Elkins Park resident and 2007 Cheltenham High School graduate Saul Zebovitz said he was looking for a different way to spend his summer before heading off to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire in the fall. Zebovitz noted that he accomplished numerous things in high school — he became an Eagle Scout, was active in United Synagogue Youth and earned a teaching certificate from the Jewish Community High School of Gratz College — yet one thing eluded him.
He had never been to Israel.
When he heard about Israel Trail Teen Adventure, a summer program offered by Derech Hateva, a new organization under the auspices of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, Zebovitz said that he found something "straight up my alley."
Utilizing the resources of SPNI, an umbrella organization that encompasses several Israeli nature and conservation groups, Derech Hateva organizes Jewish outdoor educational opportunities in Israel.
Based in Jerusalem, it's largest component is the Israel Trail Teen Adventure, or ITTA, the environmental program for 14- to 18-year-olds from North America, Israel and other countries; participants, separated by gender, spend a month backpacking trails in Israel in small groups of nine to 12 teens.
Derech Hateva was founded in 2004 by Yael Ukeles, its director. Realizing she could make a career out of her love of the outdoors and of Israel, where she was doing Web design and marketing, she decided to develop a program to acquaint — or perhaps re-acquaint — young Jews with the land of their ancestors, stressing the connection that exists between Judaism and nature.
And so Derech Hateva — "the way of nature" — was born.
Ukeles, who is originally from New York and had outdoor education training, said that she modeled Derech Hateva after established environmental programs in the United States, such as the National Outdoor Leadership School and Outward Bound.
She said ITTA participants spend a month exploring the natural beauty of the Jewish state from north to south through hiking and biking in areas mentioned in the Bible. The experience, she added, gives participants a chance to develop outdoor living and leadership skills, such as map-reading, setting up camp and preparing meals, combined with swimming, rock-climbing and other outdoor pursuits. They keep kosher and observe Shabbat, exploring Judaism through relevant biblical texts on topics relating to nature.
Along the journey, she pointed out, they usually end up finding out a little more about themselves by developing skills they never knew they had.
Its first two summers — a trial period, Ukeles explained — were only open to Orthodox teens. By 2007, interest in the program allowed it to be expanded, and it was opened up to young people from multi-denominational backgrounds in multiple sessions.
This year, Ukeles said she's aiming to organize programs for six different groups.
For Zebovitz, now 19, ITTA was "a good fit" and "great opportunity."
"The connection to the land of the Bible," he said, "really stood out for me."