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Sunday, November 23, 2014

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Finding inspiration on a desert hike

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Because of deadline constraints, I’m finishing this article on Jan. 21, the day before Knesset elections here in Israel. You’ll be reading this after the results are in and coalition discussions are well underway.

The Talmud teaches us that “prophecy is given to fools,” but I tend to agree with countless polls’ predictions that the two major Knesset blocs will remain intact, with a clear majority for right-wing parties of different hues. As Times of Israel editor David Horowitz’s noted, the main difference will be that “the right has become the far-right.”

This is not a result I would choose, and it doesn’t augur well for Israel. Nor does the dearth of inspiring leaders from the centre-left segment of our political spectrum.

But things aren’t all bleak.

During this lacklustre election season, I have also found pleasure. My daughter, Naomi, just turned 18 and will be voting for the first time, and I’ve been observing her decision-making processes. She’s been reading party platforms, participating in Facebook discussions on the issues, and standing up for her own worldview, even if it wasn’t always popular.

And thankfully, not everything in this country revolves around politics. My family is preparing for my son Natan’s bar mitzvah. As part of that process, and prodded by a friend, Elie, whose son Emanuel will also be bar mitzvahed soon, Natan and I recently joined them for two days of hiking in the south on sections of the Israel National Trail, an almost 1,000-kilometre-long path that meanders from the Lebanese border to the Red Sea.

The day we began, Elie and I had planned to meet at a campsite southeast of Mitzpe Ramon, to sleep there and begin hiking early the next morning. That plan evaporated when a meeting I was attending went well beyond schedule, and Natan and I left Jerusalem at 7 p.m. instead of at 2.

Elie, who has undertaken to trek the entire 1,000-km trail before Emanuel’s bar mitzvah, has already hiked many sections. He told me to make my way to Ein Yahav, an agricultural settlement bordering Jordan in the northern Arava, and upon my arrival, he directed me to the home of “trail angels,” wonderful people all along the trail who open their homes to hikers, providing them with free shelter, showers and food.

Arriving at our angel’s’ home, Natan and Emanuel disappeared to play basketball and ping pong with our hosts’ kids, while Elie and I got to know their amazing parents: he a red pepper and cherry-tomato farmer, she a special-education teacher, happily bringing up four kids in this remote part of the country.

And as often happens in Israel, it turns out we have common acquaintances. Once a week, they drive 50 minutes toward Eilat to study with a remarkable young Reform rabbi I also know who lives in the Arava and provides locals with his own brand of religious services.

After a great night’s sleep in our hosts’ living room, at 6 a.m. the next morning, we set off to the starting point of our 40-km, two-day hike. It wasn’t easy. Up steep mountainsides and down even steeper cliffs, we trekked for almost 10 hours each day in near-desert conditions – perfect for this time of year. The views were spectacular and the experience exhilarating.

Besides one large group of scouts going the opposite direction, during those two days, we hiked alone, only occasionally passing and being passed by an Orthodox family of seven hailing from a small community in the Golan Heights. Our two parties camped together overnight at a remote campsite with no creature comforts and absolutely no access to the world beyond – including no cellphones or Internet service.

Clambering out of my tent at dawn, the sight was otherworldly. With a ray of sunshine poking over the mountaintop, I watched as one of our travelling companions said her morning prayers facing a mountain several hundred times her own height. It was enough to make just about anyone a believer.

At the end of those two days, my feet ached and I felt I could go no further, but I soon realized how reinvigorated I really felt.

Similarly, when I worry about my kids’ future here in Israel, I realize what a wonderful place this is and how much more wonderful it could be. Despite the obstacles, people will find the resolve to continue striving to make it even better.

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