Monday, June 14, 2010

A Year of Opportunities

Amazing. Life-changing. Inspirational. I can think of a lot of words, almost all of them clich├ęs, to describe my year in Israel, but naturally none can even begin to sum it all up. How can you describe the pure joy of dancing at the Kotel on Yom Yerushalayim? The satisfaction of standing on the banks of the Kinneret after completing the Yam L’Yam hike? The ability to spend time with and get closer to my Israeli relatives? The amount of information I’ve learned about Judaism, Israel, and myself?

I have spent the past 10 months living in Israel as a participant on OTZMA, a post-college community service-based program sponsored by The Jewish Federations of North America, the Jewish Agency for Israel and MASA. OTZMA’s structure afforded me the opportunity to live in three different cities – Ashkelon, Haifa, and Jerusalem – and to learn what daily life is like in Israel in these very distinct places. While there are certainly plenty of cultural things I’ve had to adjust to (the Sunday-Thursday work week, the complete chaos that is a line at the supermarket), I have enjoyed each and every day I’ve had here.

I love the energy and vibrancy of this country, as well as the amazing calm and tranquility that come every Friday, 18 minutes before sundown. I love that a couple of weeks ago, the driver of the Egged bus I was on stopped in the middle of the street to pick up a hand-delivery of freshly baked rugelach. I love how I’m constantly being challenged to think about what being Jewish means to me and to re-consider my level of observance. I love how despite going years since actively pursuing any kind of Torah or Tanach study, the things I’ve experienced and the Biblical connections to the places I’ve visited make it impossible for me not to re-engage in our wealth of religious sources.

One of my favorite parts of OTZMA has been the education component, which has allowed us to learn about the wide range of domestic and foreign issues facing Israel and to meet with both government policymakers and NGO representatives. We’ve traveled all around the country, from Har Ben Tal in the Golan to Sussiya and the southern Hevron Hills to Yerucham and the Negev. We even had our own mock “Camp David 2010” conference to study in-depth the major final status issues surrounding the peace process. Each of these sessions, seminars, and trips has left me wanting to learn more, adding books and other resources to my “to read” list.

While I’ve gotten into my fair share of debates and arguments about some of the major political issues, it’s only by being a part of a community that I’ve began to truly understand the real challenges facing Israelis in their day-to-day lives. In Haifa, for example, I helped teach a television production class to high school students with behavioral issues, and I was able to see how this kind of educational approach can spark these kids to turn their lives around. I also got to work with Ethiopian Israelis in both Ashkelon and Haifa and learned about the difficult balance between preserving Ethiopian culture and absorbing or assimilating into Israeli culture.

It’s been fascinating to talk to all kinds of Israelis about life here. Whether religious or secular, Ashkenazi or Sephardi, third-generation or oleh chadash, Israelis care deeply about the future of their country, and as anyone who’s spent time here knows, they hold nothing back when it comes to their opinions of how best to move forward. And the great thing is there are people truly working to change and improve life here. During my two months as an intern at The Jewish Federations of North America’s Israel office, I’ve had the opportunity to see how American and Israeli philanthropy supports social change all over Israel. Just as it is in the United States, the gap between rich and poor in Israel has become a huge problem, and it’s critical to the country’s future that there are significant resources going to aid young adults find affordable housing, provide better after-school enrichment programs for youth-at-risk, and boost economic development in the Negev.

As the campaign to de-legitimize Israel grows, it’s become increasingly important for Jews everywhere, and specifically young Jewish adults, to consider everything Israel has given to us and to the rest of the Jewish world in just over 62 years of existence. For the first time in literally thousands of years, the Jewish people have a country of our own, one where we can decide our own future and live freely as Jews. For generations upon generations, our ancestors prayed for the return to Jerusalem and to this land, and now that we have it, it’s our individual and collective responsibilities to ensure its success.

A century ago, the original Zionist chalutzim came here and settled and built the land. They drained the swamps, developed an infrastructure and gained international recognition for the re-establishment of a Jewish state. The generation that followed paid a heavy price to defend the nascent state over years and decades of wars and also played a crucial role in developing and transforming the country’s economy. The challenge set forth to me and my generation is to figure out how we will continue their Zionist ideals and what we will do to ensure that Jewish life continues to flourish, not only in Israel, but in the Diaspora as well.

Like many of my fellow OTZMAnikim, one of the reasons I came here was to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. After graduating from college and working for three years at what had been my dream job, I realized my real passion lies with the Jewish people and with Israel. This year has re-affirmed that feeling as well as my commitment to finding a career that helps me do my part to strengthen the Jewish community.

I want to take this opportunity to thank the people and organizations who have made this experience possible for me: The Jewish Federations of North America, MASA, and Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston for their support of the OTZMA program as a whole and their financial contributions towards my personal participation. The OTZMA staff has worked tirelessly to provide us the best possible experience, coordinating some amazing education seminars and what I’m sure will be a memorable final tiyul. I also want to thank my fellow OTZMAnikim, without whom this year would have been a lot more difficult. We should all be proud of the amazing work we’ve done as individuals and as a group, and of the way we’ve become a family, celebrating holidays together and supporting each other through the hard times along the way. You’ve all challenged me, kept me smiling, and yes, provided me with tons of ice cream, and for our experience together this year, I feel truly blessed.

Originally written for The Federation Connection Blog of The Jewish Federations of North America.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Yam L'Yam/Sea To Sea

Somehow we did it. This past weekend, Jeremy, Sam, Brett, Ari and I completed the cross-country hike known as Yam L’Yam, or Sea To Sea. The hike took us from Israel’s western coastline of Yam HaTichon/the Mediterranean Sea, to its eastern border of Yam HaKinneret/Sea of Galilee, a 65+ kilometer hike (40 miles, not counting the inclines and declines, including Israel’s 2nd-highest mountain, Mount Meron of 1208 meters).

It was without a doubt the most physically challenging and mentally demanding thing I’ve ever done. There were many moments along the way where I was tempted to quit and others where I didn’t think we’d be able to finish the hike. But we did, and I’m very proud of this accomplishment.

We left Jerusalem Thursday evening with all of our gear – clothes, sleeping bags, tents, food, cooking supplies, and 6 liters of water a person. Picking up the bags was not an easy task. Boy would it be fun to strap them to our backs and start hiking with them. Well that’s what we did a few hours later. We got off the train in Nahariya, and hiked through the city and down the beach to our pre-hike camping spot for the night. The actual trail didn’t begin for another few kilometers but we wanted to make sure to get a solid night’s sleep.

After waking up around 5:30am, our first Manbreakfast of granola, Captain Crunch, and some nuts took place shortly thereafter. By 6:45am we filled a symbolic small bottle with water from the Mediterranean and we were off. After a few kilometers, you know, just for fun, we got to the beginning of the trail at Achziv, which is well identified because it takes you through a banana grove. The big adjustment for day one was dealing with the giant weight on our backs. But as you’ll be able to see from the pictures, the views and scenery were gorgeous, so at least we had that going for us.

We stopped for lunch near the base of Montfort, a Crusader fort somehow built atop a pretty steep mountain. Our Manlunch consisted of peanut butter and chocolate spread sandwiches, some salami, and apples. After lunch, we ventured through the first of several foresty trails cutting around and through little river streams and very green foliage. But as would be the theme with every day, the last leg was the hardest. We had a mountain and then some to climb to get to the end of our day’s hike. The initial incline was a quite a workout, but after about half an hour of steady climbing and several “I can feel it’s right around this corner” comments, we were all feeling pretty frustrated. But finally we got to the top of the nature reserve and exited to the road at the trail head.

Now this was where we expected to find our water source and campsite easily. Neither were to be found, but we checked the map and found the town of Abirim was right down the road, so we headed there at least to find some water. Just before reaching the gates, we met a man walking by us who had spent a few years studying in Santa Barbara, California. He invited us into the tiny town of 40 families to grill near the little park area just beyond the gates and to camp right there. The water tap was literally a stone’s throw away from our campsite so we couldn’t have been happier. We threw down our bags and started putting together some dinner, cutting up peppers, onions, potatoes and sweet potatoes, adding some beans, wrapping them together in a foil and tossing them on the grill. The dinner was cooked to perfection and tasted great after a very long day of hiking. And then at the unbelievably late hour of 8:45pm we headed to bed to prepare for Day 2.

We packed up early in the morning and left Abirim, and for the first portion of the day we were doing some highway hiking, going through the towns of Fesutah, Elkosh and Hurfesh. Despite having to walk along the side of the road for several kilometers, it was an interesting landscape passing through an Arab, a Jewish and then a Druze town. Just past Elkosh we picked up a hiking trail and all of the sudden we were back to the beautiful forest hiking we all love about the north.

Our goal for the day was to get to the base of Mount Meron by 2pm, to give us enough daylight to climb the mountain, enjoy the view and the experience, hike back down and set up camp. We set a great pace for the first part of the day, so we got Meron according to schedule, re-filled our waters and joined the Israel Trail, the hiking trail that goes from Tel Dan near the Lebanese border all the way down to Eilat (on our third day, as we were going south, we passed by a few different hikers who had in fact started in Eilat and who had almost made it across the length of the country…talk about an accomplishment). But back to us…When faced with a 300 meter ascent over the course of just one kilometer, there’s only one thing to do: power through it as quickly as you can.  This was a perfect example of a time where I didn’t know how I was going to push through. After ten minutes of really booking it up the mountain, my legs were gassed, but since my friends were still moving, I was still moving. But as is usually the case with these situations, the view from the top was worth it. Even though there was a bit of a haze, we could see a good part of the north, including the city of Tzfat, which was really cool because when we were there for the 2-week Livnot program, we could see Meron from the balcony, and now we had switched spots.

It took a bit longer than we anticipated to descend and to get to our campsite, but we did have enough time to gather our wood and set up our tents for the evening while it was still light out.  There was a bit of a scare when we were sitting around the table finishing up dinner and could see a fox in the not too distant bushes waiting for us to clear out so he could eat our food. So we made sure to bring every last bit of food scrap to the dumpster by the water tap across the way from our camp site and Mr. Fox was never to be seen again.

Day 3 began great – we hiked through Nahal Amud and wound up joining up with a portion of a hike we had done together back in December while we were on Livnot. There was a particular bridge crossing over the river where we had stopped for a chevruta, or learning session, on that hike, and so we took a break at that same bridge in honor of Livnot (and wrote a little note for the current Livnoters who will be doing the hike in the next couple of days).

But as Nachal Amud turned into Nahchal Amud Tachton, things took a dicey turn. Our pace, which had been really quick for the first couple of hours, quickly ground to nearly a halt as we dealt with some really tricky climbing up and down. The hardest part was not really knowing how many kilometers we’d gone since the last landmark on the trail, since most of our hiking was up and down the wadi instead of steady forward progress.

We took a break for our last manlunch and re-charged our batteries. Within 45 minutes, we had reached Highway 85 and knew we were entering the homestretch, the final 10 kilometers of Yam L’Yam. The trail took us underneath the highway and for me, through the toughest stretch of the hike. By this point, I had drank 4 of my 6 liters of water and knew I needed to keep drinking to avoid getting dehydrated on the hottest day of our hike. It sure didn’t help that the majority of this next stretch would be in the open sun with very little shade. Thankfully the rest of my friends had water to spare and made sure I had enough water.

After about 2.5 or 3 kilometers of hiking at a good pace, the terrain became our enemy again. We entered a section that was absolutely beautiful to look at, but that slowed our pace considerably.  Assessing the situation, and accounting for the fact that we not only needed to get to the Kinneret while it was still light, but that we needed to get to Tiberias to catch the bus back to Jerusalem, we decided to change course and get to the upcoming highway and take the highway to the Kinneret, as opposed to staying on the Israel trail until the town of Ginosar on the water.

But once again, we had no way of telling how far away from that turnoff we were. Finally, we turned a corner and could see power lines, signaling the highway and civilization couldn’t be far. And sure enough, a few steps later, we could see the highway. We got up to the highway, took a break, and knew we were less than an hour away from our goal. We began the final journey, and as we cleared the first hill on the highway, the Kinneret came into sight for the first time, and it had never looked more beautiful. Talk about a morale boost, to be able to see our goal right in front of us, the city of Tiberias on the right, the Golan Heights on the other side of the water. I felt the excitement build as we got closer and closer to the water.

We stopped at a gas station to refill our water and then set off for the water, only because of our re-routing, we didn’t wind up at an area with a public beach. But from the map, there appeared to be several paths going from the main road down to the water. And to take the title of another Yam L’Yam blogger, we went from Bananas to Bananas, cutting through another banana grove to get to what we thought would be an open beach. It wasn’t, but after some weaseling, we found an open path and stood on the banks of the Kinneret.

After three long, tiring days, lots of trail mix and water, and perseverance, we made it. Ari emptied our little bottle of water from the Mediterranean into the Kinneret and it was an unbelievably satisfying moment for all of us, knowing we completed this very daunting and challenging journey across Israel.