While traveling in Israel this past year, I sort of stumbled across an amazing opportunity: writing for the Jewish National Fund, who publishes articles surrounding the culture in Israel across the globe. I served as a foreign correspondent of sorts: meeting fascinating groups of people, photographing them, and writing about my experience. It was a highlight of my life so far, considering I wanted to be doing precisely this when I was a kid. I thought I’d share one of the stories I wrote with you all, so please enjoy below!
Of the approximately 140,000 Druze living in Israel, around a dozen are standing before me, peering curiously into my car as I park next to the Shrine of the Prophet Bhaa Alden. I confess I have spent several months in Israel and only heard whisperings of the Druze community up to this point. They are something of a mystery to the outside world, with terms like “secret religion” and “hidden in plain sight” being tossed around by Israelis I’ve spoken with. The Green Horizons program is hoping to shed new light on their fascinating world, by connecting the Druze with nature and Israel as a whole.
For today’s adventure I’m joining a Green Horizons group led by Mohamad Hamid with mostly 8th and 9th grade students from Beit Jann, a small community high in the hills of Israel. He tells me we are going to hike Mount Ha’Ari, meaning “lion” in Hebrew because the people say lions lived in the area thousands of years ago. If anyone would know, it’s the Druze, who have made this area their home for generations.
For the modern day Druze youth, iPhones and Instagram have connected them to the outside world, but these hiking excursions are one way to renew their relationship with the land. Most of the kids speak Hebrew, Arabic, and are learning English in school, so they excitedly practice with the new American in the group. “We get together once a week, and we have a lot of fun,” Ravea Nafaa tells me, the most outgoing of the bunch. “We go camping all around this area, and even though we go to the same school this has brought us closer together.”
After a few icebreaker games, we settle into a circle for “nana” or mint tea, plus generous servings of Manakeesh, a traditional pizza-like snack that the parents have prepared for us. Each one of us choose our preferred topping, a tomato sauce or thyme, plus a whole tomato or cucumber for a side dish. I confess that I’ve never eaten a tomato or cucumber whole like that before, and the hilarity of my awkward attempt to try is definitely not lost in translation. Each member of the group is given a task by Mohamed, and clean up is quick work with such a resourceful crowd.
The Druze community in Beit Jann has one high school, with around 200 kids in each grade, they say, so the weekly Green Horizons meetings are a breath of fresh air and a unique learning experience. “We learn how to make fires, survive in the wild, and it’s always an adventure,” says Jana Shaheen, one of the youngest kids to participate. They tell me the boys will go to the Army after graduation, while the girls will be off to University. In the Druze community girls do not serve in the military, but nevertheless they still have ambitions to become doctors, teachers, and explore the world outside their village.
Green Horizons aims to prepare them each for their journeys, with challenging excursions hosted by experienced guides like Mohamad. Standing at the edge of a scenic lookout point, he says Beit Jann is known as the “Switzerland of Israel”, drawing tourists who come for the horseback riding and panorama views. “Their parents enroll them in the program in the hopes that it will get them outside and interacting with the environment around them,” he says.
Indeed, looking out across the land the kids point out the cities that stretch out below us, pointing to the highway that will take me home. Green Horizons may inspire them to take that road to far off lands and make a difference in the world. Or they may come back to Beit Jann to lead a wilderness group of their own someday. No matter which path they take, the one thing we know for sure is they will not only know how to survive, but thrive.