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Reflections on Hitchhiking

I just dropped my son Avraham off at the main entrance to our community.  He groaned when he saw the crowds standing near the guard booth, knowing he had a wait ahead of him for a ride.  He was on his way back up north to his  Israeli yeshiva program combining military service with Torah studies, and he had his week’s worth of (now) clean laundry squeezed into his oversized backpack and he was in a rush.   He text-messaged me an hour later that he was already almost there!  The first car that stopped for him took him to the army checkpoint, 5 minutes away, where he figured he’d have a better chance of a ride, being on a main road.   Within minutes, another car pulled over, this one going to a major intersection.  After a quick discussion of which highway the driver was taking, Avraham got in, deciding to get off at the Highway 6 northbound exit where he’d wait for a more direct ride.  This time, another car pulled up, the driver waiting patiently as he got out of his second ride, to roll down her window and ask if he needed the Galilee!  He did, and the woman popped open her trunk for his large backpack since the car was filled with other passengers she had picked up along the way, and he was set.

I still find it amazing.  I grew up in America where hitchhiking was for T.V. movies about runaway teenagers and suspicious truckers.  Here, hitchhiking is a way of life for everyone I know.  For my friend, a pediatric oncologist, who counts on hitches every day to get to his job at the hospital; for kids who miss their busses and know they’ll still get to school on time; for soldiers making their way back to their base after a weekend home.

School’s been out for the past two months for the summer and teenagers all over Israel take advantage of their vacation and the wonderfully predictable weather to travel around the country.   I love driving up north and seeing clumps of kids at every intersection, sprawled on patches of grass, dusty and dirty from climbing up mountains and sleeping under the stars.  They wait, baking in the sun, counting on the kindness of strangers, for a car to pull over and get them closer to the next trail… the next watering hole.  Some small communities in Judea and Samaria and some popular hiking spots have very limited or no available public transportation.  But there is no such thing as a teenager limiting his mobility around bus schedules!  You stand by the side of the road and hang around till someone stops for you.

One evening my husband and I were driving to Jerusalem to a wedding of a neighborhood friend.  A half hour away from reaching the hall, as we turned at a major intersection, we see a young man holding a folded stroller and a hanger with a crisply ironed white shirt.  His young wife was holding an infant and a diaper bag.  Pulling over, we laughed when we recognized them from our area.  They were on their way to the same wedding and, not owning a car, had started hitching, slowly making their way to the wedding, knowing they’d get there…

My kids say there’s a hitchhiking culture.  It’s a no-no to talk loudly on your cell-phone while catching a ride with someone, and when you’re waiting at a hitchhiking spot, there are basic rules of decency.  My girls get upset when people show up to wait and push their way towards the first car that stops, “cutting the (unwritten) line” so to speak, though no numbers are taken and no actual lines formed.  You see good deeds done even among the hitchhikers themselves.  People admonish youngsters with the unwritten order of preference, when they approach a car for a ride even though there are elderly people with shopping carts and heavy packages waiting.

People say hitchhiking is dangerous.  And sadly, at times they have been proven right.  Tragedies have happened when the wrong kind of people stop.  Not everyone stops with good deeds on their minds. Not long ago there was a wave of kidnapping attempts by terrorists, dressed as Orthodox Jews, stopping to pick up hitchhiking soldiers and civilians on the side of the road.  And sometimes disasters strike when hitchhikers themselves are not who they seem to be.  Only ten minutes away from our community, a Palestinian suicide bomber, dressed as a Jewish hitchhiker, stepped into a car and blew himself up, along with the kind driver, and the other unsuspecting passengers.

Picking up hitchhikers is a wonderfully rich and wonderfully easy way to do good.  My theory is that if my car is driving somewhere anyway, why not fill it up?  The blessings I sometimes get for giving someone a short ride is disproportionate to the effort necessary to do the deed.  And I’m very happy to see that my four girls and now oldest son, who already have drivers’ licenses are careful to stop whenever possible.  They know what it’s like to stand at a dark street corner in the rain, knowing no buses will pass again till morning.  They know the feeling of relief of seeing a pair of headlights slowing down and pulling over.

Sometimes I have to work on myself.  When I see a young mother holding her 2 year old’s hand with an infant strapped in a stroller, I know it’ll take time to get out, reposition my packages in the back seat, hold the baby while the mother straps in her toddler, fold up the stroller… it takes a few minutes, but so what, right?

I’m spoiled.  I usually have a car at my disposal so don’t know the difficulties of making my way with rides.  But all I have to do is see those sweet young soldiers, their rifles and knapsacks slung over their shoulders, and I picture my boys in a few years, in uniform, making their way home to visit me after a month of military training.  I stop.  All I have to do is see those hopeful crowds of girls, school books in hand, and picture my own daughters who spent years in university, waiting at that same spot.  I stop.

There are so many good people in the Land of Israel, living up to the directive from the Book of Psalms: “For I have said, ‘The world is built by loving kindness’…” (89:3)<