December has started and with it comes a new opportunity to explore Israel. This month we decided to stay much closer to home. Jerusalem has amazing opportunities, many of which are less well known, so we thought it would be good to take advantage of what we have here before we go to places like Haifa and Mount Hermon. As many of you know, Jerusalem is well known for its historic and religious sites. There are the must-sees: the Kotel, the City of David, Yad Vashem, the Israel Museum, etc. One of the less well known places to visit is the Jerusalem Forest.
The Jerusalem Forest is located in the western part of Jerusalem near Hadassah Hospital and the community of Ein Kerem. The forest was planted during the 1950s by the Jewish National Fund. It was much larger back then; now it is only about 6 acres because of urban development. Actually, the NGO that I am volunteering for, Shomera, played a large role in protecting the forest from development and continues to search for ways to balance the infrastructural needs of the city with the need for green space.
Adam was instrumental in getting us out and into the forest. He selected the date, found out how to get there by bus, and mapped out our route once we were on the trails. We decided to go this early on in December because the Israeli winter has settled in and rain should become more frequent. (We hope it will!) He selected a great day; the weather was beautiful. There was a slight chill in the air when we left the apartment at around 7:15, but things warmed up as we went. We walked to a bus stop near Gan Sakar and then took the bus to Hadassah hospital. Instead of entering the hospital grounds we walked down a nearby street. We weren’t as confident at this point, but we took a chance and stumbled upon a trail marker. We followed the marker and soon realized that this was exactly the trail we wanted. So we continued on confidently as we began our descent into the forest.
The trail we were following is called the Israel National Trail. The Israel National Trail is essentially the Israeli equivalent to the Appalachian trail in the US. The trail connects Dan, which is in Northern Israel near the Lebanese border with the Gulf of Aqaba in Eilat, which is in Southern Israel. It is approximately 620 miles long. There are many dedicated hikers who have completed the entire trek. We actually met someone who has done it at Shabbat dinner this past Friday (the day we went for our hike). He said it took 8 weeks, and he showed us the pictures he took along the way. It seems like it was an amazing adventure!
Our hike was much shorter (instead of 8 weeks it was more like 8 kilometers) but it was still an amazing experience. At the beginning, it was a bit muddy because of the rain two days previously so we had to be careful since our shoes became slippery as mud caked up the bottoms. We stopped frequently to take pictures of the flowers that peaked up along the trail. We even saw a sign mentioning Shomera’s contribution to preserving the forest. The landscape was scattered with rocks, ancient ruins, and small brush. Overtime this low growth was replaced by huge pine trees.
The first thing Adam and I noticed as we really began to enter the forest was a great wave of calm that washed over us. Neither of us grew up in a city and we know that city life isn’t really for us, but this hike really confirmed it. Don’t get me wrong; we have been happy here in Jerusalem. Yet, the immense happiness that we felt being surrounded by trees and rocks confirmed that we are meant to be where nature is more obvious. We both were glowing with happiness and exertion as we made our way through the forest. We talked as we walked, helped each other climb down over rocks, and continued to take pictures of different natural beauties that captured our attention. Words cannot really explain how wonderful it was.
About half way through the hike, we reached the lowest point in the valley. We followed a paved path to a set of stone steps that would bring us to the top of the valley’s other side. The stairs were steep so it took me a bit of time to get up them, but our efforts were rewarded. At the top of the steps were ancient ruins, springs, and terraced farms.
Terrace farming is actually a big part of Israel’s history. I read a lot about it when I was doing my research project for my master’s degree. In an article by Evan Eisenberg titled The Mountain and the Tower, terraced farming is described as good stewardship. Since Israel is dependent on rain and groundwater and because it has rocky soil, it is important to strategically choose how to grow crops. In terrace farming, the hillside slope is turned into a series of steps. The strategy behind this type of farming is that it reduces the amount of erosion and it gets the rainwater to stay around longer so that it can be used for plant growth. The flat terraces also allow for easy plowing. Knowing this history of the Israelites when they first settled the land made seeing the present day terraced farmers more meaningful. It was an amazing experience to see the natural, the modern, and the ancient all coming together at this one spot in the Jerusalem forest.
We continued our trek to the top of the valley wall. Adam wanted to see if we could make it to the Jerusalem trail, which is a hiking trail that goes around the city. We were a bit unsure if we would have time to make it there, but we did! We stopped here for a quick snack before we retraced our steps back down the way we came. Everything was just as beautiful on the way back. We rediscovered some of the things we had seen on our way down. For the most part, the areas that were muddy were easier on our return trip since we were making our way up instead of down. There was only one small incident. We had to walk through a tunnel that had a pipe running through it. Beneath the pipe there was a bit of water. While trying to avoid getting his shoes wet, Adam slipped a bit and scrapped his hand against the wall. And of course, when he slipped his shoes did get wet which made it even harder to walk. We both eventually made it through with minimal damage. I expected to fall in the water or mud but didn’t (thankfully!). Adam’s hand is doing okay. He shows it proudly as if it was a battle wound. 🙂
On our way back we met up with the other end of the Jerusalem trail and took it so that we had a chance to walk on it for a bit. It also took us back toward Hadassah hospital where we would catch the bus. By this time our legs were getting tired, and we were getting ready to eat something more substantial than the fruit and chocolate we brought with us on the trail. Eventually we made our way out of the forest and back toward civilization. As we walked around the Hadassah campus looking for the correct bus stop, we started planning which trails we would explore the next time we came to the forest. Obviously this was a very successful excursion. 🙂
The glow of happiness that we had during the hike lasted for a few days. My legs hurt from doing the steep stairs but it was a good ache. As we settle back into our normal schedules, I think we are both looking forward to the next time that we can be out in the natural beauties of Israel. This land is so amazingly beautiful, and we are so happy we have the privilege to explore it. It is appropriate too…there is a mitzvah to walk the land of Israel. Adam and I plan to fulfill this mitzvah with many more hikes!
Until next time…Allison
Here is a taste of what we saw. 🙂