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June 15, 2014 4:13 pm

Israel: Hitchhiking Home

avatar by Dave Bender

Misty Morn in Efrat

'Misty Morn' in Efrat: Panorama of countryside in the Israeli town of Efrat in Judea. (Photo: Dave Bender, All Rights Reserved)

Between 2010 and 2014, I lived in the Gush Etzion community of Efrat, south of Bethlehem, less than a kilometer from where three Israeli youths were abducted on Thursday night.

I regularly hitchhiked, rode my bike, and hiked the area, as did my triplet children, as did nearly all my friends and their children – almost 30,000 – at over two dozen farms, towns and villages in the area.

Biking – once at 02:00 for a charity fundraising ride – one rolls serenely past quiet villages, both Israeli and Palestinian alike, stopping off to shop at the main area supermarket alongside Palestinians shoppers from those same villages.

While there are rarely “kumbaya” moments, there is a modicum of shared reality. While there’s no “all we are saying is give peace a chance,” daffy-eyed naivete, there is a daily coexistence.

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And yes, with concerns and one-off attacks, all part of the managed risk of living with chronic security issues.

But without fear. I repeat: without fear.

It was a vow I made to myself when I first made aliyah (immigrated to Israel) from the United States over 35 years ago and I repeat here:

The Land of Israel is our home, where we stand our ground and stop running, both as individual Jews and as a people. Here and now is where we choose not to live in fear.

However, in the wake of the kidnapping of the three Israelis – two youths and a 19-year-old, several senior rabbis affiliated with the Sephardi – haredi community have issued “pis’kei halacha” – Halachic rulings forbidding their followers from hitchhiking – known colloquially as “tremping.”

In response to a slew of comments, which, essentially, placed the blame for the abductions on the Israeli kids themselves for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, blogger Batya Medad, a long-time resident of the Samaria community of Shilo, riposted:

It really gets on my nerves when I keep hearing that this kidnapping is ‘because they tremped.’ That’s not the problem. The three teenagers were kidnapped by Arab terrorists. They are victims of Arab terrorism. The problem is the terrorism, not the tremping.

In many parts of Israel and the world, waiting for rides on the road is an accepted mode of traveling. The Arab custom here is not to have formal bus stops. Arabs of all ages, both sexes, hail rides and buses in all different places, even at busy junctions causing delays to others.

I agree with her. Here’s what tremping in Israel is really about, from a personal blog post I wrote, and have updated here:

Not long ago, I hitchhiked my usual ride home from Jerusalem with an Efrat neighbor who was passing by the Gilo junction where everyone either catches a hitch, called a “tremp” in Hebrew, or an intercity bus – which comes by every 20 minutes or so.

It’s usually much faster and often more interesting to hitch – and every time’s a chance to meet someone new, learn something, often hear great music (speaking as a past radio programmer and DJ, folks in Gush Etzion and points south have awfully good musical taste) – and give someone a chance to rack up the mitzva points en route.

Dozens of riders, from teens to the elderly, regularly crowd together under the streetlamp alongside the bus bay, holding plastic shopping bags, backpacks and whatever else you’d lug along home after a day in town, at work or school.

They wait for rides to their communities, and – from firsthand experience – commonly not more that 10-15 minutes until a car or van going their way slows and shouts out the destination. The potential rider closest to the vehicle usually shouts out the destination for others who are going the same way.

Most evenings, there are two, three and sometimes even four vehicles pulling up at a time offering rides home. Amazingly, I haven’t seen anyone hurt or a collision (yet…) as they clumsily merge back into the traffic lane alongside.

Guess that’s just the way we roll in the Holy Land, so to speak…

After getting off a bus from in town, I stroll up to the junction and a car soon pulls up alongside. The woman driver calls out, ‘Efrat;’ I recognize her as a neighbor.

I get in, and a moment later a young woman walks up, carrying a infant, a car seat for the baby and a back pack.

Read that last sentence again, I’ll wait…

…a slight young woman with a 1.5-mo.-old babe in arms, and baby gear, hitchhiked a ride with total strangers on a ride through the wild “West Bank,” aka here, the hills of Judea.

Stop – hold that image.

She was headed to her village, Elazar, a short distance before Efrat along Rt. 60.

Our driver pulls out and we make small talk about visiting home towns overseas and family as we head off for the 14-km/9-mi drive along the two-lane road.

Our 15-min. southbound route under a brilliant full moon takes us into the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, past Bethlehem, Beit Jala and several other Palestinian Arab villages.

There have been numerous horrific shooting attacks against Jewish residents of our communities in the last several months, years, decades and more, but, on an evening like this, it somehow struck me as though we were somewhere in a would’ve, could’ve should’ve been small town, maybe somewhere in the rural U.S. dozens of years ago, before the idea of even a burly tough guy hitchhiking was an assumption of dangerous lunacy for either the driver or the ride.

Now think about that; hold that thought for a second.

Again, imagine the bond of trust, elemental “derech eretz” (innate decency, here), and healthy shared societal assumptions that brought together that vignette of the four of us, what it implies, and what it says about the hesed (grace), resilience and plain old decency and gumption of this society – as opposed to everything you read on the news about life here in Israel.

Now, could you envision such a scene like this anywhere else – really?

So, if you’re driving the roads across the length and breadth of Israel – stop and give rides to those “trempistim.” It could be a lifesaver.

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