We all know that Moses, after leaving Egypt and crossing the Red Sea, chose to ignore the assurances of the Almighty that it was safe to enter the Promised Land and was condemned to wander in the desert for 40 years before he returned.
I have spent the past 40+ years since my first visit to Israel in practicing as a criminal defense lawyer in Toronto, Canada (hardly a desert). I returned to Israel this past February—not by foot—but via Turkish Air through Istanbul, no less, a flight I booked on the Internet. What would Moses think? There were times when I got lost over the years trying to find the right courtroom, but that was the extent of my “wandering.”
I joined the Nifgashim project this spring for an unforgettable journey. The project started in 2002 as a private commemorative trek to honor Avi, the son of Yossi and Raya Ofner. Avi and 72 of his comrades in arms perished in a disastrous helicopter crash in 1997 while en route to the security zone in Lebanon. The project expanded to honor all victims of war and terrorist attacks, and is now an annual public event that has attracted tens of thousands of people over the years.
The centerpiece of the Nifgashim Beshvil Israel project is a hike that spans the entire length of the country from Eilat on the Red Sea in the south to She’ar Yashuv, 1000 kilometers to the north, and the site of the helicopter crash. If you do the entire hike as I did it takes two months. It attempts to follow the path of the Israel National Trail, which has been listed as one of National Geographic’s 20 most epic trails, a hike that in itself is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
However, the Nifgashim project is much more than just a hike; it is a “traveling kibbutz” and a “walking seminar.” It brings together a disparate cross section of Israelis for an extended dialogue on fundamental questions the country faces while hiking in the most nurturing setting of all –nature.
As Avi’s father, Yossi, so aptly put it: “There’s something about going out into nature. It does good for the soul and opens us up to others.”
This year the hike started on February 29 in Eilat. At the starting line I was caught up in the excitement of what felt like the start of a marathon with more than 100 eager fellow trekkers, none of whom I knew, all chattering excitedly in Hebrew. This was my first moment of truth: I didn’t speak Hebrew.
One of the only phrases I could say was “Ani lo dover Ivrit” [I don’t speak Hebrew], but before I had a chance to inquire how to catch a cab back to the airport – in sign language if necessary – the ribbon was cut and off we went down the dusty trail leading to the first mountain in the desert.
Next thing I knew, I was two weeks into the hike. It was 5:15 a.m., the sun hadn’t risen, and I could barely find a muscle or joint that didn’t hurt. But there was no choice: I had to roll out of my sleeping bag, pack up and get organized for yet another seven-hour 16 to 22 kilometer march through the desert with the sun beating down on our heads. Thankfully, we only carried day packs, as camping gear, water and food were transported to our next site by truck.
One of our more unusual guides was Yair.
I’m convinced he was a direct descendant of Moses (or Charlton Heston), given his imposing bearing, deep voice, and the fact that he hiked barefoot with a simple wooden walking stick. He often pointed out sites that were referred to in the Bible, such as the underground cave that the sage Rabbi Akiva and his followers might have hid in until the Romans smoked them out and killed them. We unquestionably accepted Yair’s comments as if they were being channeled from the Almighty himself.
For sheer endurance and physical strength, no one could match Yevgeny, one of our fellow hikers. After a month crossing the Negev with our group, he turned around and went back to the beginning to start all over again with another group. Wow! The Negev desert covers more than 50 percent of the landmass in Israel. It can be a formidable adversary. I learned that the hard way when I fractured my finger during our descent down the 45-degree slopes of Carbolet (Rooster Comb), the most challenging mountain in the Negev. Fortunately, we didn’t have to worry about such dangers as dehydration hypothermia, or giant tarantulas that might be hiding under rocks and in our boots because we were in good hands.
Our lead guide, Danny Mador, was not only a botanist, he taught classes to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) on survival techniques in the desert.
The great news is that the sweeping panoramic views of the Negev were truly exhilarating! The normally barren desert magically explodes each spring into a miracle of color, blanketed in red poppy anemones, bursts of electric yellow buttercups, and regal purple lupines.
We were joined one day by a group of Druse men and women who hiked with us in the Galilee from the Arab village of Deir el-Asad to their village of Kisra. While en route, one of the men unraveled a Druse flag that was then attached to a makeshift flagpole fashioned from some branches. They entered their village at the head of our group, waving the flag as we marched down the main street shoulder-to-shoulder. We were treated to Druse sweets including kanafeh, a scrumptious Levantine cheese pastry wrapped in noodle threads and soaked in sugary syrup.
There were countless occasions where the week would end with everyone singing and dancing to a live music performance of folk songs that went back to the founding of the state in 1948.
Mornings started with a ceremony honoring one or more soldiers to whom that day’s hike would be dedicated. Their names would be read or personal tributes given – often by a family member. In one such account, a young man stepped forward with his mother at his side. He talked about how for years he couldn’t grasp that his father, who had been killed in the Yom Kippur War, would not be coming home. He was six at the time. He felt the loss particularly when he marked a significant life passage such as his bar mitzva or a school graduation. He now feels that looking after his mother is a major responsibility in his life. He spoke haltingly and with genuine heartfelt emotion. There was not a dry eye in the circle by the time he was finished.
Mid-morning, we’d break off into small groups led by a trained instructor to discuss a topic that often centered on themes such as poverty, cultural absorption, pluralism and tolerance, identity and commitment, social justice, sexism, or Jewish tradition and modern culture. The groups were a wonderful mixture of old and young, religious and secular, often meeting for the first time. The goal here was not to change anyone’s mind as much as to start a dialogue in a safe environment between people who, so to speak, lived in the same house, but rarely spoke to one another.
A young, modern Orthodox man opened my eyes to the fact that one size does not fit all and there are many shades of Orthodoxy in the country, while an Ethiopian Israeli complained that, despite the fact she had been a fully employed citizen for 28 years, she was still being asked how long she had been in the country.
Tired as we were at the end of a day of hiking, we would gather together to hear a talk relevant to the hiking area or by a prominent person or member of a community often pertaining to that day’s workshop topic. For example, we heard from a juvenile court judge, the mayor of an Arab town, and a rabbi/teacher who traveled through the Negev and taught Jews as well as non-Jews.
One of the modern Orthodox women in our group who was a social worker, pointedly asked a member of the ultra-Orthodox Breslov sect how he could explain the growing incidence of child, emotional, and physical abuse cases coming out of haredi sects , a question that remains unanswered.
On one occasion, we stopped for a mid-afternoon break in a large Bedouin tent in the Negev, typically constructed of blankets and sheets of scrap plastic and material.
An affable Bedouin woman treated us to a traditional Bedouin meal consisting of unleavened dough cooked over a campfire on a metal dome. This was accompanied by hummus spiced with Za’atar, sumac, lemon, and homemade olive oil poured on top with olives on the side. Sweet tea washed it all down.
Surprisingly, this seemingly docile woman returned later to give the day’s lecture. She pulled no punches in passionately outlining the understandable anger in her community about the government trying to force them to abandon their nomadic lifestyle and move into government-regulated settlements.
I was also impressed by a teacher from Eilat who made it her job to take a 10-yearold boy from Eritrea under her wing. His family had trekked all the way to Israel on foot where they were granted asylum only to run into some racial taunting and baiting. It turned out that this young boy had a talent for long-distance running. The teacher was determined to work with him and he is now one of the top runners for his age bracket in Israel, often beating more experienced older runners.
For the one day on the weekend we got off, we often stayed at kibbutzim and were able to relax and shower (no small gift, I assure you). Kibbutz Keramim in the northern Negev, which put us up one weekend, was unique in that it is the only mixed secular/ religious kibbutz in Israel and has a long waiting list of people wanting to join.
What really turned this into an “epic” journey for me were the many wonderful people I formed close friendships with, some of whom often translated for me. As we shared the challenges and experiences of the hike, our friendships deepened and we bonded as we worked toward achieving a shared goal of completing the journey as a unit.
I was especially touched by my new friend Avi who invited me to his daughter’s wedding, although I felt it would be in everyone’s best interest if I turned it down given that my attire consisted of beaten-up hiking boots and dirt-covered clothing. I needed a few days in a spa before I could even consider such an offer.
We were often greeted with frequent shouts of “kol hakavod” [Well done, way to go!] that were quickly followed with “Do you think the Nifgashim project works?” I answered with a resounding “Yes!” People time and again who joined our “core group” for a few days or more, often told me that they didn’t realize how much in common they had with “the other side.”
The Nifgashim project brings the middle, reasonable segments of the populace closer, generating hope as they explore ways to unite, not divide, the country.
It is no wonder that in 2015 Yossi and Raya were one of several recipients of the first annual “Jerusalem Unity Prize.” As President Rivlin put it at the award ceremony: “I see here the best and most beautiful of our people. I am convinced that with the recipients we can take away the unity from these times of crisis and follow it each and every day of our lives.”