For Bradley Cohen, the Israel Trail represented more than just a physical challenge - it also represented an opportunity, a chance to help youngsters both here and in Africa, while strengthening his own Jewish roots. By doing so the immigrant from North London became one of an increasing number of Israelis who are using a walk on the trail to raise money for important causes, memorialize a loved one or for other similar special reasons.
Cohen, who had trekked extensively in Asia and elsewhere, arrived here in 2007 after having worked earlier that year for the Kuunika Foundation in Malawi, a home for some 200 vulnerable children whom it feeds and educates daily.
While in the process of becoming observant, he decided "I wanted to do a fund-raising event that showed that Israel and the Jewish people were prepared to help not only our own people, but people from other countries as well." He saw the project as "an or lagoyim, tikkun olam type idea. Because I feel that many Jewish organizations help only non-Jewish causes, or Jewish organizations help only Jewish causes. I wanted to show that we have a duty to look after our own people, but also to reach out to others," he said in a phone interview.
"I enjoy walking and I wanted to get a feel of the land [of Israel] and really own the land, in a way. Many people do fund-raising events, maybe a bungee jump or shaving their hair, but I wanted to do something that was also a big challenge for myself as well, and to highlight the safety of Israel. Many people are perhaps scared to be tourists here, so I wanted to show that's not true - here's a guy who can walk across Israel safely."
Cohen, 31, now a Jerusalem resident, also wanted to publicize the trail, which he hadn't heard of before and which he feels "is one of the greatest assets of Israel."
Aish.com, the Web site of Aish Hatorah, helped get the ball rolling by paying for whatever he needed for the hike, so that all money raised could go directly to the kids. He sent messages to family and friends as well as asking for sponsors, and got some publicity in South Africa, England, the US and Israel. He kept a blog for people to follow the journey, which began at the end of March 2008, with more than 200 donors contributing "anything from $10 to $200 via the Web site." He raised a total of $18,000 on his walk; his trek pictures and blog are viewable on the site.
Besides the fund-raising angle, "the trip was a way to connect to my history and my roots. I had been hiking in the Himalayas and Japan... but there was one part of the Israel Trail where I was camping just outside Jerusalem, and it was Pessah and I thought: 'My ancestors probably camped on this same hill walking to Jerusalem for the holiday.'"
Not even an encounter with a wolf could shake Cohen from his mission, which he shared with the many trekkers he met along the way. "One night I woke up and realized all my clothes and water bottle were ripped and scattered around, so I stood up and about 20 feet away, a wolf was basically staring at me and eating some of my food. Fortunately he ran away when I stood up. I said the Traveler's Prayer every morning, and there's one sentence in there that seeks protection from evil beasts along the way. I thought of that right away."
Cohen also appreciated the natural bounty provided by the trail. "One day a carob tree gave us sustenance, another day a date palm," he recalls. "The local Beduin - we got a lot of our milk straight from their goats, straight from the udder."
Meanwhile, each step along the trail raised money for two Israeli institutions: Beit Hayeled, a home for formerly abused children in the Gilboa Mountains, which helps them "throughout their lives, paying for their weddings, etc." and for the Forgotten People's Fund, which works with the Ethiopian community in Netanya.
The other money raised went to the Malawi foundation, an important link that remains in Cohen's heart even though he now makes Israel home. "I knew these kids, and I knew their names and their dreams and what they loved doing, so I had a connection to these people... I laughed, lived and ate with them," says Cohen, who used to teach Buddhism and martial arts in Asia.
As he walked, he shared what he was doing with others he encountered, planting further seeds for future charity treks. "There were amazing responses," he said, especially among groups of schoolchildren he and his fellow trekkers encountered.
"I don't think it crossed their minds that they can do what they love doing, but for a good cause," says Cohen. "I love hiking and I know I can raise money by doing it, so by sharing my experience, I think many people went away inspired to go out and help other people, using what they themselves love doing."