On the right track

Threatened by Katyusha rockets in the North, Derech HaTeva moved its summer trip to the Jerusalem area.

The Israeli and American teenagers who signed on to Derech HaTeva's summer program were prepared for a challenge. They were prepared to walk 215 kilometers with heavy packs on their backs, trade their comfortable beds for sleeping bags and cook their own food. What they were not prepared for was war. Yet last Thursday, as the teens hiked in the area between Safed and Meron in the North, Hizbullah rockets began their assault on the region. "You saw plumes of smoke," says David Birk, a counselor for the boys' group. "And the sound - it was just unbelievable." The program's staff had a serious situation on their hands, but luckily, they were not operating in a vacuum. Derech HaTeva, which is a program of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), is under the auspices of the Education Ministry - and therefore, its "situation room," which acts as logistical and security headquarters. As such, every aspect of the trip - from trail selection to camping sites - must go through an approval process. The group's staff is required to be in constant contact with the situation room, which "has absolute authority to shut our trips down," says Mike Feuer, Derech HaTeva's Program Coordinator. Following Hizbullah's kidnapping of Israeli soldiers, the situation room alerted Derech HaTeva to be cautious, but to wait and see. "In this country," Feuer says, "there is a tendency not to want to panic." Both Feuer and Yael Ukeles, the program's founder and director, made the "strategic decision not to hide anything" from the teenagers, several of whom had family just a few kilometers from the Lebanese border. "One of the purposes of the program is to teach empowerment and good leadership skills," says Feuer. "We felt it made sense to treat them like adults, and tell them exactly what was going on." By last Thursday, it was clear that the group had to evacuate the Safed-Meron region. The situation room instructed them to go to the eastern side of the Galilee. The group settled down for Shabbat - only to see Katyushas rain down on Tiberias. "It was annoying that we had to miss some really good hikes," says Micha Stiebo. "It was actually kind of cool," adds Moshe Meltzer. Meltzer and his peers overwhelmingly said that they relied on their counselors to guide them and make appropriate decisions. "I was never afraid," declares Rebecca Katz. "I trusted the counselors completely." However, several of the teens admitted to feeling anxious - especially when the situation directly affected their own families. Renana Vaichman, whose family lives in Ma'alot, says that the news of the rocket strikes continues to worry her, and that she thinks of home. Daniella Shriki, an American participant, says "it was scary because usually this is really far off... we found out that the beach we were on was bombed, and it hit really close to home for me." According to Ukeles, "They handled it amazingly well. They were like normal kids - one minute sad, the next laughing. It's a tragedy, but educationally, it forced them to ask what it means to go on." The group's leaders did everything possible to ensure that the trip would continue with the least disruption. By Saturday, they realized that they would somehow have to recreate the trip's methodically planned itinerary in a different part of the country. Feuer's car turned into a mini situation room on wheels as he and the authorities researched new trails and sites. The trip's organizers decided to move the group to the Jerusalem area. "You put contingency plans in place but you never know what will happen," says Feuer. "You have to be flexible and stay calm." While Derech HaTeva's physical terrain may have changed, the trip's educational component stayed constant. Melding outdoor adventure and experiential education, the program "presents the kids with challenges that are meaningful but have a potential for success," Feuer explains. "They are forced to look within themselves to find abilities. This is a challenging trip - physically, mentally and emotionally." As much as the program teaches self-reliance, it also places a great deal of stress on cooperation and interdependence - both as a community and as a nation. The group's organizers spent countless hours - many of them nocturnal - creating a sourcebook for the program. The spiral-bound blue book, whose cover contains the quote "All who wander are not lost," by Tolkien, would put many university philosophy courses to shame. "We're teaching them new ways of learning what it means to be Jewish," says Birk. "The book takes them from the individual, to the community, to the nation and back to the individual again. They're learning about the connection between the land, the Jewish people and the Jewish nation." As a religious program, Derech HaTeva expects its participants - who are divided into three groups, one for boys and two for girls - to follow the laws of kashrut and to observe Shabbat. According to Chesky Meshchaninov, the "best part of the trip is getting to know Israel and bonding with everyone. It's all about teamwork, looking out for the guy next to you." Katz agrees, saying she "loves Israel, and loves all the hiking." Do they mind being separate from the opposite sex? "Not at all," says Stiebo. "Wherever there are girls you hear stupid conversation and drama. Also, they walk ridiculously slow." "Anyway," says Meshchaninov, "it's easier this way. All of us look like crap. I haven't put on deodorant in weeks. We smell."