LOTEM’s director of development, Alisa Bodner

LOTEM’s director of development, Alisa Bodner (photo courtesy of JNF)

By David R. Cohen | david@atljewishtimes.com

Experiencing nature is a favorite pastime of many Israelis, but what about those who are unable to enjoy the great outdoors in traditional ways?

Based in the north of Israel, LOTEM is offering accessible hikes and nature activities to people with special needs. At the Emek HaShalom (Valley of Peace) Nature Park in Yokneam, the partnership region of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, LOTEM helps more than 30,000 people a year participate in nature activities they otherwise would not experience.

The definition of special needs has expanded over the years for LOTEM and now ranges from people who are wheelchair-bound or have other physical impairments to children on the autism spectrum to women and children who are victims of domestic violence.

The guides for LOTEM’s hikes are Israelis doing their national service, and the organization is hoping to expand its operation to create an expanded inclusive park with the hiking trail and a farm outside Yokneam.

LOTEM’s director of development, New Jersey native Alisa Bodner, visited Atlanta the week of June 15 and chatted with the Atlanta Jewish Times about the 22-year-old organization, its Jewish National Fund partnership and its quest to be inclusive for all.

AJT: So what is LOTEM exactly?

Bodner: LOTEM enables people with special needs to experience nature. So whether that’s building accessible hiking trails or leading hikes around the country for people who have never been in a forest, a child in a wheelchair, a man who was injured in his IDF service and is blind, or children on the autism spectrum, we give them the gift of nature and the land of Israel.

AJT: Why is nature an important gift to give?

Bodner: In Israel, everyone goes out to nature and hikes. People with special needs were being left behind and weren’t able to experience that. It’s a real problem if as a society there’s a sector who can’t enjoy or be part of the national pastime of Israel, which is hiking. So by enabling people to hike on nature trails, we are really being a more inclusive society.

AJT: What is LOTEM doing specifically to include these groups?

Bodner: In addition to the actual building of accessible hiking trails, we lead hikes for special needs schools, for group homes and people who wouldn’t ordinarily be able to go on a hike. Some of them don’t even know what a tree is; their whole existence is indoors, treatment after treatment. We also run an ecological farm in the north of Israel outside the city of Yokneam where we educate people with special needs from all over Israel about ancient agriculture. In the summer we run the only wheelchair-accessible wine press in the world so they can actually press the grapes with their wheels alongside their able-bodied friends or family members.

AJT: Tell me about your partnership with JNF.

Bodner: We are a partner organization of the JNF which means that we are a piece in the vision of JNF- the largest fundraising organization for Israel in the US- to make Israel a better place for the people of Israel. By partnering with LOTEM, JNF is making Israel a better and more viable place for all Israelis. JNF supports our work in Israel and when donors give to JNF, they can designate where their funds go. We also have partnerships with the Israeli government.

AJT: So are you inclusive with your donors as well?

Bodner: What’s very important for us is to share the work we are doing with others. Values that we impart in LOTEM are something that other societies can learn from. Therefore, thanks to the partnership with JNF, we are really able to engage other communities around the United States. One of these wonderful projects we have is called Mitzvah to Mitzvah, where bar and bat mitzvah youth can select LOTEM as their tzedakah project. Taking it a step further, if and when they come to Israel, they can actually lead a hike with our special needs participants and with one of our guides. We also throw a celebration for them on the farm. So it’s not just about giving tzedakah; it’s about actually coming to Israel and being part of the project.

AJT: Why should people donate to LOTEM?

Bodner: We’re an organization that’s doing incredible work. From people with physical disabilities to battered women and their children to adults with intellectual disabilities who have never in their lives been in a forest, we’re doing a lot, but we’re a very modest organization. When somebody gives a gift, it goes a very long way. For $1,800 someone can take out a bus of 35 children in wheelchairs and give them the gift of nature for a day. These children will remember for a very long time that on that day, they weren’t children with disabilities, but they were children with abilities.