Taking to the Trail: The First Annual Shalem Conference on the Israel National Trail
In their classic work Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture, British anthropologists Victor and Edith Turner argued that “Christian culture” succeeded in transcending historical, geographical, and social boundaries by means of the rite of pilgrimage. Explaining that it encouraged people to move—literally and metaphorically—out of their everyday lives and into different social and even spiritual worlds, the Turners believed that in the wake of such an experience, people are renewed, rejuvenated, and even transformed.
Unwittingly, pointed out Shalem’s Vice President for External and Alumni Relations Odelia Yatzkan in her opening remarks at a first-of-its-kind conference this past January, they provided an apt description of that most Israeli rite of passage: hiking the Israel National Trail.
The trail, which runs from Kibbutz Dan near the Israel-Lebanon border to Eilat on the Gulf of Aqaba, was initiated in 1985 by the Israeli military strategist and statesman Avraham Tamir following his completion of the Appalachian Trail a decade before. Stretching approximately 683 miles, the route is not only a physical challenge, but also, for the nearly 10,000 hikers who complete the route each year, a journey through the history, archeology, and heritage of the country, and a means to connect with the Land of Israel in a tangible way. It is also, as anyone who has hiked it will tell you, a means to connect with the People of Israel, too: The trail is known as much for being a social journey, and an opportunity to meet Israelis from all backgrounds, corners of the country, and walks of life (no pun intended). It is fitting then, that since 2015, the trail is also the site of 18 “Trail Libraries,” established by Shalem College to enrich the journey’s individual and collective dimensions and strengthen travelers’ Israeli identities.
Comprising weatherproof trunks filled with Western and Israeli literary classics—many from the Shalem Press catalogue—as well as historical and literary insights on each location and notebooks for journaling, the libraries encourage hikers to borrow a book for a stretch of the journey, share their thoughts with their hiking partners, and donate books of their own for hikers to come. “The Turners believed that the act of losing one’s ‘old’ identity on a pilgrimage was completed by the spontaneous encounter with others on the same journey. They wrote that together, they created a ‘communitas,’” says Yatzkan. “That’s very much what Shalem’s Trail Library hopes to do: Provide an occasion for hikers to become part of not just a shared physical experience, but also a shared intellectual and cultural one, in which they reflect on what it means to be Israeli and their relation to their state and society.”
From the turnout at the First Annual Shalem Conference on the Israel National Trail, it would appear that these efforts have paid off: Nearly 200 young Israelis came to Shalem’s campus this past January for an evening dedicated to celebrating, learning about, and preparing for the trail with others who share their excitement and energy.
Jointly sponsored by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the Society for the Protection of Nature, and the nonprofit Nifgashim B’Shvil Yisrael (“Meeting on the Israel Trail”), which organizes national hikes throughout the year, the conference was the first to bring “the practical, cultural, historical, and even inspirational dimensions of the Trail together in one place,” states Yatzkan, who worked with marketing director Noga Goldstein ’23 and Royi Sokolovsky ’19 to bring the conference to fruition.
The evening’s wide-ranging lineup included talks on how to document the journey through writing and photography, how to identify edible flora and fauna, and what equipment to bring, as well as a lecture on the Odyssey and the metaphor of wandering in literature by Shalem lecturer Dr. Ido Hevroni. Other speakers included Chilik Abergel, CEO of education at the Society for the Protection of Nature, and Shalem lecturer and military historian Dr. Yagil Henkin, co-author of the definitive Israel National Trail Guide.
The conference also featured two prominent Shalem alumni: Noa Sorek, the prize-winning poet and content creator for the Jerusalem cultural institution Beit Avi Chai, led participants in a trail-inspired creative-writing workshop, and Channel 12 news anchor Ori Isaac joined author Yair Agamon for a conversation about the ways in which random encounters become meaningful experiences.
In her closing remarks, Yatzkan urged participants to watch out for the next development in Shalem’s Trail Library: field seminars related to sites of historical or literary interest with college lecturers and alumni. She also expressed the hope that she would see them at next year’s conference—if not before, in the halls of Shalem.
“We’ve had many students tell us that they found out about Shalem or decided to apply to Shalem because of the Trail Library,” Yatzkan smiles. “Since the trail’s hikers are often among the most idealistic and committed young people in Israel, that’s hardly a surprise. In the meantime, it’s very much in keeping with the college’s values to reach out to and give back to this community.”