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Photo: Or Shukrun

No fear: Trekking with 60 religious women

Secular reporter bonds with observant women over coffee, forests, and snowy peaks on Queens of the Desert tour in Lapland

I embarked on the Queens of the Desert jeep expedition to Lapland with 60 women this year, totally unprepared. The others were all observant Jews, and I wanted to arrive cleansed of prejudice, despite the fact that the words "tradition" and "me" are never seen in the same sentence.


Despite all this, I still arrived with a lot of preconceptions and psychological blocks. "These women will not convert me!" I thought to myself.

'Letting loose': We start walking (Photo: Or Shukrun)


'Journey number 8', as they put it, was planned for women who refrain from applying for the Queens of the Desert expeditions because of religious or kosher concerns. But I chose it because I wanted something different – if I was going for it, then I was going all the way.


My first meeting with the girls was in Israel. We were told the aim of the expedition was to let loose, not to know where we were going or where we would sleep. It was perfect for a control-freak like myself. "Let this journey sweep you away, and your spirit to be purified," I was told.  


Camping and intimacy

After three separate flights we arrived in Finland, and following instructions embarked on the tour in a convoy of jeeps decorated with Israeli flags. Ice-capped mountains and blue skies surrounded us; scenery that looked as if it came straight from a postcard. Once in a while we stopped to "bond" over coffee and I kept thinking: 60 religious women and me, bonding!


But gradually these stops became the highlight of our day, and religion became a dim shape in the background. Slowly I came to the realization that we were just a bunch of girls traveling together.


From Finland we traveled to Sweden, where we did a short hike through a forested nature reserve. Rivers spurted from the mountains on every side, and the trees were thick and laden with foliage. The earth beneath our feet was soft with mushrooms and moss, giving our hike a fairytale atmosphere.


In Norway, we camped just 100 meters from the sea, which lay spread out like a sheet before the cool snowy peaks behind us. It was then, with the salty air in my throat, that I began to feel true oneness with nature.

Winning team crowned (Photo: Or Shukrun)


I was sitting on the beach watching the sun touch the water when one of the other girls came up to me and began a conversation, our first since we had met three days hence. It was so natural, open, and intimate, that we immediately forgot we had been strangers.


Racheli told me she had paid for the tour with the compensation her grandmother had received from the Nazis. The elderly women had sworn never to use it herself, and gave it to Racheli in her will "to do something special with". Racheli decided Queens of the Desert was ideal for this aim.


Five years after Gush Katif

Shabbat dinner followed, and I discovered that despite my fears of the religious ceremony, I was warmly received. At dinner every girl had a candle to light, and we were joined by two Danish families and their children, who were also camping at the site. We taught the children Hebrew songs, and they liked us so much they stayed with us for the rest of the week.


Joining the Queens of the Desert expedition was a childhood dream of mine, and I assumed the other girls had a similar motive, in addition to those of feminism and the desire to travel. But when we sat around the campfire and I heard their histories, I discovered the motives were as diverse as the number of participants. They included losing loved ones in terror attacks, conversion, bravery, and heartache, and for many of the girls the journey was one of resurrection after years of scarring instability.


Anat, for example, told us that precisely five years before she had received the Sabbath in her home in Gush Katif. It was their last Saturday before the evacuation. On that day, the lowest in her life, she promised to reward herself with a good experience, and now here she was. 


After sharing our stories, all I wanted to do was hug them all. We had become one big family. The next day, I shut off my cell phone and removed the watch from my wrist. I decided to give myself over entirely to the experience and for the rest of the week, I was happier than I can say.


The last morning was one of celebration, and rewarding of the winning team. The four women walked to the center of the circle to be crowned Queens of the Desert, and received hugs from all the other girls. Anat accepted an orange shirt saying "winning team" with shaking hands. "This color will haunt me for life!" she said of the orange, which was the color of support for the Gush Katif evacuees.


Sitting at home, looking at the pictures from the expedition, I am filled with wonder at the estrangement I felt in the beginning, out of fear of that which was different. I want to thank them for their ability to listen and accept the other, which taught me that the way to succeed in life is through kindness.



פרסום ראשון: 08.13.10, 15:05
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