We did it. And a huge thank you to all our supporters and sponsors.
Our "walk" quickly turned into a Trek - rather like going out for a gentle ski on a blue run - only to find you're on a black!
We arrived in Israel a few days before our Challenge hoping to get super-fit by walking to Tel Aviv and playing golf in Caesaria but the elements were against us as Israel has experienced the worst Winter for over 21 years. Storms lashed our usually calm and beautiful Herzliya coast. All our Israeli friends were delighted - it's been great for the country where water reserve levels had fallen so low but hopeless for our training!
Our group of 30 participants met at The Shlomi Guest House. Some were friends of our organiser and birthday boy, Max Kramer, who together with UJIA had planned a formidable and challenging programe of Hiking and Cycling. Participants came from all over the UK plus the surprise arrival of Max and Louise's son , Gavin, from Singapore who would cycle with Max and the group. We met with our fantastic guides Dani for the Hikers and Gideon for the Bikers who had planned some challenging and exciting days for us. We arrived in pouring rain but, as we started our first afternoon's gentle warm up, the sun came out - in true Cash style - and never left us. It was clear blue skies all the way from Shlomi to the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
Once everyone got used to the idea that the Galil region, for which UJIA has taken philanthropic responsibility for many years, sits as close as you can get to the Lebanese border, and also realised we were in an area which sits on the longest fault line on the face of the earth, we all rose to the unforgettable Challenge of hiking and cycling through some of the most beautiful nature reserves and historic countryside of Israel.
We started at the caves of Rosh Hanikra, taking the cable car from the cliff top to explore Israel's northern coastline. Each day we were on different terrain, clambering down gorges, wading across rivers, swollen by recent rains, into scenic valleys carpeted in spring flowers of glorious shades. We can't pretend we were really prepared for the steep rocky climbs and descents but we survived with a few bruises and by the end we were certainly much fitter and seasoned hikers. Our route on a couple of days took in some of the 'Israel Trail' which extends from North to South. From the remains of the historic Montfort Crusader Fort, to Druze villages, ancient synagogues , pagan temples, we climbed to the snow covered peak of Israel's second highest mountain, Mount Meron - 1200m above sea level and descended from Nimrod's castle, high up on the snowy slopes of the Golan, to the springs and water falls of Banias. We crossed through orchards and vineyards and lunched on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. As respite, on Thursday, we enjoyed a tractor tour of the Hula Valley reserve, where millions of birds alight each year on their migratory path from Africa and Asia to Europe. The thousands of birds we witnessed flying and feeding were a memorable experience. We felt as though we were in the middle of a National Geographia film Even the birds seem to know you can get a good meal in Israel. On our final day we ascended to the mystical city of Zfat and finally hit the art galleries and craft shops, just before they closed for Shabbat.
On our travels, we learnt about the rich tapestry of history which lurks around every rock, from pagan times, through ancient civilisations - Jewish, Greek , Roman and Arab. And, of course, a visit to this beautiful area would not have been complete without a tour of one of the many and superb Wineries which dot the landscape and produce some of Israel's award winning wines.
Each day we had an opportunity to visit some of the many UJIA projects which are helping to regenerate this peripheral area of Israel, sitting on the confrontation line with Hizbollah. The residents of the border area have lived with this threat since Israel's independence in 1948. The pioneering Jewish farmers who established the earliest Kibbutzim and Moshavim in the late 1800s and early 1900s are now trying to add industrial and technological opportunities, living alongside newer immigrants from Russia , Ethiopia and many corners of the world, together with their Christian, Muslim and Druze neighbours who make up 50% of the Galil population. A real cosmopolitan melting pot.
UJIA projects and programmes are having a fundamental effect on the region by strengthening the infrastructure and the lives of all the people in the region Their impact is very visible with new junior and high school Campuses and early learning centres. The Schools we visited were buzzing with children and staff in Fancy dress for Purim. the new Shlomi High School is a model of Secular and Religious integration. UJIA , together with partnering philanthropic organisations, have funded new university Campus faculties at Tel Hai University, attracting students from all over the country. It is here that UJIA also supports a unique Centre for University Students with special learning needs, a project which touched the hearts of participants on our trip. The regeneration and expansion of the university is bringing new research, development and industrial companies to the area, creating work opportunities, encouraging higher standards in education and attracting new residents to the region. Just this year UJIA partly funded a new Medical Teaching Faculty in Zfat, bringing many students to the region. These and other projects are strengthening the communities which have been struggling due to their border location and poor economic opportunities.
Each day the Hikers were joined by a number of professionals and volunteers in the region who work with various UJIA programmes such as School Twinning which links students from this area of Israel with students at Jewish Schools in the UK, both at Junior and High school level. Currently involving 12 schools, with more eagerly waiting to join, students participate in inter-school programmes with their peers and engage in teacher and pupil delegations to strengthen bonds and understanding between the young people of the region and young Jews in the UK, teachers and families.
UJIA's dedicated staff plan and coordinate the UJIA Magic Moments Programme which brings around 70 teenagers to the UK each year to spend a week with 10 communities where they take the Yom Hazikaron Ceremonies, spending a week with host families during which time they visit schools to speak about their lives.
UJIA also enable some of the poorer Ethiopian Bar and Batmitzva age children to join a year programme culminating in a twinned Ceremony with Bar /Bat Mitzva youngsters from the UK.
Young students from the region participate each year as counsellors on Youth Camps in the UK as well as participating with the Summer Tours in Israel. These and many other UJIA programmes help develop a living bridge between our Youth in the UK and the communities of the Galil developing better understanding of each others lives both as Israelis and Jews.
We also met people from the region who are volunteering in various communal programmes supported by the UJIA, such as Limmud Galil, which is strengthening adult education in the area.
Each evening we enjoyed excellent Kibbutz dinners and local wines followed by some spontaneous talented entertainment from participants on our trip. We met the mayors from each of the 3 major partnership Regions - Shlomi, Maale Yosef and Merom Hagalil for an insight into their communities. Purim found us reading the Megillah with a young Rabbi from a local Army Unit which encourages young orthodox people to serve their country alongside fellow citizens.
On our final Night we celebrated our friend Max's 70th birthday at a gourmet restaurant overlooking the Sea of Galilee.
We have all returned fitter, a little bruised but richer in knowledge and understanding of the Galil region and inspired by the work of the UJIA.
No doubt you are exhausted by our intense programme of activities. Thanks to everyone who has supported us financially and for your encouragement along the way by email and texts.
The challenge could be yours next time!
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