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Back in the days when the Temple still stood, people would flock from all corners of the country during Pessah, Shavuot and Succot for the biblically mandated pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Known as the shalosh regalim (the three foot festivals), it was a time for celebrating the bounty of the land and making offerings to God at the holy altar.
Today the custom of pilgrims walking to Jerusalem is not widely practiced, but it has not been forgotten. Some of the millennia-year-old footpaths may be hard to find, but the process of getting there, may be more important than reaching the destination, says Rachel Ben-Shitrit.
For about a year and a half, Ben-Shitrit has been coordinating the Pathway Circle, a loosely formed group of hikers who, for the past seven years, have retraced the steps taken by Jewish, Muslim and Christian pilgrims as they ventured from the port city of Jaffa to Jerusalem over the centuries.
Ben-Shitrit sat drinking tea in Yaffa, a caf owned by a Jewish woman and a Muslim man on the corner of Yeffet and Yehuda Meragusa streets, not far from the port where long ago pilgrims disembarked from ships on their way to Jerusalem. The caf offers seminars and books that attempt to cross the Muslim-Jewish divide. For example, notices of activities on the message board are written in Hebrew, Arabic and English. One of the owners had heard about the Pathway Circle and had questions for Ben-Shitrit, too.
She has never officially counted participants but surmises that up to 100 people can cross paths at various stations of the walk, which can take several days to more than a week, depending on what day the holiday falls and how long they can stretch it out.
"The group usually swells in the evening when we make a campfire," notes Ben-Shitrit.
Sometimes they arrive at camp at dusk, but it doesn't really matter as other volunteers have raced ahead in cars to set up the kitchen and start cooking for the wanderers, who walk only as fast as the slowest member. The pilgrimage attracts young parents with children and pets and can accommodate seniors as well - if they are willing to sleep outdoors and forgo the comforts of running water, fluffy pillows and flush toilets.
"The walk is not so intensive. Some people bring little children and they are the best walkers, of course," says Ben-Shitrit, a mother of two grown children herself. "We take as long as we can. If there is a week, then we take a week."
The upcoming Shavuot walk may be more brisk as the organizers estimate that they only have a few days, compared to the nine days taken this year during Pessah.
So far, the group has made 21 pilgrimages.
Usually, participants meet up the evening after a holiday at the Old Jaffa Hostel in the Jaffa flea market, where they start planning the logistics of the walk itself and the transporting of supplies. They sleep on the hostel's roof and the next morning set out early, although this year they didn't start until noon.
Membership to the Pathway Circle is free, but people are asked to contribute NIS 50 for buying some staples before the journey. A sleeping bag and some spare change to throw into the "magic hat" for food is the minimum requirement for the journey. People are encouraged to bring musical instruments for nighttime singsongs.
"Don't expect the race and pace of the modern world. We have our own concept of time," Ben-Shitrit says. "Things can run three hours late."
Each day the group walks about 10 kilometers toward Jerusalem, stopping to camp at places such as the organic farm Chava Ve'adam; the mixed Jewish-Muslim village Neveh Shalom; the ancient garden of Sataf; and the beautiful village of Ein Karem in the Jerusalem Hills. The camping spots can change from walk to walk.
During the last trip, some volunteers played music, gave yoga lessons, taught playback theater and showed people how to sing in overtones, a technique developed by the Tuvan-Mongolian people.
As for food, cooking is done with kosher, preservative-free vegan ingredients in enormous pots. The use of reusable utensils is a must for the eco-friendly people who won't leave garbage in their wake.
"There's always enough food," says Ben-Shitrit. "Leftovers are eaten in the morning or composted."
On Shabbat, the group rests on Shabbat and avoids cooking. "We won't cook on Shabbat if we can help it," she says. "We are not so organized, so we compromise sometimes or get a non-Jew to cook. We really want to be open to others' needs and be considerate, compared to the modern world where people often compete with each other."
Ben-Shitrit, an activist who works with various non-profit groups in the country, encourages some of her Palestinian and Israeli Arab friends to join the adventure. They do.
Nur Malchem, a Muslim from Wadi Ara, says that Jerusalem is an important city for him. It is the third holiest city for Muslims after Mecca and Medina. Like for Jews and Christians, it holds deep spiritual roots for Muslims. Malchem joined the Pessah hike in April, marking his first pilgrimage with the Pathway Circle.
"This experience gives a lot to the future," he says. "For Jews and Arabs it gives a place for peace and love and allows us to be together."
Malchem plans to participate in future trips.
Ben-Shitrit was reluctant to name her other Muslim friends who joined the trek this year because a few of them had to sneak through security barriers to participate.
"The people [Palestinians] who applied for official permission to come on the walk weren't granted permission because there is a full closure of the territories during the holidays. This way we manage to keep out those who'd like to come with good intentions by denying them permits, while the terrorists come in anyway, without asking for permission."
On the last hike, a couple of non-Jewish German girls and a traveler from England tagged along. The British traveler was heard saying that he used Krishna as his guide.
Some elements of the Pathway Circle are borrowed from the Rainbow Family, a loosely defined multinational gathering of eco-campers and new-age hippies who live by the voluntary magic hat payment system and have transmitted some of the peace and love sentiment found throughout the world today.
"We change place from one day to another and make progress toward Jerusalem," says Ben-Shitrit.
When the Pathway Circle approaches Jerusalem, they start singing and telling people who they are. On Shavuot this year, they hope to bring some new fruit to the city as pilgrims did way back when.
"We see Jerusalem as a center, and we aim to reach that center," Ben-Shitrit says, taking a sip from her sage, lemon and louisa tea, "eventually."
To join the Pathway Circle, call 0544-948914 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org