Wisdom in the Wilderness

When their son Lotan was killed in the Second Lebanon War, Iris and Gil Slevin determined to keep his memory alive through a project that would ‘give new life’ to at-risk youth.

Lotan's Way 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Lotan's Way 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
During the Second Lebanon War, Lt. Lotan Slevin, 21, was killed by a missile that penetrated his tank while he was on a mission to rescue wounded soldiers.
Slevin died barely a month after completing an officers course with honors.
His grief-stricken parents quickly decided that they had to do something to keep their son’s spirit alive.
“After we lost Lotan, we couldn’t just sit and do nothing,” says Iris Slevin, Lotan’s mother. “When something like that happens, you don’t know how you will be able to go on. We decided that we did not want Lotan to simply vanish. We felt that something should happen to keep his spirit alive, along with his desire to give.
“So it was not enough for us to make some kind of memorial stone. We wanted it to be something alive – something almost like an organ donation – that would give new life to other people.”
Lotan was born and raised on Moshav Hatzeva, deep within the Arava. Lotan’s father, Gil Slevin, recalls: “Before he went into the army, Lotan had debated whether to enter the IDF immediately, or first do a year of volunteer service, helping disadvantaged youth. He went into the army, but he later regretted not doing the year of service first. So we decided to create something that would combine Lotan’s desire to help disadvantaged youth with his love for the desert.”
With virtually no professional experience in working with youth, or any organizational background to speak of, the Slevins knew that whatever they were going to create, they would have to do it from scratch.
Gil, 53, is a farmer growing dates on two fields at Hatzeva; Iris, also 53, is a full-time housewife and part-time artist whose whimsical masks, dolls and papiermâché figures fill their comfortable cottage.
“We began learning about different kinds of wilderness training programs, mostly in the US,” says Gil.
“Our ultimate model became the Red Cliff Ascent Wilderness Therapy Program for Troubled Teens.”
The Slevins thus created Lotan’s Way National Center of Wilderness Challenges for Youth at Risk.
NOW IN its third year, Lotan’s Way targets youths aged 12 to 18 suffering various degrees of neglect, distress or outright danger due to problems in their immediate environment. These include personal, family, social and economic difficulties, as well as problems in school and gaps in the regular framework of social services.
Children suffering from these pressures tend to escape them by fleeing to the streets, where they are exposed to greater risks of drugs, alcohol and crime, along with physical violence and sexual abuse.
According to Iris, social service departments recognized and registered 380,000 children at risk throughout Israel in 2006, up from 275,000 in 2000 – a 40 percent increase in just six years.
Lotan’s Way offers at-risk youth a range of therapeutic group activities in the quiet, starkly beautiful surroundings of the Arava desert. Away from the streets and the stressful situations that drove them there, the youngsters face a rugged interaction with nature that fosters not only group cooperation but individual self-discipline and introspection.
A largely volunteer staff of wilderness experts, psychologists and a social workers lead groups of youths on journeys of anywhere from four to six days, facilitating activities that are intended to nurture trust in one’s fellow human beings, trust in one’s surroundings and, most importantly, trust in oneself.
A major goal focus for each child is a rise in individual empowerment and self-esteem.
Busloads of youths from a variety of institutions – hospices, boarding schools, even jail – are brought first to a base camp, where they experience a series of orientation programs before heading off into the desert in smaller groups.
“They’re in the wilderness for between four and six days. We prefer that it be six. During that time, they don’t see anybody, not even a car.
“We bring them at nighttime. We bring out water for the next day and wood for making a fire and cooking. But we bring it before they arrive at the camp. We don’t want them to see the car. Because if they see the car, many of them will want to run away,” says Gil.
Iris adds, “Many are reluctant at the beginning.
Many are afraid. But then, at the end, they tell us that it was such a powerful and wonderful experience.
Some don’t even want to leave when they are supposed to. They want to stay longer because of the positive experience they have had.”
While Gil and Iris may not have been professionals in this field, they went about the business of starting Lotan’s Way in a remarkably professional manner.
AFTER RESEARCHING the field and deciding more or less what kind of organization they wanted to create, they first put themselves safely under the wing of ELEM, one of the leading nonprofit organizations in Israel dedicated to the treatment and rehabilitation of abused, neglected youth. Using ELEM as their incubator, the Slevins started linking up with other nonprofit organizations for at-risk youth, bringing them to what Gil calls “our table.”
The Slevins began hosting annual conferences on wilderness therapy at Hatzeva. For their first one, they brought over from the US Dene and Jennifer Berman, widely acclaimed experts in the field, to conduct lectures and workshops. Another conference, “Challenge in the Desert,” is slated to be a three-day affair beginning on February 15.
The first groups of young people began arriving just two and a half years ago.
“The first year was the pilot,” says Gil. “We had only 15 groups. The second year, we had 30 groups.
This year, we have already had 14 groups.”
More than 600 children have already come to Lotan’s Way. The organization’s program calendar runs from the end of the High Holy Days through May. “It’s very hot here in the summer,” Gil states simply.
So what kinds of kids come out to the wilderness? Field Coordinator Ayelet Lahav-Bigger, 39, one of only two paid staff members at Lotan’s Way – she describes her job as “taking care of everything” – says, “We have kids coming here from all over the country.
Some come from boarding schools, special hospices and rehab programs, some have even spent time in jail. They all have one thing in common: bad histories.
“So this is not designed to be a vacation. It is not a resort. It’s very difficult.”
Asked whether any of the kids actually want to come here, Lahav-Bigger replies: “Sometimes they choose to come. Sometimes they’re in danger of having to leave their schools or residence facilities because they’re causing trouble.
“They get a choice of coming to the wilderness with us, or being expelled from their schools. And they have to finish the program in a good way, to be allowed to stay in their school.
“So they choose to come. Some choose to come here to get out of jail.
“The program is very challenging,” Lahav-Bigger continues. “They have to carry their heavy backpacks and go into the desert, a place they know nothing about. They don’t know how much time it takes, or what to do. It’s very hard for them. And they need to do a lot of things – cook, walk, climb, sleep in the desert at night.”
MANY OF the young people come from rough childhoods and even rougher periods of adolescence, and the staff at Lotan’s Way often have their work cut out for them even just trying to get some of the kids to participate.
As Lahav-Bigger explains, “There are some children who arrive very hostile, who don’t want to be here and are against the whole idea. Some kids just stop in the middle of a journey and decide that they’re not going to walk another step. We have to leave a guide with them and wait for them to decide to cooperate.
Sometimes we can wait a whole day for this to happen, until the kid understands that it is not going to end like this.
“Sometimes they think they’ll get out of it if they throw away their sleeping bags or mattresses, so they just leave them. They think that will get them put back on the bus home.
“But we do the exact opposite. Now they have to join the rest of the children without a sleeping bag, without a mattress, without all of their things. And that teaches them. They suddenly understand that there are consequences to their actions, especially in the wilderness.
“There’s a lot of instant feedback in the wilderness.
If they don’t have their sleeping bag, they feel it.
They have to make their own food. So if there’s a child who doesn’t want to do anything, who says, ‘I don’t care’ and doesn’t want to make his own food, then that’s it. For him there’s no food. He doesn’t eat.
He goes to bed hungry.”
Despite the challenges of dealing with these hardened and often recalcitrant young people, there have been numerous notable success stories.
Says Lahav-Bigger: “One girl who took part in the program had a lot of fears about going on the journey – especially about the food. She was afraid there wasn’t going to be enough.
“In her family, while she was growing up, she had experienced instances where she almost starved. She was in a bad home where food was always an issue.
So that was one of her fears, and she didn’t believe she would be able to do the journey. It was her first time in the wilderness.
“She turned out to be a complete success. She became the leader of her group – they get broken up into groups of four – and the person who guided them.
“There was a boy who had been in jail. He was actually taken out of jail and brought here. Well, he ran away in the middle of the journey. They caught him, and he came to the point where he had to decide whether he wanted to continue the journey, or go back to jail.
“It took him half a day to understand what was required of him, what was needed, and he got back onto the journey. And it was at that point he completely turned around, he was amazing. For the remaining three days, he was completely changed.”
Though modeled after such American organizations as Outward Bound and Red Cliff Ascent, Lotan’s Way is distinctly Israeli, due largely to the inspiration of Lotan himself. Each group orientation begins with the screening of a commemorative video about Lotan, with lengthy reminiscences from his close friends.
“Lotan is the guiding light of the whole program, and of each journey,” says Gil. “We introduce him to the children, and they take part of him with them on the journey.”
It is perhaps also that inspiration which attracts much of the organization’s volunteer staff, including several youths doing a year of post-high school pre-army volunteer service. Three such volunteers were working in Lotan Way’s tiny office on the day of our visit: Shani Nachshon, 18; Ofir Bar, 19; and Evyatar Levy, 18.
“We’re here to help,” explains Nachshon. “We donate our time between high school and the army, and we have chosen to do it here. We help with everything that needs to be done. We had a threemonth course to be desert guides, and now we’re allowed to be guides for the kids in the desert.
“Right now, we’re getting ready for the next trip, in about a week and a half.”
The Slevins expect to have had a total of 40 groups of youths at Lotan’s Way when their program year ends in May, and an equal number next year. This is, of course, contingent upon adequate funds.
While most of the staff is volunteer, the cost of running the program this year, according to the Slevins, is NIS 800,000. All this money comes from donations, the largest from Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein’s Keren Yedidut. At present, Lotan’s Way has no full-time or even part-time fund-raising staff.
Says Iris, “We need to focus on fund-raising more seriously. Now that we are up and running and know that what we do works, we need to continue and expand our services. Our budget allows us to handle 40 groups this year. That is our capacity at present.
More money would not only allow us to continue, it would also enable us to deal with many more kids.”
In the long term, the Slevins, who currently run Lotan’s Way from their home, hope to build a proper center somewhere in the area. It would serve as a place providing better orientation programs to children prior to their wilderness trek, as well as afterjourney processing activities before they “graduate” and return home.
More than that, the Slevins see such a center as a place to train new guides and others who wish to replicate the wilderness therapy program elsewhere.
They also envision it as a place where researchers can come and study, both for academic purposes and to establish proper professional standards in the field of wilderness therapy.
Ultimately, they would like to see Lotan’s Way become an umbrella organization for groups doing wilderness therapy throughout all of Israel.
For more information about Lotan’s Way, how to contribute to the organization or sponsor a group journey, visit www.lotan-way.com or call 052-366-5998.