I had three major concerns when I made aliyah over 10 years ago. Two of them, felt by most olim, were living far away from family and finding work that is meaningful and sustainable. My third concern was probably much less common among those moving their lives to Israel, though for me very real. I was worried that, after years of hiking and backpacking in America’s great forests and national parks, after countless road trips around the country to witness its abundant and diverse natural wonders, I wouldn’t connect to the nature in Israel in quite the same way. That it wouldn’t wow me, inspire me and provide me with the temporary refuge from the world that I so often needed.
What a joke that turned out to be.
Within the first year of our aliyah, my wife and I spent much of our free time hiking in the hills near our house on a moshav outside of Jerusalem. I was immediately blown away by the beauty and power of the land. Though the trees were not as tall and the forests not as endless (there always seems to be a road or a house or power lines nearby), the nature of Israel felt different than in America. More ancient. Strangely more mine. There was a kind of vibration to the land here that I never experienced. Staring out at the land felt similar to looking at a page of Torah, telling, in its unique language, the story of our people and the purpose for which we’re here.
After settling down, finding work and starting to raise kids, it could have been very easy to not find the time, or even forget to find the time, to keep that connection with the land going strong. Fortunate for me, my work here, as an educator teaching students from abroad about Jewish history and guiding them around Israel, keeps me traveling the length of our stunning little country, with frequent visits to its many gorgeous hiking trails.
When I arrive with a new group to our first hike, I have great pride in introducing them directly to the land of Israel itself, beyond the history, culture and politics that our studies focus on. It’s on our hikes that we give them the opportunity to connect to the idea of Am Yisrael in its native land and to experience a deep sense of place here.
But before we even take our first few steps on our first trail together, that initial burst of excitement is always a bit subdued as I apologize to my students. Not for the fact that they have to hike behind us and stick to the trail or can’t pick the wildflowers. I apologize for the trash that they may see, I mean will most likely see, I mean will definitely see along the trail.
I try to explain to them, and even justify it a little, that unlike in America where most hikers are already tuned into environmental ideas and values and would almost never drop garbage on the trail, in Israel a larger section of the population goes hiking, including many school kids on field trips. This in and of itself is a great thing as it brings a larger percentage of Israelis in direct contact with their land. But the downside of this is, of course, a lower consciousness on the trail about keeping nature beautiful and free of our trash.
My last words before we begin the hike is an invitation to my students to pick up trash along the way. When they respond that they don’t have any garbage bags, I tell them not to worry because soon enough we’ll see empty plastic bags that some thoughtful Israelis were nice enough to throw on the ground for us to pick up and use to put more trash into. And we always do.
After this introduction to our first hike, my students are not as surprised by the trash that they see on the many other hikes we do together around Israel and those who are motivated always end the hike with a bag full of trash that they picked up along the way.
But recently I just completed the Yam el Yam hike with a group, which starts at the shore of the Mediterranean and ends at the Kinneret, and I was mamash appalled. I was embarrassed and I was angry. Though I have seen so much trash on the trails of Israel over the past 11 years of hiking with my family and with students, this time became too many times. Every day of our four day cross-country journey, interspersed between our moments of awe at the incredible beauty all around us, we passed by numerous Bamba and Bisli bags stuck between the branches of bushes, candy wrappers lying next to colorful wildflowers and, of course, the thousands of magvonim (think wet-ones) that many Israelis love to bring into nature with them, and then leave there.
The height of my anger came when we arrived at our last camp site and found it completely covered in trash. Empty tuna cans, bottles, and plastic forks were strewn all about the piece of land that was meant to be our home for the night. It was clear that a large group had recently been there and that they knowingly left behind a huge mess for other people to deal with. When I found out that the large group was a teen outing from one of Israel’s largest youth movements, I was utterly shocked. An organization whose goals include shaping teens into leaders who care about this country and serve as role models for others, couldn’t think to tell those same kids to clean up after themselves and not pollute the same land that in a few years they will be risking their lives to defend and protect?
I organized a crew of volunteers from amongst my students and we started to fill many garbage bags with the trash that lay all around us. In just a short amount a time, the camp site looked so much better and I asked myself: Why didn’t the youth movement leaders who were here do the same? Why didn’t they take twenty minutes before they left this site to return it to the way it was when they arrived, as a courtesy to the next group, as a show of respect to nature in general and the land of Israel in specific and as a lesson to their students?
There are so many things I love about living in Israel. So many things that I am deeply inspired and humbled by. But the utter disregard for keeping our slim piece of this Earth clean still shocks and angers me.
As a country, we are often so proud, even boastful, about our role as the “Start-Up Nation”, solving so many of the world’s problem, including ecological ones. But how can a country that has accomplished so much in the fields of solar technology and water reclamation utterly fail in teaching its children about the value of not treating our land as a trash bin?
I think that needs to be the next big start-up that Israel invests a great amount of time and resources into.