Green Horizons' Desert Wilderness Survival Program

Wednesday, April 19, 2017 2:03 PM

Deepening the connection to Israel and to nature

Every year thousands of students from all over Israel participate in outdoor leadership development programs. The program is operated by Green Horizons (Hugey Sayarut) Outdoor Leadership School in collaboration with KKL-JNF Education Division, as part of the effort to advance informal education. The participants go off the grid for a week, connecting with nature and learning how to deal with the challenges it presents.
“Our goal is to take these kids out of their comfort zone and challenge them to confront situations of uncertainty”, explained Eran Zohar, director of the Outdoor Leadership School. “We use field activities to educate the young generation to love Israel, to connect them to nature and the environment and encourage them to lead an independent life”. 
Green Horizons, or Hugey Sayarut in Hebrew, was founded after the ’73 war, as a framework that encourages teenagers to get to know and love their country. It is supported by KKL-JNF, JNF USA and the Israeli Ministry of Education. Practicing outdoor survival skills, being part of a group and hiking all serve as model for life itself.

About four years ago Green Horizons’ Outdoor Leadership School was founded; its purpose is developing leadership through outdoor programs which provide personal and group empowerment.

Hagit Ohana, KKL-JNF’s national coordinator with the pre-military academies, called this the KKL-JNF Education Division’s flagship project, where thousands of pre-military academy students go on a five-day outdoor survival skills educational program.

“The KKL-JNF leadership considers the pre-military academies as a leading element in the field of education, for the development and fulfilment of the students in these academies. The activities focus on development towns, with the intent of getting them to return to these towns when they finish their military service and build a future for Israel’s peripheral areas. KKL-JNF is leading the project along with the pre-military academies and Green Horizons. Various educational projects are held in collaboration with students from the pre-military academies all year long, for example, Clean Up the World Day, Tu Bishvat, and meaningful Zionist activities in the forests. In this context, the outdoor survival skills program is one of our most important programs.”

The students from the Otzem religious pre-military academy in Naveh went backpacking in the Judean Desert for a week. They learned how to navigate, light a campfire, prepare food, build a one-night survival shelter, find water sources, and use desert plants. They walked dozens of miles, with all their equipment on their backs. Along the way, they stopped stop for some social activities and personal conversations. 

“It’s not easy being out in the desert for so long, but we learned a lot of new things about ourselves and our friends”, says Nehemia Mendelovitch, from Bat Ayin, a student in the Otzem pre-military academy. “We’ve discovered we can do things we never thought we could, and learned that sometimes you need to sacrifice for the benefit of others, take one for the team.”

Every year, 1300 students from pre-military academies from all over Israel participate in this activity; it is part of the collaboration between the Outdoor Leadership School and the Joint Council of Pre-Military Academies (Mechinot). The students from the pre-military academies participate in a two-week outdoors program: on the first week, they learn navigation and orienteering skills and on the second week they learn desert survival skills.

“It was a tough week with lots of surprises”, says Aviad Mashiach from Petah Tikva. “Thanks to this activity I now know myself, my friends from the pre-military academy, and my country, better”.
The group was accompanied by Rabbi Chaim Baruch, the director of the Otzem pre-military religious academy and a board member of the Joint Council of Pre-Military Academies.
“One cannot learn about loving the land of Israel without walking it. The participants in the outdoor program learn to truly love their country and to trust themselves and their teammates. They gain confidence and realize they can overcome any obstacle – a type of freedom that is bought only through overcoming hardships.”

As for the counselors from the Outdoor Leadership School, this is what Rabbi Baruch had to say about them:
“They are really out there, connected to the field, and they can complement something we don’t have in the academy. They are constantly challenging us.”

“We provide them with an unmediated experience of getting to know the terrain and dealing with the desert”, says Raz Or, a counselor at the Outdoor Leadership School. “Our purpose in these wilderness survival programs is to enable these young men to listen to themselves, beyond the hustle and bustle of everyday life”.

In response to the question on how he sums up the experience, Amitai Fensterheim, from Ra’anana, quoted a special phrase:
“The desert is empty so as to make room for our thoughts and feelings.” He then elaborated: “We had an extraordinary experience that we couldn’t have gotten anywhere else. This is the best way to get to know the country, to feel it and fall in love with it."

Eitan Goldman from Elazar said he felt much more connected to his inner self, after being disconnected from the world for an entire week; no phones, no news, no contact with home. “We learned how to survive in the desert’s harsh conditions”, he adds.

Yigal Weiss, from Efrat, who made Aliyah from New York a few months ago told us: “As a new oleh it’s definitely a different way to get to know Israel, far from the big cities.”

The week in the desert ended on the summit of Mount Kanaim. It was definitely a peak experience for the students, after climbing the mountain with all the heavy gear on their backs and while carrying stretchers. On their way to the top they helped each other, pulled whoever needed help in the steep ascents, encouraged those who needed it, and together they reached the top of the mountain, as a united group, strong and cohesive.

“If we realize that our whole life is a journey, we won’t shun difficulties and we won’t break down, but rather we will buck up and take on any challenge that comes our way” Rabbi Baruch said to his students.

Anyone who saw these young men embracing each other and singing and dancing together, could immediately grasp what a meaningful and profound experience they just shared.

“We believe that this empowering experience will accompany the students in whatever path they choose”, Eran Zohar summed it up. “The sense of accomplishment, the leadership and the connection to the land and nature have become a part of who they are”.