Torah Sociology Growing Older in Judea and Samaria

Trans Israel hiking helps retired, pioneer settlers build a social culture based on Torah and the Land of Israel.

Dr. Chaim Charles Cohen

Judaism מפרקים את הגדר של עפרה
מפרקים את הגדר של עפרה

The first settlers of Judea and Samaria, now retired, hike the Trans Israel trail

When is a walk in the woods, or in a Negev river bed, not merely another day trip? When is a senior hiking group not simply another recreational club? The answer is when we our discussing the Binyamin (regional council) Senior Hiking Club of which myself and my wife are active, happy members. Our club focuses on doing the Trans Israel hiking trail ('Shvil Yisrael') that extends from Metulla to Eilat.

This article tells the story of this senior hiking group in the context of two closely related phenomenons. The first is the miraculous settlement of nearly 400,000 Jews in Judea and Samaria in little over thirty years. The second is how our hiking club is building a Torah social culture that meaningfully address the psycho-social developmental needs of people over sixty. To hike the length of the Land of Israel, with our feet and with our souls, and in the camaraderie of fellow pioneers, is an experience that helps us grow older with a redeeming Torah sense of life's purpose and meaning.

We thought we would never grow old

The Senior Hiking Club of Binyamin does six, two day hikes a year, at an average of 15 km a day, on some of the most challenging parts of the Trans Israel trail. We are a group of 40 individuals, whose average age is close to 65. Most of us have recently retired. We were active in pioneering the settlement of Judea and Samaria over thirty years ago. We trek the most beautiful vistas of Israel, sites that one can only reach on foot, sites we did not have the time to visit when we were busy with work, keeping Shabbat, and raising large families.

At the end of each hiking day we are physically exhausted, aching, but spiritually exhilarated. We all pray the evening service with an extra passion, thanking G-d that we can still do such strenuous activity at our age. We all feel that our 'hiking and hugging' of the Land of Israel is a very fitting extension of our life's project of settling Judea and Samaria.

Almost all members of our hiking group were amongst the earliest settlers of Binyamin, beginning in 1975 with the settlement of Ofra. We all lived, in the beginning, in primitive housing conditions, shopped in Rammala, and had our cars endlessly stoned. We protested in every demonstration against the Oslo Accords, and marched every march against the Gush Katif expulsion. We built permanent homes, established businesses, and have seen most of our children and grandchildren continue to live in Judea and Samaria, many setting up new settlements.

When we started there were less than ten thousand Jewish residents in Judea and Samaria,and today there are close to 400,000.

In one sense, we thought that we would never grow old. For example, Chanan Porat exuded 'eternal youth' until his fatal illness. Political idealism and cultural revolution ( as Gush Emunim expounded) was 'suppose  to' act as an elixir of eternal youth. During the 2005 demonstrations against the expulsion, I used black humor to express this naive ambivalence about growing old, when I told the legendary Pinchas Wallerstein (now over 70) that I had a dream that we will all arrive at that last,'God-Magog' demonstration against governmental policy in our wheelchairs, and drive off the police with our canes.

And suddenly, this 'all but impossible ' prospect of growing old in Judea and Samaria is becoming a stark reality. The leftists may not believe it but Judea and Samaria has a rapidly growing elderly population (relative to the past).And we, aging pioneers, who thirty years ago faced challenges of military security and building infrastructure and political legitimacy, now confront a different set of dilemmas, retirement dilemmas with a national religious-settler twist.

These dilemmas include, "What do we do with a big house, which is empty the whole week because the kids are now married, and we have less strength to clean it, and less income to maintain it?" "Should we stay in the place where we still have a sense of community, or do we move to the city where there is easier access to cultural activities and medical services?" "Even if friends leave, do we stay because settling in Judea and Samaria is still our life mission?"

And finally, we consistently encounter the topographical problem, which is that each year as we get older, the hills in the community seem to grow steeper. Thirty years ago, I don't remember there were even hills .Yes, we have not stayed young forever.

However the real dilemma of growing older in Judea and Samaria is existential: What do you do for an encore?

The real dilemma of growing older in Judea and Samaria is existential. Like most retired people, we too must find an answer to the question, "How do you sustain a sense of self worth, and a sense of life's worth fullness, when you no longer receive ego satisfaction from professional and occupational accomplishments, or from political and social activity?"

For example, our communities are today managed and developed by a successor, younger generation. The psychologist Erik Ericson developed the psychological theory of life stage development which defined specific tasks of self development to each stage of life. For example, for the self to properly develop, an adolescent (13-19) must build a self identity amidst role confusion, and a young adult (20-40) must build permanent relationships of intimacy or face social isolation. Similarly we older adults must develop, according to Erikson, mature ego integrity despite the losses that inevitably accompany ageing, or suffer considerable despair.

For example, an emotionally healthy, retired person will much less rely for his sense of self worth on competitive acquisitions and accomplishments. Rather he will attain a mature sense of ego maturity and self worth from a retrospective understanding of his life's challenges and accomplishments, and emotionally 'come to peace' with his life's deficits and limitations. In the case of our Binyamin Senior Hiking Club, most of us maintain our life's sense of worth in retirement through intense involvement with children and grandchildren, creative hobbies (such as my writing this article) volunteer work, Torah study, regular physical exercise, involvement in local social activities, and increased pursuit of cultural and leisure pastimes.

However, Erikson teaches us that all these distinct activities will most effectively sustain an ego's sense of mature worth only when they are connected to a greater, more transcendent understanding of "where my life  has been, and where my life is going".

Getting older and the need for a Torah based social culture

If Erikson is correct, and successful psycho-social aging after retirement requires that we develop a mature answer to the question, "Where has my life been, over the last 65 years, and where it is going?", then it is very psychologically healthy if one is able to see one's life as an integral part of the historical drama of the Jewish people, and as an active agent in the building of a   Torah social culture.

And this is the way that most members of the Binyamin Senior Hiking Club understand the purpose and the trajectory of their life. We established settlements in Judea and Samaria not as a private real estate adventure, and not in order to provide a security belt for Gush Dan. Rather, we pioneered in Judea and Samaria in order to advance the historical redemption of the Jewish people. Seeing our private lives as a part of our people's greater historical drama bestows valuable transcendent meaning to our answer to Erikson's existential question concerning the retrospective and future meaning of our lives.

And this is the real explanation of the exhilarating spirituality that we feel when we finish in total exhaustion fifteen km on the Trans Israel trail. We are affirming that our 65 year life span is an integral part of the three thousand year love affair between G-d, Israel and the Land of Israel.   The Torah of the Land of Israel is an incomparable source of social cultural existential meaning for our post retirement life.

Summary: The Binyamin Senior Hiking Club as an example of Torah social culture

Building a Torah social culture means bringing Torah based values and existential meanings to all areas of your everyday life. When we hike the Tran Israel trail we are not merely taking a walk in the woods, or enjoying a post retirement –stay busy- social activity. We are affirming our ongoing participation in the historical  drama of Jews redeeming all parts of the Land of Israel, a project that we helped jump-start over thirty years ago. Understanding our private lives through the historical, existential meaning of the social culture of Torah and the Land of Israel is the unsurpassable answer to Erikson's post retirement psychological challenge, "where have you been, and to where are you going?"