Out of Their League

They may be learned Torah scholars, but yeshiva students who go hiking during their annual summer vacation sometimes find themselves in life-threatening situations.

Ran Shapira
Ran Shapira
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Ran Shapira
Ran Shapira

Before he arrived at the Rosh Pina police station on Tuesday night, Lazar Bergman spent several hours searching for two hikers - yeshiva students from Bnei Brak. He had heard that they were totally exhausted and did not have water. That information was based on statements given to Rosh Pina police by a third young Orthodox man, who had hiked with the pair during the hottest part of the day, in the least shady part of the nature reserve that Bergman runs - the southern part of the Nahal Amud trail. The search team summoned Bergman, who immediately found a medic to accompany him and raced off in his pick-up truck.

"I often work on gut instinct," says Bergman, who works for the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, "and I had a bad feeling about this. Hiking in this area without water, in the early afternoon, can cause life-threatening dehydration and sunstroke."

With the medic and equipment, Bergman, an experienced and extremely fit man, rushed to the park's dry riverbed. The two religious men were nowhere to be seen. Instead, he met another group of hikers, who said they had seen the Orthodox pair not long before.

Lazar BergmanCredit: Yaron Kaminsky

Bergman concluded that the missing men may have been afraid they would be fined for violating regulations (which specify where hiking is and is not permitted and during what hours) - and fled. Their friend was still at the Rosh Pina police depot then, and the nature reserve director returned to question him.

"They endangered not only themselves, but also myself and members of the rescue team," Bergman explains. "I too can can be affected when I walk about with equipment on my back, during the hottest part of the day."

On Tuesday, temperatures in the southern part of Nahal Amud, which runs from the Upper Galilee hills to Lake Kinneret, reached 40 degrees Celsius in the shade; the area surrounding the riverbed here is parched and shadeless. Temperatures at the northern end of the reserve were 35 degrees, but there are trees and even some water trickling through there.

Earlier on Tuesday, Bergman was summoned to help a 21-year-old woman with symptoms of dehydration. En route to her, he spoke to all the hikers he passed on the trail - members of youth movements and religious families - and practically begged them to keep drinking water.

"Hi, there. I know you - I rescued you during Passover," he said to a young, bearded Orthodox man, who emerged from the stream.

The two missing yeshiva students were not found but police know who they are, and they and their friend are facing criminal charges. The incident is an extreme example of the daily routine of Bergman and his staff at the reserve during the scorching-hot days of summer. The three weeks between Tisha B'Av (which this year began on July 20 ) and the start of the Hebrew month of Elul is basically the only annual vacation that yeshiva students have.

Bergman: "They love Safed and the surrounding region, with its graves of holy figures like Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and many others. The problem is their lack of orientation: Sometimes they hike with maps, but they do not know how to read them. They also don't have any grasp of how much water they need to take, particularly on days like those this week, and that is a problem."

Bergman, who was an army officer, has Tourism Ministry accreditation as a guide, and has worked for years for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the parks authority. He has been in charge of the Nahal Amud reserve for over seven years. Regarding his current job, he says his formal guiding and other training have been less helpful than his experience on the ground. During the first few years at Nahal Amud, he says, "I was in shock each summer during this three-week period. The entire nature of the reserve changes then. Each day, hundreds of ultra-Orthodox hike around the river, on every imaginable path, particularly from Safed. We try to stay in contact with all of them, to offer guidance and explain safety regulations, but it is very hard."

A turning point in relations with the Orthodox public came as a result of the tragedy three years ago in this park. A lone, 15-year-old yeshiva student who was hiking there died of sunstroke, despite frantic efforts to save him. After that incident, Bergman contacted rabbis, and opened new channels of communication with Orthodox communities and rescue organizations like ZAKA around the country. Several ultra-Orthodox medics now work with him in rescue operations and are even ready to do so on the Sabbath if need be.

Over the past year, Bergman says he has focused on contacts with the ultra-Orthodox communities of Safed and Meron. Among other things, he has given half a dozen interviews to religious radio stations since the three-week period began. Fortunately, he adds, his rescue team has not been called out every day.

"On Tuesday, the rescue of the young woman in the afternoon and the search for the yeshiva students in the evening was atypical," he explains. "If it were always that way, I'd collapse, and you'd find my body lying somewhere along the trail."