Posted by: planetisrael | March 5, 2008

LOTEM’s One of a Kind

To be a LOTEM (Hebrew acronym for Integrated Nature Studies) hiking guide, one must be trained in public speaking and group leadership as well as the geology, botany, zoology, and ancient and modern history of Israel. It is also necessary to have a good understanding of people with special needs as LOTEM’s raison d’etre is providing hiking field trips and nature related extracurricular activities and creative workshops for men, women and children who are visually and hearing impaired, physically and mentally challenged, and emotionally disturbed. wheelchair hike

LOTEM’S hiking guides are trained in a series of courses co-sponsored by the Society for the Preservation of Nature in Israel (SPNI) , the Department  of Special Education at Oranim Teacher’s College and the Center for Educational Technology in Israel. The guides are given an interdisciplinary education in dealing with people with a wide range of special needs.

Until recently all the hiking guides were able bodied men and women, that is until Ori Friedland came along. Ori is a 19-year-old graduate of the three month Hiking Nature Guide course offered by Israel’s Society for the Preservation of Nature. The course trains young Israelis who wish to contribute a year of service to their country before their compulsive army service in the Israel Defense Forces (3 years for men, just under 2 years for women).

Ori and Yale on hikeOri was completing his training as a hiking and nature guide in the Negev desert at the Har Ha Negev Field School, one of seven such schools around the country, when he suffered a life-altering accident. While on a training hike in the Negev, Ori took a serious fall in one of the caves. With the assistance of a helicopter, it took emergency rescue workers 90 minutes to free him from the depths of the cave. After recovering from surgery on his leg and upper spine, Ori spent eight months in rehab at Sheba Hospital, one of the world’s leading hospitals in physical rehabilitation. It was there that the idea of working with LOTEM arose. “While I was in rehab, I happened to meet this woman, Rotem, who was doing her practical study towards a degree in psychology. She mentioned that she worked at a place called LOTEM. I had actually heard of it. Before the Haganat Ha Teva (SPNI) courses begin, all the volunteers from around the country meet up for two weeks of introductory training. I had met a couple of girls who were on their way to work with LOTEM. I told Rotem that I was trained as a hiking and nature guide. She suggested I think about working for LOTEM.”

There was never any doubt in Ori’s mind that he would return to nature, hiking and guiding. Weaned on the outdoors, he’d been hiking since he was two-years-old when his parents took him by the hand on long walks through the Carmel forest near their home in Haifa. Throughout most of grammar school, Ori participated in an extra-curricular class that conveyed a basic appreciation for the natural environment via lessons in the local flora and fauna as well as olive and grape presswilderness navigation.

In 9th grade, Ori joined a youth group that met monthly for long hikes during the weekend. On holidays they’d walk through the Israeli desert, forests, hills and Mediterranean coastline for 4 or 5 days at a time. “I loved being in nature. Walking it is living it. We’d cook in the outdoors, sleep under the stars – there’s nothing better.”

LOTEM had never had a wheelchair-bound guide. But the fit was perfect. They needed an English speaking guide to lead special needs groups from North America. As the son of Olim from the USA, Ori is bilingual. Not only does he have the language and guiding skills, Ori has the unique ability to serve as a role brithright groupmodel. “I love leading nature hikes, conveying an appreciation for this land of Israel, teaching about conservation. For me, it’s great being in nature and at this point LOTEM’s hiking paths are the only fully wheelchair accessible options.

“And as it turns out, while I’m just enjoying doing my job leading groups, I get feedback that they are inspired by the fact that I am guiding from a wheelchair. The special needs hikers and their escorts comment I am setting a personal example that anyone can do almost anything. Hearing that this gives them hope and motivation for a richer future is really satisfying to me.”

The pastoral setting of this nature trail itself offers an opportunity to enjoy both the beauty of Israel and its history . Nachal Ha Shofet is located near Emek Ha Shalom (the Valley of Peace) and Yokneam in Northern Israel.  Each season offers a new and unique experience. The valley is rich in history. It is where the Emperor of Egypt crossed to Mesopotamia. Napolean was there as well at the Crusaders some of whose fortresses still remain.  The trail takes visitors to an Ori and Yaleancient flour mill from the Byzantine period and a prehistoric natural cave and waterfall. All this can be visited from a wheelchair accessible hiking path. Nachal Ha Shofet offers an interesting, picturesque and enjoyable hike for families and the elderly as well as people with special needs.  During last Succoth, Ori led a group of Anglo families on the trail enriching their experience with various activities along the way.

Just a short drive from Nachal HaShofet is the LOTEM center where visitors enjoy one of the world’s only wheelchair accessible  olive and grape presses. Most of LOTEM’s enrichment activities and creative workshops for the disabled take place here. However, being out in the middle of nature means that there is limited electricity available. So LOTEM’s founder, Amos Ziv, and newly appointed Fundraising Director, Paula Friedland, Ori’s mother, are working to develop a solar energy center. The center will be used to educate visitors on the technology and environmental sustainability value of solar power. But perhaps more importantly, it will provide electricity not only to the LOTEM teaching facility but to recharge electric wheelchairs, respirators and other medical equipment used by the visitors.

Ori and Paula JNF Another project in the works is a fully accessible website. LOTEM’s new site, once funded and developed, will implement the latest on-line technology enabling full access for a range of special needs. The site will talk to the blind, will have extra-large icons for those with coordination difficulties and in general will use state of the art developments to ensure that as many people as possible will be able to enjoy the site unassisted.

For now Ori is working as hiking guide while participating in a full time, one year leadership training course after which he will enter the Israel Defense Forces. When speaking to Ori, one has no sense that anything limits him. When I asked if he felt he has changed as a result of his accident he replied, “I haven’t changed but I have learned a great deal. I gained a different perspective on life. I’ve always been a very optimisitic person – it’s part of my natural character. But it’s also my great family and wonderful friends. All of it gives me an attitude that I can really do whatever I set my mind to.” And right now one of those things is giving courage and strength to others with special needs as Israel’s only wheelchair- bound hiking and nature guide.


  1. People like Ori make one feel so humble. He is an inspiration to all, and a role model for youth in particular.
    I pray that he will have the strength to show us how much more he can do – both for himself and to create a better world. He is a man with tremendous inner resources whom it is impossible not to admire.
    Yishaer Koach
    Reuben Moses

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