on the Shvil between two and six months. Some choose shorter hikes, exploring the sections of the trail on different trips. Parents take to the trail with their children, or grandparents with their grandchildren. A number of Israeli youth are even opting to spend a few months on the trail instead of going to India or South America for their post-Army break.
Retired environmental engineer Yitzchak Zohar heard about the Shvil when he was 72. “I thought immediately of the biblical dictate to Abraham, ‘Rise and go walk the land in its length and breadth,’” he says. “I realized that the land is not really yours until you walk it.”
Zohar, now 83, sits on his Jerusalem balcony and pores over maps for a trek he is planning with his grandchildren. “At first, I went by myself on the section closest to Jerusalem. People would give me information about a difficult slope. They would ask, ‘Do you have enough water?’ As I began hiking farther north, my wife insisted I go with friends or my children or grandchildren. Often we had to find a place to stay overnight, get a four-wheel drive vehicle to take us to the trail, especially in the Negev. Sometimes I miscalculate. Once, a volunteer rescue team had to help us down from a Negev ridge at nightfall.” The best thing, notes Roey Patinkin, a student at Tel Hai College, is that there is not one Orthodox, Conservative or Reform way to do the trail. Everyone discovers it in his or her own way. Patinkin’s two-month trek helped him mentally prepare for the future. “Then,” he says, “I was ready to put down my hiking staff and start college.”
Marked by blue, white and orange stripes, the Shvil runs through Israel’s various terrains, from the stark beauty of barren Judean mountains to green spring landscapes and past ancient ruins. Some paths cut through cities, where, warns the trail Web site, markers tend to get moved or covered. However, there are always people willing to assist lost hikers get back on track. There are also “trail angels” who help hikers on their trek, and the site has a list of people who offer “lawns to sleep on,” “a room with a shower” or “a pickup from the trail.” (A list of angels in English is available athttps://shvil.wikia.com/wiki/INT_Angels.) In Kibbutz Yagur on the slopes of Mount Carmel, for example, a soldier leaves the key to her room for hikers who need a place to sleep. One farmer in the Hadera forest offers sleeping quarters in exchange for a day’s work.
The best times to start the Shvil are in the spring or fall, and many hikers have favorite regions of the trail depending on the seasons—though several agree that the Negev canyons are the most dramatic. While most information, including maps, is in Hebrew, in 2009, Jacob Saar published a book on the Shvil, Hike the Land of Israel (Eshkol), in English, and the INT Data Project is working on translating trail information into English. “Usually, a road is to get somewhere,” says Yael Ukeles, director of Derech HaTeva, Jewish Outdoor Educational Programs in Israel (www.derechhateva.org), which organizes the Israel Trail Teen Adventure. “But here the goal is not to hurry, but to stop and look around.” The teen adventure is a monthlong trip for kids from America, Israel and Europe. Derech HaTeva’s Kehillat Natan Youth Leadership Fellowship, created in memory of J.J. Nathan Greenberg, sponsors disadvantaged youth to go along on the teen program; these kids then bring the leadership skills they learn on the treks back to their communities. “The first few days are very hard,” Ukeles admits. “But after a while, they see their bodies adjust to heat, to the weight of the backpack. Individual skills add up. “They are not plugged in as kids usually are today,” she adds. “If they want music, they sing. If they want to connect, they do it in person, not through a computer.” Derech HaTeva’s programs are not unique. “Outward Bound and NOLS [National Outdoor Leadership School] have used outdoors education to teach leadership for a century,” notes Ukeles, an Orthodox olah from America. “But we do it from a Jewish perspective. We [also] teach an outdoor ethic: ‘Leave No Trace,’ try to minimize our impact on the environment.”
Another important annual group hike was established by Raya and Yossi Ofner in memory of their son, Avi, who was killed when two Israel Defense Forces helicopters carrying 73 soldiers crashed in February 1997. Called AV’I Beshvil Yisrael, both for their son’s name and because AV’I is the Hebrew abbreviation for efshar b’yahad, it is possible together, the two-month trek captures the ideals of a new nation going out on the road.
Each hike starts with an opening ceremony: Raya Ofner reads part of an Amir Gilboa poem, “Suddenly a man rises in the morning and feels he’s a nation and begins to go,/ and to everyone he meets on the road he calls ‘shalom.’” Then a blue, orange and white ribbon, symbolizing the route, is cut; and tefilat haderekh, the traveler’s prayer, is recited.
Last February, about 200 people gathered at the southern end of the Shvil for the start of a hike. Each day there is a memorial for those who fell in battle. (People can register to march for a loved one on the Hebrew-language AV’I Web site,www.avi-beshvil-israel.org.il.) On the first day, five boys were commemorated.
The climb along the border fence with Egypt is steep but at the top is a magnificent view of Eilat and Akaba. “It is breathtaking,” exclaims hiker Susan Lamdan, who is also a guide. “Every Sunday, I go with a group that I met on AV’I. The great thing about this hike is that you stop and study texts on the way with small groups of people you did not know before.”
“Some people build monuments,” notes Yossi Ofner. “I cannot build but I love to hike. In 2002, we started hiking with family and friends. My brother-in-law created a Web site, and altogether 800 people joined us. “When you walk in nature, you are more relaxed. You have time to listen to the other. At first, we thought it would be a one-time thing, but…the Avi Chai Foundation, which supports projects bringing religious and nonreligious together, and the Oranim Kibbutz College, which promotes Jewish learning in the secular community, began to support us. The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel supplies the guides. We took it up again in 2006 and have been hiking annually since.” Tomer Rehovi, a graduate of Hadassah College Jerusalem, hiked with AV’I in 2006. His participation was fateful. “I connected with Yoram Karni, who has since become my father-in-law,” Rehovi relates. “Karni claimed he was there to tighten the belt on his pants. But I feel that most people…come to find a spiritual connection and connect to each other. It is an opportunity to go beyond stereotypes, find out what people are really like. We cooked together, slept in old chicken coops and in abandoned hothouses together. You get to know people this way. “Slowly, I realized I was on a journey to find my father, who was killed in an automobile accident…when I was 15. Karni’s smile reminded me of [him]. They both grew up in kibbutzim in the north. I discovered that Karni had served in a commando unit, Sayeret Shaked, with my father and had been his commanding officer during basic training. He introduced me to Shlez, an old friend who had tears in his eyes for not keeping up with my family. ‘I see you’re looking for information about your father,’ Shlez said, and related how modest and fine he was, not one of those people who pushes himself to the front.“During the hike,” continues Rehovi, “I also began to recognize God as a father. I put on tefilin for the first time. I got to know Yoram’s daughter Tal, who had just come back from South America. We married. Today, we have a daughter and are expecting another child.”
“Our daughter, Shira,” Tal adds, “is a child of Shvil Yisrael. We are a Shvil Yisrael couple.” The Shvil is a little over 15 years old. Avraham Tamir, a journalist and writer who hiked the Appalachian Trail in 1980, brought the idea to Israel. There were already thousands of miles of trails in Israel, but Tamir wanted to unite the best of them into a national hiking backbone. Tamir approached Ori Dvir, head of the Israel Trails Committee, associated with SPNI, the Jewish National Fund and other public ecology groups, and the process of connecting the trails, marking them and making maps began. In 1994, the first hikers traveled the entire Shvil, and it was dedicated in 1995 by then-President Ezer Weizmann.
Chaim Avraham, a director at Israeli Educational Television, hikes a different segment of the trail each month with friends. “It is often difficult terrain,” he says. “But when we are finished there is a sense of exhilaration that we have overcome the physical challenge. We talk about our lives, discuss problems, meet socially afterward.
“It might be called trekking therapy,” he adds.