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JNF WIRE: From Sea to Shining Sea--The Israeli Way

October 20, 2016
Adam H. Brill, Director of Communications
212-879-9305 x222
From Sea to Shining Sea—The Israeli Way
By: Leiba Chaya David

   AMHSI Sea to Sea Hike.jpg
JNF Impact Fellows (l-r) Hannah Katz and Sophie Meltzer

There are many ways for the average tourist to see Israel—by car, bus, train, and even by camel. But most Israelis and veteran tourists to Israel will agree that the most authentic way to experience the country is by foot. Only once when one traverses a well-marked and breathtaking hiking trail can the storied tales the land of Israel be truly experienced. Many claim that the pleasure gained by hiking throughout Israel stems from one of the oldest passages from the Book of Genesis when God says to Abraham and Sarah, before their entry into Canaan (today’s Israel), “Get up and walk the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.”  

Throughout the ages, walking or hiking has been a central means of establishing a personal, intimate relationship with the land of Israel. Abraham and Sarah walked the deserts and mountains, forging connections between the world’s first Jews. The early pioneers of modern Israel walked the hills and valleys, planting and building. Even today, Israeli school children—from kindergarten to high school—hit the trails several times a year to explore the history and folklore woven into the landscape. 

For the 28 tenth and eleventh grade students at Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI-JNF), hiking is an integral part of the learning experience. A few weeks after arriving for their semester abroad, the group of Jewish high school students set out on one of the country’s most compelling and challenging trails—the three-day Sea to Sea, or Yam L’Yam in Hebrew, hike. A typical rite of passage for many Israelis, the hike took them through the breathtaking, mountainous terrain of the Galilee, from the coast of the Mediterranean Sea to the shores of the Sea of Galilee. 

Aubrey Isaacs, one of AMHSI’s lead Israel Instructors, explained the rationale behind the hike: “In the classroom, we can share facts about the land of Israel, but you can’t learn to love Israel with your brain. You can only learn to love it through your feet. It is all the aches and pains, the burning heat, the impossible ascents—these are what build your love for the land.”

Isaacs delivered his words during a brief, but moving ceremony on a rocky beach on shores of the Sea of Galilee, to conclude the three-day hike. Although students listened attentively, it was obvious that many were anxious to jump in the refreshingly cool water after their long and dusty journey. Following the talk by staff, students dove into the lake to celebrate with a swim. As they waded into the water and splashed around, the sense of accomplishment and camaraderie was palpable.  

Oria, one of the group’s young Israeli madrichim [counselor], opted out of the swim, instead finding a shady spot in which to make tea on his small camp stove. From afar, he marveled at the students’ progress. “This has not been an easy group,” he said. “In the first few weeks, they didn’t have any chemistry, but during these last three days together on the trail, some kind of magic happened.” Oria said that his favorite part of the hike was watching the students bond during the evenings when they recounted the day’s events or sang around a bonfire.

The nighttime experience was one of the primary responsibilities shared by Oria and his co-counselor, Adi. Charged with creating engaging evening programs, the evenings comprised of conversation triggers, meditation, and interactive games, all designed to heighten self-awareness and forge interpersonal connections. These activities helped balance out the daily “lessons” on-the-trail, which featured stories and historical accounts spanning thousands of years of Jewish history.

Everyone, staff and students alike, agreed that this kind of learning is as important as any typical subject matter covered in the classroom. “When we stood on top of Mt. Meron, I was simply amazed,” said Eden Schonberger, 16, from Sydney, Australia. “You see so much of the country and it really gave me a broader sense of everything I had learned.”

Hannah Katz, 16, from Newton, Massachusetts, came out of the water to join the conversation. “I never would have thought I’d be capable of doing what we just did,” she said. “Initially, I was dreading it!” In addition to her own sense of accomplishment, she felt that the Sea to Sea hike was the best way to get to know her peers. “The experience strips you down to the basics,” Katz said. “Everyone gets dirty and each person has their own fears and doubts. You grow closer together by seeing that despite everything, we’re all the same.”

Katz is one of four Jewish National Fund (JNF) Massachusetts Impact Fellows chosen to experience Israel this year through the AMHSI experience. Although she has visited Israel multiple times in the past, she had never really seen the country through the unique lens AMHSI provides. “It’s clear to me that Israel is the place where I feel most at home, where I can be who I want to be. I was nervous about leaving my family for such a long time, but it was the best choice I’ve ever made.”  

Along with the expected General Studies found in any study abroad program, AMHSI’s curriculum is an intensive review of Israel and 4,000 years of Jewish history, which provides students with the context and framework to discover and explore their own link within the chain of Jewish continuity. AMHSI's unique academic approach fuses traditional classroom study and informal experiential learning.

Isaacs, the educator on the hike, explained why the informal learning, as exemplified by the Sea to Sea hike, is important: “These students come from a range of Jewish backgrounds, with varying levels of textual fluency, spiritual awareness, and historical knowledge. The nature of experiential learning outdoors allows each student to find his or her access point, and fills in the gaps between the student’s levels of knowledge.”

Sophie Meltzer, 16, from Framingham, Massachusetts, attends a public high school and has had little contact with Jewish life. It was a big decision for her to apply for AMHSI-JNF’s Impact Fellowship. “At my school,” she said, “nobody takes a semester off.” Meltzer initially had a hard time on the hike, but was soon impressed by how everyone helped each other out during the tough parts. Of her learning experience at AMHSI, she said: “I love being with all Jews, and this is a tremendous opportunity for me to study the core Jewish history and culture that I don’t have the opportunity to do at school or even at Jewish Summer camp.”

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JEWISH NATIONAL FUND (JNF) began in 1901 as a dream and vision to reestablish a homeland in Israel for Jewish people everywhere. Jews the world over collected coins in iconic JNF Blue Boxes, purchasing land and planting trees until ultimately, their dream of a Jewish homeland was a reality. JNF gives all generations of Jews a unique voice in building a prosperous future for the land of Israel and its people.

JNF embodies both heart and action; our work is varied in scope but singular in benefit. We strive to bring an enhanced quality of life to all of Israel’s residents, and translate these advancements to the world beyond. JNF is greening the desert with millions of trees, building thousands of parks, creating new communities and cities for generations of Israelis to call home, bolstering Israel’s water supply, helping develop innovative arid-agriculture techniques, and educating both young and old about the founding and importance of Israel and Zionism.

JNF is a registered 501(c)(3) organization and United Nations NGO, which continuously earns top ratings from charity overseers.

For more information on JNF, call 888-JNF-0099 or visit


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