(photo credit: JNF)
Jerusalem is surrounded by hills and thanks to KKL-JNF's environmental activities, a blanket of green forest covers these hills as far as the eye can see. In addition to its ecological importance, this green belt provides endless opportunities for nature activities for greater Jerusalem residents. KKL-JNF has developed various sites for outdoor recreation, including hiking, jogging and cycling such as the Mount Eitan health trail, developed with Friends of KKL-JNF Switzerland.
One afternoon, we joined Rafi, a most amicable KKL-JNF guide, with a group of about fifteen intrepid hikers, for an eight-kilometer hike around the mountain, starting in the parking lot adjacent to the Sataf Springs, about ten minutes away from Jerusalem.
The beautifully developed site and magnificent view, never fail to invigorate and inspire visitors, regardless of how many times they might have previously been to this spot. As everyone was anxious to begin the hike, we set out - following a debate about the value of waiting for schleppers (latecomers) - taking deep breaths of the crisp mountain air. In fact, an explicatory sign at the beginning of the trail provides instructions for hikers as to the best manner of hiking - starting slowly, gradually increasing the pace, and slowing down again towards the end of the trail. KKL-JNF consulted with the Israeli Heart Association when designing the trail, as walking is known to reduce heart-related diseases.
We were surprised to discover that not everyone was from Jerusalem. Marina Marcus, who immigrated from Kishinev seventeen years ago, came especially from Beersheba for the hike: "This is the first time I am actually participating in a KKL-JNF activity. In Beersheba, I am part of a group that goes for eighteen-kilometer hikes every week. I am a computer technician by profession, so going out into nature and physical exercise is very important for me."
Elisheva Fine came from Ashkelon, where Kassam rockets have recently fallen. As is unfortunately often the case in Israel today, the conversation turned to life under the constant threat of bombing. "Compared to the hell people are experiencing in Sderot, Ashkelon is relatively calm. We only had a few Kassams in the south of the city. One of them fell not far from my home - I never experienced anything like that before. My whole house shook and the dog almost had a heart attack from fear. I really need this walk in the mountains, just to calm my nerves a bit."
As is often the case at KKL-JNF outings, even though everyone had just met, the group started to feel like a big family. Itzik Ginzburg of Jerusalem couldn't help but respond with a little black humor: "It sounds like this might be a good time to buy a beachfront house in Ashkelon for cheap! Seriously, though, I was in Sderot last week - I drove down to show solidarity with the people living there, and it reminded me of a war zone. The fear in the air is palpable. I have no idea how people can bring up children in such a place."
Rafi, our guide, shared some recent history of the area with us. Mount Eitan had apparently been the site of an army camp, where the famous if controversial Unit 101 underwent training. This unit was created in the early 1950s, in response to terrorist attacks from across the border by local Arabs. "The pre-1967 border is only a few meters away from here," Rafi told us.
When we passed the dedication plaque honoring the Swiss supporters of the Sataf project, one of the participants, Lena Dahan, was very excited: "I am Swiss and I made aliya to Israel in 1985. I visit Switzerland quite often, but Israel is now my home. I live in Kiryat Motzkin near Haifa and love the Judean hills. I feel as if every hill tells me a story, along with every shaft of wild wheat, every olive tree. My passion is riding horses in nature, and I also belong to a group of people who hike all over Israel together. I am going to bring them here for our next hike."
All along the trail, Rafi stopped and pointed out various medicinal herbs to us. When he identified some hypericum, also known as St. John's Wort, he mentioned that it was used against depression. "You should have told us beforehand," laughed Harry Gimpovitch of Jerusalem, "We would have brought huge sacks to collect as much as possible." (Note that hypericum is poisonous during daylight).
During the entire walk, we saw people jogging or cycling on the Mount Eitan trail, which has become a part of everyday life for many Jerusalem residents. We heard that on weekends, so many people come here that the Sataf parking lot is full. At sundown, we returned to the starting point at Sataf, where three young men were sitting on the hillside, watching the sunset, admiring the scenery, drinking ouzo and listening to Greek music from the car stereo. Sataf and Mount Eitan have something for everyone: something that lifts visitors out of the daily routine, so close to Jerusalem, yet so far from its urban bustle, pollution and pressure.