Susannah Schild is on a mission to help bring Israel’s unique natural landscape to the world’s attention. Israel, she says, is a hiker’s paradise that should be better known. Through her website Hiking the Holyland she has connected more than half a million people to the joys of Israel’s network of nature trails.
Schild and her family moved to Israel in 2003 on just the second flight organized by Nefesh B’Nefesh, the non-profit organization which facilitates immigration from North America in cooperation with Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Integration, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael and JNF-USA.
Schild is one of over 65,000 people who have arrived in Israel with the help of Nefesh B’Nefesh since it was founded in 2002, but growing up in the tiny Orthodox Jewish community of New Orleans she says she never connected Israel with her Jewish identity.
That changed at the age of 12 when Schild arrived with her parents and siblings on their first trip to Israel and stayed at a hotel in central Jerusalem.
Schild says the trip provided a formative experience of what Israel meant to the Jewish people. It was the Jewish festival of Shavuot and the family stayed up to follow the tradition of studying through the night.
“I was the youngest in my family and at some point I fell asleep,” she says. “The next thing I remember was being woken up and looking out of our window from the 18th floor and seeing people walking towards the Old City, towards the Western Wall. We decided to go too. We went downstairs and started walking with them.”
“At first it was just a few people, a little crowd heading in the direction of the wall,” she says. “As we got closer the crowd grew. Once we were inside the Old City it felt like I was running with a mass of Jews. It was something I had never experienced before. When we reached the wall itself I was totally blown away. I had never seen that many Jews gathered together in my entire life. It was the first time I really felt a part of a really big community with a bigger purpose.”
Without really planning it, Schild came to Israel after high school and spent a year in Jerusalem. By this time, her older sister was also living in the city, so the connections were starting to grow.
“It was very far-fetched for me,” Schild says. “I had never even thought about living in Israel or moving to Israel or anything like that. That year really changed me. I lived in an amazing place, in a seminary in Jerusalem. My rabbis and my teachers were so wise. I really felt that I began to understand Judaism in a way I had never really understood it before. That totally transformed me.”
“My sister had married an Israeli and was living in Jerusalem with two little kids,” she says. “Being with her and seeing the way that she raised her kids, and also seeing the way my teachers were raising their kids in a less materialistic society, I felt that whenever I married and had kids, I needed to raise them in Israel. I decided that was what I was going to do one day.”
Schild returned to the United States and enrolled at Yeshiva University’s Sy Syms School of Business, where she met her husband Avi, who was also keen on moving to Israel. After college they came on a pilot trip, and after visiting Ramat Bet Shemesh, knew they had found a good place to land.
“We spent a Shabbat there that summer and decided that when we moved we would go there. It was amazing,” she says. “Before, I had always been in tiny apartments in Jerusalem. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as having a house or big apartment in Israel. Also, Ramat Bet Shemesh was full of Americans. It seemed like such an easy place to land, so that’s where we came.”
Like any young couple of new immigrants with two small children, not everything was easy.
“I don’t know how we would have done it without Nefesh B’Nefesh,” says Schild. “We were young and struggling and I don’t know how we would have managed without their assistance. We had just finished school. Also in terms of the bureaucracy, they were so helpful with everything.
“It was an amazing resource,” she says. “They do amazing things and I just love the idea that it was someone with a mission and an ideal who made it happen and all these people are able to come to Israel so easily now because of it. It was super, super helpful.”
Three years after arriving in Israel, Schild and her husband moved the family to the town of Neve Daniel in the West Bank’s Gush Etzion bloc.
“We fell in love with the place after only spending one Shabbat there,” Schild recalls. “Neve Daniel has a great sense of community. It’s close to Jerusalem, but feels like a small town. We love it here.”
Schild decided she wanted to be a stay-at-home mom while her children were small and enjoyed doing that for 17 years. In 2018, when the couple’s sixth child started preschool, she decided the time had come to spread her wings and hit on an idea inspired by the family’s vacation experiences.
“Over the years with all of our kids we had always done a lot of traveling,” Schild says. “We had been out west in America, we’d been to Scotland, Ireland, a bunch of places. Everywhere we went, I always used online resources to plan our trip. We love being outdoors. We are very active people.”
Schild found that in some places it was easier than others to plan the family’s travels. A particularly challenging struggle to find online English resources in northern Italy years back stuck with Schild, and later helped shape the idea for Hiking the Holyland.
“We had just been to Scotland, which is a hikers’ paradise,” Schild recalls. “It’s gorgeous, there are so many hiking trails, it’s just amazing. We went on a three-week vacation, hiking the entire time. We used Walk Highlands, the incredible resource that they have there, and it’s amazing. It has all the information, all the maps, all the pictures. We knew what we were getting into. It was just great.”
“When we returned to Israel that fall I realized that Israel didn’t have a resource like that,” she says.
“I thought it was surprising that Israel didn’t have a comprehensive English-language resource, especially considering what a tourist hub it is, but also for new immigrants,” she says. “I felt that for everybody it would be great if we could have a site which would clearly outline all of the hikes in Israel with maps and make hiking accessible for people — not something you have to do with a tour group or spend a lot of money on.”
Today, Hiking the Holyland has a website, Facebook page and private Facebook group where members can connect and ask questions. Schild writes a blog on each hike and adds instructions, maps and photographs. The blog format makes it possible for her to cover all the hikes piecemeal.
Today there are more than 200 hikes, each arranged by region, difficulty, distance and duration. Schild plans to add more and longer hikes, an app, a podcast and videos.
Schild would also like to help protect Israel’s extraordinary natural beauty against trash and pollution, and plans to create ties with organizations with similar aims.
“I view Hiking the Holyland as my mission — to help people discover the beauty of Israel through nature. I want to help them come visit and see it in person,” Schild says. “I get a ton of pleasure out of it. Having gone on hundreds of hikes in the past couple of years, I know that hiking here can be an amazing experience.”
But Schild’s mission has deeper roots, too. Above her desk is a passage from the teachings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Mandatory Palestine’s first chief rabbi, which urges followers to “rectify the sin of the spies who slandered the land” — a reference to the emissaries sent by Moses to scout out biblical Canaan, most of whom returned with frightening stories of giants and wild beasts.
“On a religious level I feel I have discovered my mission: to rectify the sin of the spies who slandered the land,” Schild says. “I know that sounds crazy, but I really believe in that. Every day when I sit and write I look at this quote from Rav Kook on the wall. Whatever comes out of it I feel like I’m doing what I need to do in order to achieve that goal.”
Alongside the practical information, Schild also spreads her literary wings with inspirational stories about her experiences. One blog post about her daughter getting married at the start of the pandemic was widely shared and circulated, drawing hundreds of comments.
Her growing audience seems to appreciate it. Next to the quote from Kook, Schild has pinned one of the many messages she regularly receives: “I love the service you provide. I literally don’t hike anywhere without referencing your website first,” it says. Using the Hebrew word for immigrants to Israel, the reader adds, “G-d bless you for making this country accessible for English-speaking Olim!!!”
“I want to reach more people,” Schild says. “I think there are a lot of people out there who love the outdoors like I do and are looking for interesting places to travel. They might not even realize that Israel is unique in this area for being a hikers’ paradise. It has a crazy network of trails. You can hike here all year long, which you can’t really do in many places in Europe. It’s incredible. You can come here and go on a desert hike in the middle of the winter and the next day go on a hike in the rolling hills of Mt. Tabor.”
“If people could see that, I think they could develop a really special relationship with Israel and feel differently about the country just through their experience in nature,” Schild says. “The more I can spread it to people all over the world, the more I would like to do that.”
This sponsored article was written in collaboration with Nefesh B’Nefesh and its partners, Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Integration, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael and JNF-USA.
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