A walk about love hits the trail

Hundreds of people from across the globe are trekking along the Israel National Trail, intent on making this country cleaner and friendlier.

trash pick up  88 248 (photo credit: Shira Friedman)
trash pick up 88 248
(photo credit: Shira Friedman)
For almost three years, hundreds of volunteers have been working to make their dream of a Walk About Love a reality. Walk About Love is an invitation to everyone, everywhere, to come and walk the Israel National Trail on a three-month, activity-packed journey. The venture's purposes promote the values of love, peace, environmental responsibility and joy. Another purpose is to invite people from all over the world to walk the land of Israel, meet its people and learn how life is different from the media myths. Finally, Walk About Love intends to show how ordinary people from diverse backgrounds can and are joining together to teach others how they can create effective change in their own communities and in the world. Founder Rea Pasternak got the idea while traveling in Australia in 2006. When he heard that the Second Lebanon War had started, he wanted to do something to help stop it. However, he realized that the problem was not a particular conflict, but rather the cycle of war. He understood that effective, long-term peace can be reached only by a grassroots social and cultural shift. He then worked out a plan he called Walk About Love, based on the Aboriginal tradition of the "walkabout," in which the journey itself, and not the destination, is the objective. Pasternak sent out his first manifesto, and by the time he returned to Israel, his answering machine and e-mail inbox were loaded with messages from all over the world. People were already working toward Walk About Love 2009. Pasternak left his apartment, moved back to his family's home in Aseret, near Gedera, and began the long, hard process of organizing Walk About Love. At first, he organized music festivals to raise funds, as well as running a weekly stall at Tel Aviv's Dizengoff Square market. But last year, the festivals started losing money and Pasternak spiraled into debt. It looked as though Walk About Love might be canceled, but when people who believed in his vision heard in late 2008 that the project was in jeopardy, hundreds came out of the woodwork. The golden rule was, "If you see a job that needs doing in order to realize your vision of what this event should be, it's your job!" Some quit their jobs to work full-time on the project. Others offered their homes as temporary offices or meeting centers. Some worked daily from 5 a.m. until midnight, while others used their business and personal contacts to promote the Walk and raise donations. When Operation Cast Lead began in January, many volunteers were severely shaken and organized a "hafla for peace" in Beit Jalla to send their prayers and love to everyone caught up in the conflict. Many scheduled participants canceled out of fear of the war spreading or in protest against Israel's actions, but others felt that the fighting only highlighted the urgent need for Walk About Love to succeed. Finally, on February 27, the day arrived on which the walkers began to gather on the Lighthouse Beach just south of Eilat. Pasternak recalls that until the walk actually started, no one knew how big it would be, or how effective. "Would it be worth all the energy we put in over three years? But it looks like a big success! That's what I feel," he said. Over 100 people set off on the first day, March 1, but not everyone is in for the full three-month walk. Many walkers joined for a day or two, where they could, and a few fell in a few days late. Nevertheless, Pasternak gleams,"It was very exciting to see a long line of 120 people walking with the flag." Walking the trail has been a challenge for some and pure joy for others. Many participants, even native Israelis, commented on the splendor of the desert. Seventeen-year-old Anat Treubig, from Basel, described a particularly arduous climb up one steep hill at the end of a long day, but said that when she reached the top she felt invigorated by the beautiful reds and greens of the desert at twilight. David Sussman, who made aliya from the US eight years ago, said he appreciated the hours of spiritual and theological contemplation the walk is affording him. Sussman is one of several religious Jews participating, and the group does not walk on Shabbat. However, it is at each participant's discretion to decide whether and how to observe Shabbat. Every morning, the group awake to music at 6 a.m., eat breakfast at 7 and are on the road by 8. Each walks at his or her own pace, sometimes until five and sometimes until nine in the evening. They also sing, play guitar, meditate, talk with each other and collect trash. Some carry their packs, but most of the luggage is driven from campsite to campsite by volunteers. Sometimes there is a gap of up to three hours between the arrivals of the first and last walkers at the evening's campsite, which is set up with all amenities by volunteers before they arrive. In the evening they eat a wholesome, vegetarian meal cooked for them and funded largely by a "magic hat" - into which the group members put whatever they can afford. The first week presented its trials. Not all participants were accustomed to walking so many hours in the desert, and they responded to the challenge by becoming introspective. The desert did not afford them much contact with the people they had traveled so far to connect with, and the inevitable initial hiccups burst many bubbles. Differences of opinion started wearing down the walkers, who were already being tested by the journey. Many have declared their dislike of certain aspects of the walk - like Jak Jakub, from the Czech Republic, who is used to meditating when he wakes up and expressed his dislike of hearing loud music in the morning. Another concern was that the walk's opening festival, scheduled a week after they set out from Eilat, was asking for entrance fees. While discounted, the cost was still too expensive for many. But Walk About Love once again passed the "magic hat," and more than enough money was found to pay for the 10 walkers who could not afford festival tickets. BY THE afternoon of Friday, March 6, everyone had arrived at the Opening Festival site in Shittim. The group was triumphant, but fatigued. Some seemed more interested in continuing the walk than celebrating. The festival, however, was intended not only to celebrate the walkers' first week and raise money, but also to spread the Walk About Love message. The festival opened with a welcome to Marc Oyserman, the last walker to arrive at the site, and a candlelight sing-along/Oneg Shabbat. Shabbat had a laid-back atmosphere, with little music but workshops in everything from contact dance and yoga to mud-hut building and lots of fun activities for the kids. It was a recuperation day for many of the walkers as well and lent the whole festival a very relaxed, family atmosphere despite the dominantly young patronage. The next big event along the trail will be held in Mitzpe Ramon on March 20-21, and will include a march through the town, workshops, performances and music for anyone who wants to come take part in the events. Aside from the objection to paying for tickets, not all the walkers responded enthusiastically to the Opening Festival, which was timed to coincide with Purim. They had just come from a serene week in the desert and the festival atmosphere and music came as a shock to some. Some participants didn't want to attend, and one even described the music as "raping the desert," despite the music being low-key for most of the weekend. Many also expressed concern that they were being used as a gimmick to sell festival tickets, instead of the festival promoting and funding the Walk About Love. So on the second day of the festival, the organizers, walkers and festival participants met for an hour or two. The organizers introduced themselves and addressed the walkers' concerns directly. By late afternoon a more positive atmosphere had settled over the festival. The disagreements and efforts to resolve them helped the walkers bond and demonstrate exactly what this group is trying to express: that problems arise but can largely be resolved through love and mutual respect, regardless of opinion or background. The people of Walk About Love may disagree on many points, but they are all dedicated to planting the seeds of social, educational, ecological change. As such, Walk About Love has taken on projects along the trail together with residents of communities along the walk's route. For example, the ecological Seeds of Change project plants fruit trees, runs lectures on permaculture, and offers hands-on workshops on everything from sustainable gardening to mud-hut building. Participants are also helping build community gardens that will remain long after they have moved on. When the group arrives in Arad, it will meet with representatives of many different communities there, including Jewish and Beduin, to make music together. They are focusing on showing minority groups how to contribute effectively, become pro-active and receive the respect their good work deserves. SO WHO are all these crazy people who have joined together from all over the world to walk step-by-step through the land of Israel, volunteering their feet and hands for the betterment of complete strangers? Are they hippies? The Walk About Love has a very close, but unofficial, association with the Rainbow Family Gatherings, which have been a worldwide phenomenon for over 30 years. Rainbow Family Gatherings started in the US as a week-long, annual gathering to pray for peace on Earth, but in recent years, most of the gatherings last a month and have expanded to include "walkabouts." Many volunteers for Walk About Love consider themselves part of the Rainbow Family and initially spread the word of the walk through those connections. The walkers comprise Israelis and Americans, Swedes, Italians, Mexicans, Germans, Swiss, Australians and Belgians - among others - all walking together. One woman is hiking with her year-old son, Yonatan, for whom many of the walkers have a great affection. They willingly offer to give her a break by caring for him at every opportunity. "Crystal" Rachel may be the oldest walker at 70, but her more than two decades of desert conservation work have been appreciated by the other walkers. There are families who join for a day or two at a time, and professional hikers and trail advisers are taking part. Sussman, an experienced tour guide, only heard about the Walk About Love a week before it started and joined because he was already about to take on the daunting task of walking the Israel National Trail, all by himself. Sussman, who is observant, was pleasantly surprised to find the group respectful of his religious identity and offered to host a Kabbalat Shabbat. He is also putting together a Web site (www.theisraeltrail.com) on which he plans to document his experience during the walk as a way of helping raise money for a friend's orphanage charity. Treubig, from Switzerland, heard about Walk About Love during a trip to Israel in July 2008 to film a documentary as a school project. A qualified practitioner of holistic medicine from the Netherlands hitchhiked all the way from Amsterdam to the Walk About Love meeting point in just over five days. Since his arrival, he has volunteered to organize the medical team and run workshops in massage and intercontinental hitchhiking. Marc Oyserman, also Dutch, came to Walk About Love to build a "Traveling Light Circus" among the walkers that will provide entertainment for people along the way. The first week of the journey was largely about introductions and introspection, about consolidating the walkers into a cooperative group and learning where improvements could be made for the rest of the walk. True to their beliefs, the large group is adamant about making sure each place they visit is cleaner when they leave than when they arrived. Overall, the group's impressions about Israel have been very positive. Treubig describes Israel as "a beautiful country with a lot of [spiritual] power!" but points out that people don't respect each other very much here. On a personal as well as on a national level, she says, "I had to learn to open up and receive in order to give. It's not easy, but if you can open yourself up it's wonderful!" Jakub, the Czech walker, described his surprise at finding Israelis much more friendly and welcoming at home than he had expected based on encounters with sabras traveling abroad, but said that they were "not always open-minded... the majority of Israelis identify with the unit, with the state. I found that many people feel that if I say something against the government, it's against them. I know these feelings only from countries like India, but not from Europe. So I understood that people need to be approached about these things much more cautiously." Overall, Jakub's experience has been very positive, but he says that he would have expected more environmental awareness. "I think that [environmental awareness] is really very weak here, and wherever I have gone there's garbage everywhere... on an individual level, people don't think about it much." Sussman says the walk could only be improved by more people joining in and donating: "This is an opportunity for people from all countries, from all different faiths, to come here and experience Israel... but it's impossible to do this without the proper funding. So if we want to have shlichim [ambassadors] to other countries, donate some money so we can make things happen and everything can happen smoothly! A hundred and twenty people from different countries are going to go back to their homes and different communities and say, 'This is what it was like and the people of Israel wanted me to be there to experience this and they helped us!'" Tori "Baba" Shmueli, who is organizing the festivals and events along the trail, offers this message: "Open your ears, open your eyes, open your hearts. We want to give what we have. We want to share what we are building. We want to share our visions. Everyone is invited, and I feel that everyone has the right to at least know this is happening. I invite people to open up and come and see and feel what it's about. We are talking about creating a new reality with love and this requires people to be open enough to connect and maybe adopt it to their own life and this is how change will come!" To find out more, visit www.walkaboutlove.org.