By Avigayil Kadesh
Hiking is the unofficial Israeli national pastime. Yet, for children and adults with physical disabilities and other special needs – about 12 percent of the Israeli population -- the great outdoors is not easily accessible. A non-profit organization called LOTEM provides solutions to this problem.
The organization’s Emek HaShalom (Valley of Peace) ecological farm near the northern city of Yokneam -- the only site of its kind worldwide – offers accessible hands-on activities modeled after ancient agricultural practices such as pressing grapes and olives, drawing water from wells and baking pita bread.
LOTEM (an acronym for the Hebrew phrase “integrated nature studies”) also offers the only fully accessible circular hiking trail in Israel, built in the Galilee region of Nahal HaShofet in 2002 together with Keren Kayemet LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF). An inclusive park is now being planned for this site.
“We work with Israelis who have all kinds of physical, communication and intellectual disorders, hearing and vision impairment, and also battered women together with their children and at-risk youth,” says LOTEM spokesperson Alisa Bodner.
“When we make our tours accessible, it’s not only physical accessibility but also pedagogic accessibility. We provide each group with guides who can give specialized instruction to fit their particular needs and level of understanding.”
20 years of bringing nature to people with disabilities
This year, LOTEM is celebrating its 20th anniversary. It was founded in 1993 by Amos Ziv after he came across a group of visually impaired teens as he was hiking. The teens were having great difficulty, and their plight touched Ziv. So he turned for help to Sorin Hershko, a paraplegic injured in the 1976 Israeli military raid to free Jewish air passengers being held hostage in Entebbe, Uganda.
The two men were determined to make the outdoors accessible to all Israelis. LOTEM now runs a variety of programs for participants from three-year-olds to senior citizens – and not only Israelis, but also foreign tourists with special needs.
LOTEM nature hike
The programs, which reach about 30,000 people every year, include:
- Touching the Western Wall, giving children and adults with special needs the opportunity to visit significant historical and religious sites in Jerusalem.
- Four Seasons accessible hikes, often at the LOTEM-JNF accessible hiking trail in Nahal HaShofet.
- Nature’s Way hands-on activities at Emek HaShalom accessible eco-farm.
- Green Time, where LOTEM guides bring nature to youth, adults and senior citizens confined to residential facilities, rehab centers and hospitals.
- Integra-Teva, using nature and outdoor activities to foster coexistence among Jewish and Arab youth with special needs.
- Mother Nature, offering women and children in domestic-abuse shelters the opportunity to enjoy a day of respite in nature.
- From Black to Green, taking children from special-needs and regular classrooms on outings to the Carmel Forest and KKL-JNF parks to learn about fire prevention and the importance of preserving the natural beauty of Israel.
- Natural Integration, a four-week program that brings children in a special needs class together with mainstream peers for educational activities in nature. This unique program, funded by the Ruderman Foundation, builds awareness and facilitates friendships between the groups of children.
Pressing olive oil at Emek HaShalom
Integrating land and people
“We work 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,” says Bodner. For the past seven years, JNF has been a partner.
“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 spreads the word about its year-round programs through schools and institutions, and many participants return season after season. Rather than offer the programs for free, LOTEM charges a minimal fee as for any similar nature outing, so that participants do not feel they are receiving charity, Bodner explains. The organization raises funds to cover whatever portion of the cost is not possible for the group to pay.
Recently, LOTEM has been increasing its cooperation with special-needs groups from abroad such as a Birthright trip for members of Yachad, the National Jewish Council for Disabilities in the United States.
“There are others we don’t work with yet, but would love to offer our services to them,” says Bodner. “We’re the experts in the field of accessible hikes, so it’s really something we’ll be working to expand.”
In addition, LOTEM arranges Inclusive Israel tours for visiting individuals or families to participate in a day of activities free of charge, to raise awareness of the organization and offer a different experience in Israel.