Thirty years ago, Israeli hiker Amos Ziv observed a group of visually impaired teens out on a nature trail. They were having a rough time of it, and Ziv decided the only solution was for him to find a way for people with disabilities to experience the great outdoors safely and enjoyably.
That’s the story behind LOTEM, a non-profit organization that now serves about 30,000 Israelis every year through a range of nature clubs and outdoor programs geared to children and adults with physical, communication and intellectual disorders, hearing and vision impairment. It also serves at-risk populations including women and children living in temporary shelters in refuge from domestic abuse.
The organization runs a one-of-a-kind ecological farm in Emek HaShalom (Valley of Peace) near the northern city of Yokneam, where people with disabilities participate in seasonal activities such as pressing grapes and olives, as well as drawing well water and baking pita.
Together with Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF), LOTEM built Israel’s only fully accessible circular hiking trail, situated in the picturesque Galilee region of Nahal HaShofet, in 2002.
And it’s not only for Israelis. LOTEM works with special-needs groups from abroad such as Yachad, the National Jewish Council for Disabilities, an American organization that leads its own Birthright trip to Israel.
“We’re the experts in the field of accessible hikes, so it’s really something we’ll be working to expand.” says JNF-LOTEM liaison Alisa Bodner. She also arranges free “Inclusive Israel” day trips for visiting individuals or families – able-bodied or not — to learn about LOTEM and experience a different side of Israel.
“When we make our tours accessible, it’s not only physical accessibility but also pedagogic accessibility,” Bodner tells ISRAEL21c. “We provide each group with guides who can give specialized instruction to fit their particular special needs and level of understanding.”
Hallel Ben-David, a 12-year-old girl who visited the Emek HaShalom farm with her family, blogged afterward that LOTEM guide Paula Friedland told them about a local boy who often hiked through Nahal HaShofet with his friends.
“He would hike on a trail that led to a particular cave there, until he was in a car accident and became paralyzed. When LOTEM was planning to construct the accessible trail, they took this boy there and asked what they can do to bring back his experience of hiking. He told them that they should build the trail in a way so that he can return to the cave. This is what they did,” Hallel wrote. “This was very emotional for me.”
Coexistence and inclusive activities
Bodner says about 12 percent of the Israeli population has some form of disability, whether as a result of a medical condition, accident or violence. LOTEM co-founder Sorin Hershko ended up a paraplegic due to injuries he received in his military unit’s daring rescue of Israeli hostages from Entebbe, Uganda, in 1976.
An acronym for the Hebrew phrase “integrated nature studies,” LOTEM works with the Israeli ministries of education, agriculture, health and welfare, the National Insurance Institute, and also with private foundations and donors in Israel and abroad. For the past seven years, LOTEM has been a JNF partner organization.
“JNF is a great friend of ours. I always say that they provide for the land and people of Israel, and we work with them to bring the land of Israel to all the people of Israel,” says Bodner.
LOTEM charges a minimal fee for its activities so that participants do not feel they are receiving charity, Bodner explains. If members of a participating group are unable to pay the full amount, the organization raises funds to cover the remaining expenses.
In addition to accessible hikes and agricultural activities at Emek HaShalom, LOTEM runs “Integra-Teva,” which uses nature and outdoor activities to foster coexistence among Jewish and Arab youth with special needs.
“Touching the Western Wall” provides an opportunity for children and adults with special needs to visit historical and religious sites in Jerusalem’s cobblestoned Old City, not normally easily accessible for people with disabilities.
Two LOTEM programs focus on facilitating friendships between children from special-needs and mainstream classrooms: “From Black to Green,” which takes the kids through the Carmel Forest to learn together about fire prevention and the importance of preserving the natural beauty of Israel; and the four-week “Natural Integration,” funded by the Ruderman Foundation, providing educational activities in nature.
For children, adults and senior citizens confined to residential facilities, rehab centers and hospitals, getting outdoors isn’t always possible. But that doesn’t mean they cannot enjoy nature in the company of friends. LOTEM’s “Green Time” nature clubs, run by volunteer guides, engage these populations in educational social activities about ecology.