On the righteous path: Berkeley woman doing two-month Israel Trail hike for fifth time

It was only Ilene Lee’s second day on the Israel Trail, but already she felt like giving up. The Berkeley-based autism specialist had expected to feel a little out of place on a two-month-long hike with 200 people she didn’t know — but she hadn’t anticipated just how alone she would feel.

“I was the only American, and there was a language barrier, so I was very much an outsider,” she recalls of her first hike in 2006.

Not to mention the physical trials the hike presented: “It was hard!” she says. Then 55, she was in good shape and a regular hiker. Still, “It felt more like boot camp than the Sierra Club.”

She told an organizer she wanted to leave, and he gave her instructions on where to catch a bus at the day’s end. And then, during the midday Torah study session, something unexpected happened.

“We were at the top of a hill overlooking the Red Sea,” Lee remembers. “And the Torah portion that day was about the crossing of the Red Sea. There I was on this hilltop, looking down at the sea and the hills of Jordan, reading about Jews crossing there, and I had this epiphany — that this wasn’t their story, this was my story.

“Then things really changed for me,” she says. “When we got to the road where I would have to turn off to catch the bus, I thought, ‘No, I don’t want to leave.’ That was the start of everything.”

Israel Trail hikers climb Mount Shchoret, about 6 miles north of Eilat, on the second day of the 2010 hike.

On Feb. 23, Lee departed for her fifth hike with AV’I Beshvil Yisrael, an annual Israel Trail group established by Raya and Yossi Ofner in memory of their son, Avi, who was killed in an Israel Defense Forces helicopter crash in 1997. The hike aims to bring together people of all ages and levels of observance and physical ability to honor their history, study Torah and connect to others and their own spirituality through nature.

Beginning at Eilat in Israel’s southern tip and concluding at She’ar Yashuv in the upper Galilee (close to where the helicopters crashed), the trek lasts from Feb. 28 through April 28, though participants are welcome to join and depart from the group at any point. The group camps most nights, sometimes staying at kibbutzes along the way. The entire experience is free for participants.

For Lee — who initially heard about the hike from two friends who raved about it — the diversity of the group and the way hikers of all backgrounds must learn to get along are some of the most meaningful aspects.

“Political views do collide in a really forceful, really Israeli way,” she says. “But I was the only one who was worried about that.”

Secular Jews must make accommodations for the Orthodox Jews. “We make communal meals together most nights, and the Orthodox girls are very patient about washing each leaf of lettuces and holding it up to the light to make sure there are no bugs,” says Lee. “And almost everybody is so glad to participate and honor these requirements.”

Conversely, more religious Jews must also consider the needs of the larger group. “Traditionally there’s a limit about how far an Orthodox Jew can walk on Shabbat, and there was a beautiful waterfall way beyond that limit,” recalls Lee. “Many of the observant among us decided to walk beyond that limit, and enjoy that part of Shabbat together. People push right up against their comfort levels in terms of practice and observance to honor these friendships that they form, and this sense of solidarity.”

Accommodations are also made for hikers with disabilities; organizers are happy to recommend wheelchair-accessible sections of the hike, and a trained medic is always with the group. The friend who initially recommended the trip to Lee completed the hike immediately following bypass surgery.

Ilene Lee and hike leader Nachum Baruchi in 2006. photos/courtesy of ilene lee

For Betzalal Massarano, who hiked some of the trail in 2009 as a junior in high school, the sheer volume of people walking and coexisting was a bit of a shock.

“I expected a kind of casual group of people,” says Massarano, now a freshman at the University of Washington. “So I was really impressed by the size of the group. There were people there of every stripe, and I never picked up any kind of discord. To me it seemed very, very harmonious.”

Massarano was also pleased by the group’s openness to Jews of all kinds. “I’m not very religious at all,” he explains. “And I felt totally fine.”

As Lee prepares to embark on her fifth Israel Trail hike in as many years, she’s looking forward to simply enjoying nature again.

“I think of Israel as a crowded, busy country,” she says. “But there are still these vast open spaces, huge nature preserves with blooming flowers and fruit trees. We go for days without seeing any signs of modern civilization, and it reminds you what an amazing natural paradise Israel still is.”

The trip also helped her through an important time of grief: When her mother died a year ago, she hiked just after 30 days of mourning, and found that even those who initially didn’t think it was right for a woman to be saying Kaddish eventually included her when they saw how important the ritual was to her.

Anything else people should know? “Bring a hat and sunscreen,” says Lee with a laugh. And come prepared to make friends. “I get invited to weddings and brises all over, and I’m overwhelmed on Shabbat,” she says. “Several people from Israel have come and visited me at my home. There’s a group of about 50 or 60 of us — they’re part of my extended family now.”

Lee can’t help but marvel at how different her life would have been had she chosen to stop walking after that second day; now she’s just eager to spread the word. “I really love telling people about the hike because it has helped me develop this connection to Israel from the ground up,” she explains. “I’m now connected to people and places I never would have known.”

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.