Julie Schwartz – Special to the Tribune

JERUSALEM – Sharing shakshuka in a forest clearing, swimming in a waterfall, eating ice cream in the desert, climbing the Palmach Ascent and meeting Orthodox school girls singing Justin Bieber songs in a canyon. These have been just some of my experiences as a participant in the One Family Fund Canada Hike in Israel.

Five years ago, I glanced at a notice for a One Family Hike Information Evening, and three months later I found myself walking from the Mediterranean to the Sea of Galilee. And I have gone on every hike since. But this experience is so much more than just a hike. It has given me an incredible perspective on life, strengthened parts of my body I didn’t even know I had and taught me that it is actually possible to “cry with one eye, and smile with the other.”

Each year, I join between 40 and 60 men and women (mostly over 40, some as young as 80) as we gather to hike, visit interesting sites, eat amazing food and enjoy the camaraderie of new friends.

Participants come alone, with their siblings, spouses or friends. Some come with hiking boots that have never been worn, and join the beginners’ group, while others come with well-worn Columbias that they use to rappel down cliff sides. Whatever the level, one thing I’ve found is that by the end of the five days, we really do feel like one family.

However, what makes the One Family hike truly special is the opportunity to meet and hike alongside those who have been affected by terrorism and who One Family is helping.

I’ve met an older couple who lost their son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren to a suicide bomber but wanted us to know that “Israel is not a country you go home crying from.” We hiked with a police chief who was called to the site of a terror attack, only to have to identify her own daughter’s body. Every year, these people show us how to live life with courage, optimism and strength.

I’ve visited Israel many times, but it wasn’t until I had the opportunity to hear a choir of bereaved fathers sing Hallelujah on a sunset cruise, or bake focaccia bread with bereaved mothers, or swim in the desert with youngsters who have lost siblings to terror that I learned not just to see Israel, but experience it.

One Family Fund Canada has helped more than 10,000 victims of terror – young, old, Jewish and non-Jewish – since 2001. This coming October, One Family hikers will be experiencing the beauty of the Judean Hills and connecting with victims of terror in a uniquely personal way. For more information, visit www.onefamilyfund.ca