How hitchhiking became the norm

Even though a manhunt is underway for three teens kidnapped while ‘tremping’ home, other ‘trempistim’ are confident it won’t happen to them

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Illustrative: Men, women and teens all hitchhike at the side of Route 60, but they look for familiar faces and looks in their drivers (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Illustrative: Men, women and teens all hitchhike at the side of Route 60, but they look for familiar faces and looks in their drivers (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The sun was blazing down early Sunday afternoon while Avi Kohn was waiting for a ride.

Standing by the side of Route 60, often known as the Tunnels Road for the two tunnels at the Jerusalem end of the highway (which runs north-south to the Etzion Bloc settlements, Bethlehem and Hebron), Kohn was tremping, hitchhiking home to Efrat.

“My wife has the car today,” he said. “So here I am.”

There he stood, dressed in a pinstriped, buttoned-down shirt, tucked neatly into navy chinos, a middle-aged man incongruously sticking out his hand, looking for a free ride.

He wasn’t alone. Standing a few meters before the bus stop, he was joined intermittently by others looking for a tremp as well.

Every few minutes, another car would stop. Sometimes it was driven by a neighbor, or by someone else the hitchhikers, or trempistim, knew personally. But those looking for rides also got into cars driven by strangers, certain kinds of strangers. The men usually had large, knit yarmulkes on their heads; the women covered their hair as well, with hats or scarves. Even the cars had a certain look: large mini-vans or small sedans, often banged up, and sporting yellow, Israeli license plates.

“You can recognize when it’s the right kind of driver,” said Kohn. “My 17-year-old daughter tremps all over the place. But she’s careful.”

With a vast manhunt under way since early Friday as police and the army search for the three teenage boys abducted late Thursday night, the subject of hitchhiking is on everyone’s minds. The three boys were tremping home from their schools in the West Bank, as is customary. It’s a cheaper, and often more convenient way of getting around than the less frequent public buses.

“I was an hour behind them on Thursday night,” said S., an 18-year-old high school senior who was sitting on a bench next to the Route 60 trempiyada on Route 60, the designated spot for anyone looking for a ride.

A public bus pulling up at the trempiada, while others continue to wait for other options in the hot sun (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
A public bus pulling up at the ‘trempiada,’ while others continue to wait for other options in the hot sun (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Route 60 is also known as the Way of the Patriarchs, so named for the route used by the biblical patriarchs making their way to Bethlehem and Hebron. In this section, it bears little resemblance to that ancient road, except perhaps for the flourishing grove of olive trees beyond the chain link fence behind the bus stop.

Now the road is symbolic of the separation between Israel proper and the settlements, which includes the idiosyncratic transportation customs of those who live in or travel to communities located over the Green Line.

S., the high school student, lives in Jerusalem, but attends an all-boys school in Kiryat Arba, a settlement next to Hebron. His parents would prefer that he only take the bus, and have even offered to pay for a private cab, but that’s not an option, he said, even though his parents can afford it.

“It’s just not normal to take a cab, no one does that,” he said. “If you’re right-wing or an extremist, you take a tremp. Tremping is the norm.”

He said he knows how to identify a safe driver, or fellow hitchhiker. They look like him, he said, pointing to his jeans, polo-shirt and kippah.

“If I see someone with a kippah, wearing a tee-shirt with a school emblem and with a backpack, I feel like I know him,” said S.

He’s right, in a sense. Tremping, derived from the German, trampen, has long been a phenomenon of the Israeli collective in Israel, said Professor Gad Yair, a sociologist at Hebrew University.

“Hitchhiking represented the concept that all of Israel is unified,” said Yair, “that everyone tremps, that we’re one, big kibbutz, that we’re in this together.”

Taking rides with strangers was considered acceptable by many, up until the first intifada in 1987, and a spate of abductions, including that of Nachshon Wachsman, who was abducted by a car of Hamas militants wearing yarmulkes and playing Chassidic music.

After Wachsman was killed by his Hamas captors during a failed army rescue attempt, the IDF forbade soldiers from hitchhiking. It launched a long-running public service campaign, and regularly sends out undercover military police units in unmarked cars to pick up soldiers who hitch, sending them to military jail for violating the order.

But two other populations have continued to hitchhike, the national religious settlers and the ultra-Orthodox.

The ultra-Orthodox tend to tremp for financial reasons, said Yair. The national religious, however, hitchhike as a statement of ownership, said Yair.

“They’re saying, ‘it’s our state and no one will stop us or scare us,'” he said. “It’s a guerrilla stance.”

There’s also the practical advantage of hitchhiking, given that many people hitch rides when they live in the more rural periphery, in towns and communities that are farther off the grid, whether within Israel proper, or outside of it, in the settlements.

Maayan Sivillya, 22, falls into that category. She was waiting in the shade of the trempiyada on Sunday afternoon, keeping an eye out for the Egged bus that was supposed to arrive at any moment. Dressed in a sleeveless white blouse tucked into jeans, an artful tattoo inked on her shoulder, she looked different than the other religious young women waiting at the bus stop.

Now living in Hazeva, a community down south, Siviliya was trying to get home to her parents’ house, in Kiryat Arba, where she grew up. “I tremp all the time,” she said.

But with Siviliya, it’s a matter of practicality. There are no buses from Beersheba to Hazeva, which is on the road to Eilat. Once she makes it here, to Route 60, the Egged buses are often full.

“For me, it’s more the issue of men; I prefer to ride with women,” she said. “But this is how we grew up out here, we tremped.”

Egged and other bus companies do operate in the settlements and other peripheral areas. Public buses serving the settlements must be bulletproofed, which is funded by the Defense Ministry. According to Avner Ovadiah, the spokesperson at the Transportation Ministry, more than 30% of public buses have been bulletproofed since 2009, and public bus companies offer a 50% discount to settlement residents, in order to encourage them to take buses and avoid hitchhiking.

On this hot afternoon, while the manhunt for the three kidnapped boys was ongoing a few miles away, several Egged buses drove by, their seats and aisles filled.

“A Tel Aviv guy is going to wait for a bus,” said S. “But people who live out here are stronger, they’re used to it. They grew up in this environment, and tremping is how they get where they need to go.”

At the trempiada on Sunday, undeterred by Thursday night’s kidnapping, the trempistim were confident that they could distinguish between what Kohn called “the right kind of driver” and the wrong kind. But that, of course, was what the three teens seized a little further south less than 72 hours earlier would have believed too.

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