Recent college grad from East Bay decides to stay in Holy Land after 580-mile trek

With a new college diploma in hand and no urgency about graduate school — and, unfortunately, no good job prospects — Elias Zwang of Lafayette found himself without much to do last summer.

So he decided to sign up for a group hike. But not just any group hike. It was the Israel National Trail, a 580-mile trek that spans the length of the country.

The hike proved to be a journey into himself, as well as a better understanding of the Jewish people and the Jewish state.

“I had a decent understanding of Jewish history, and more broadly the history of our planet and life on it,” Zwang said recently, “but try as I might, I couldn’t quite feel a deep connection [to Israel].”

Elias Zwang at the Red Sea, the end of a nearly 600-mile hike.

On the five-month trip, Zwang, 23, found that connection — and a career path, as well. He enjoyed the experience so much, that he decided to “cancel his return ticket” (as an article in reported, slightly erroneously) to the United States and remain in Israel.

“We stayed in kibbutzim, with families, in schools, in Bedouin guest tents and in our own tents under the stars,” Zwang said. “We befriended Jews, Arabs, Bedouin, Druze and Circassian people. It was so thrilling that I decided to go to tour-guiding school in Israel. Why not get paid to dress like a pirate, go on mind-blowing adventures and feel fabulous?”

Zwang now lives in Tel Aviv, where he is working toward making aliyah and hoping to start a guide program. His parents, Celine and Glenn Zwang, support their son’s decision.

“We couldn’t be happier,” said Celine Zwang, a retired lawyer. “We’re adjusting to the new reality of what Elias’ life will be like, and we will find a way to be part of it. We know he will do well.” The Zwangs also have a daughter, Lily, an art student at Santa Barbara City College.

Zwang attended College Prep High School in Oakland after becoming bar mitzvah at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette. In May 2011, he graduated with a degree in psychology from Vassar College in New York, where he minored in art history and French.

“I contemplated going directly to graduate school, but I thought that I’d benefit more from doing something wild, something that would shake me from my academic mindset,” Zwang said.

Before graduation, Zwang got an email about Israel Pathways, which organizes the Israel National Trail hike and other adventure trips for young adults 18 to 30. Never having been to Israel, Zwang thought an outdoor adventure would be a great way to garner an understanding of the country.

“I love traveling, and on a recent  camping trip in Big Bend National Park [in Texas], I had discovered that I love being outdoors,” he said. “Plus, I wasn’t sure I’d ever have the chance to do this again.”

Zwang said he is not a religious person, but his parents taught him to understand the Torah as a metaphor and as the social bond that has held together a culture for thousands of years.

“My parents told me that living in gratitude is the key to happiness and fulfillment,” he said. “My spirituality was strong enough to tell me where to look for this gratitude, but not mature enough to connect me to it viscerally. I sensed that this trip would allow me to connect to a land, to a people and to myself in a way I had only dreamed of.”

The 580-mile journey also required considerable physical effort for all 15 young Jewish Americans taking part. The trail started in the north in Kiryat Shmona, near the Lebanon border, where the group studied Hebrew and renovated bomb shelters during the first month.

“We got used to [the rigors] quickly,” Zwang noted, “which was fortunate, because the beginning of the trail is much easier than in the deserts of the South.” About half of the hikers quit midway through the grueling journey, according to

Those who stayed were rewarded with views of snow-capped mountains, lush flower fields, meandering streams and thick forests. Along the way, they took jeep rides, went free-fall parachuting, labored on a farm, sampled Israeli nightlife in a few big cities and celebrated Shabbat in the West Bank settlement of Ofra.

The group went into ancient caves, climbed in tunnels used by Jews hiding from the Romans during the Bar Kokhba revolt 1,800 years ago and scaled Mount Tabor. Zwang described southern Israel’s Negev Desert and its craters as “the most haunting and enchanting and physically challenging of all.”

At the end of the trip is the Red Sea. Upon reaching it, Zwang recalled the sea as “glistening like a mirage in the middle of huge stone mountains.”

Near the end of the journey, the Israeli guide asked Zwang to lead the group on a 14-mile trek over two mountains and through three canyons. Zwang did — and that was the day that changed his life, the day he decided to stay in Israel.

Rachel Schonwald, marketing director of Israel Pathways, couldn’t say exactly how many hikers have made that same decision.

“Several participants [from the summer 2011 hike] are still in Israel and several wish to return at a later date,” she said. “If participants choose to make aliyah as a result of the program, we are happy to support them and welcome them home.”

Israel Pathways is a project of MASA, a program designed to encourage diaspora Jews, ages 18 to 30, to build lasting relationships with Israel and strengthen their Jewish identity. This happens through five- to 10-month experiences, which range from volunteering to learning a skill to going on a hike.

Because Zwang had intended to travel after coming off the trail, he had no return plane ticket to the United States. When the trek ended about two months ago, he found a place to stay in Tel Aviv.

“I’ve never been anywhere that reminds me as much of San Francisco as Tel Aviv,” Zwang said. “It feels eerily familiar. It’s a place where people really celebrate their differences and where weird is beautiful.”

For now, Zwang is attending Hebrew language classes four days a week, going on hikes (shorter ones!) and looking for a job. As part of making aliyah, he is planning to join the Israeli military for six months.

“In the news you read about how Iran wants to wipe Israel off the map and about rockets that are fired from Gaza into Israel every day,” Zwang said. “However, here in Tel Aviv there’s a real sense that the best way to not be defeated psychologically is to live as peacefully and as vivaciously as possible.

“Living in Israel is a really good lesson about life in that sense.”

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.