(photo credit: KKL)
Some eighty Friends of KKL France came to Israel for the traditional Walkathon – a week of hiking tours designed to express solidarity with the Israeli State and help raise money for the establishment of water reservoirs in the Negev. The first French Walkathon took place in 1998, which makes this the fourteenth year in succession that KKL France has held this event, which is aptly named Walk for Water. Friends of KKL-JNF in England and Australia also hold annual walkathons.
The French guests visited a number of unique sites in the Negev, including Maaleh Eli, the Small Crater, Nahal Peres, Nahal Tamar and Maaleh Akrabim. They also paid a nighttime visit to Mitzpeh Revivim.
For Frédéric Nordmann, President of KKL France, this was his last Walkathon in office, as he is due to step down this year after six years of highly productive activity. Nordmann has taken part in the Water Walk every year since 1999. “Touring Israel strengthens our love for the country,” he says. “These are not just tourists on a trip to Israel – they are true friends of the State, Zionists who know precisely why they are here.”
The delegation included participants from all over France, including the Toulouse, Lyon, Grenoble and Paris communities. The group was unusually well equipped to cope with any medical problems that might arise, as, remarkably, more than half its members were doctors specializing in a variety of fields.
The Walkathon arouses great interest in France’s Jewish community, and it is widely reported in the media. Some ten Jewish radio stations operate in various towns throughout France, and each provided a live broadcast from the event on a different day.
Interestingly, not all members of the delegation were Jewish. Among those who signed up were a number of Christian supporters of Israel, who also wanted to express their love for the State, connect with the country and contribute to “green” projects. For Elisabeth Gelrubin this year’s Walk for Water was the fifth in which she has taken part. “I enjoy the atmosphere and can connect to KKL-JNF’s message on the promotion of environmental projects,” she explains. “It’s a wonderful feeling to be part of an amazing group like this one. Supporting Israel is important to me, as it’s the only democratic state in the region, and, of course, it’s the land of the Bible.”
The participants very quickly formed firm friendships. Laurent Cohen, for whom this is the second Walk for Water, explains: “After a week of meeting challenges together and enjoying shared experiences, we’ve all become a united family. When I took part in the 2005 Walk, I promised myself that I’d come back. This is a really exceptional thing to do, much more memorable that an ordinary holiday.”
The delegation members walked around fifty kilometers in the course of the week, experiencing hikes over rough terrain, rappelling, climbing ropes and ladders, and jeep excursions. Most of the participants were over sixty, but they did not let that hold them back for a moment. Francis Bakouche: “Hiking in Israel is a wonderful feeling. I enjoyed the difficulties presented by the various routes and the excitement of climbing. Apart from the marvelous landscapes we saw, I was glad of the opportunity to express my support for the Israeli State.”
Not all those who took part were seasoned Walkathon participants. Marie Claude from Paris was participating for the first time. Friends of hers who took part last year persuaded her to come along this year, and she doesn’t regret it for a moment. “I love walking,” she says. “The desert landscapes are very different from what I’m used to in France, and, of course, the mere fact of visiting Israel is very meaningful for me.”
Shlomo Ben Haim, KKL-JNF’s Delegations Manager, emphasized: “There is no substitute for the direct contact with the countryside that you get on a walking tour. This is the best way to strengthen Diaspora Jews’ connection with Israel and enable them to get to know it in depth. A trip like this means much more than any lecture or publicity campaign.”
David Edry, KKL France’s Director of Legacies, explained that, apart from helping people connect with Israel, the Walkathon encourages both present and future donations from the participants themselves, from their families and from their communities. These contributions enable KKL-JNF to establish reservoirs in the Negev and throughout the rest of the country. KKL-JNF’s reservoirs collect floodwater and reclaimed water from effluent purification plants that is recycled and used to irrigate thousands of dunam of field crops in the Negev. This saves precious drinking water and brings arid desert areas to life, enabling them to support a thriving population.
KKL-JNF envoy to France Reuven Naamat, who helped to organize the delegation, told us that all the participants become ambassadors for KKL-JNF and the State of Israel on their return home, as a result of their direct experience of Israel.
Ruthy Rouemi, who has taken part in the Walkathon eight times, is a shining example of this. She told us: “It’s like catching an infection – I just can’t stop coming back here. Thanks to KKL-JNF I’ve come to love Israel more and more, and I’ve decided to immigrate soon and come to live here.”
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