How it feels to be at the top of Israel

By Robert Sarner, Detroit Jewish News, Jan. 30, 2004

Living in Jerusalem, I always appreciate getting away for a few days to bucolic parts of the country rarely in the news. The Golan Heights fits the bill perfectly.

Recently, I went there with my family for a brief holiday. Nothing in Israel beats the Golan for unspoiled nature and tranquility. We'd been there often in the past but this time we planned something different - a day on Mount Hermon in the thick of winter.

Situated on the northeastern border with Syria, "the Hermon" (as Israelis affectionately call it) is the sole place in Israel where winter is white for more than a day. It even has a ski resort. At a height of 6,630 feet (2,020 meters) above sea level, the Hermon is Israel's only real mountain and a vital, strategic asset. With sophisticated monitoring devices installed on its peak, the Hermon has long helped the army watch over unfriendly neighbors.

My children, who are half-Canadian, have always been fascinated that their father grew up with snow. They were psyched big time when I suggested our Golan trip include the Hermon. Then, two days before we left Jerusalem, the evening news reported the season's first major snowstorm had blanketed the Hermon in white.

There was no turning back now. If even the mere sight of flakes falling from the sky is a surefire crowd pleaser in Israel, the promise of a day in deep snow - walking in it, jumping in it, sliding on it, throwing it, taking a chairlift over it - is cause for euphoria.

Our kids were also intrigued at the idea that by going to the Hermon, they'd be in the highest, most northern point in the country, kind of like being on the top of Israel. The other extreme is much closer to our home in Jerusalem.

Just east of the capital, on the steep, winding road descending toward Jericho, a marker indicates that you've reached sea level. Continue 15 minutes further and you hit the Dead Sea and the lowest place on earth and the bottom of the country.

From there to the top of Israel, it's about a four-hour drive north. It's worth the trip, especially the final hour that takes you through the Golan up to the Hermon ski resort. The day we were there it was a mob scene.

Many of the visitors had never seen so much snow before and it showed. People were ill-prepared for the bone-chilling cold. They lacked gloves, boots or even winter coats. Amazingly, they didn't seem to mind. They were simply in awe of the soft white splendor around them, savoring this majestic escape from their normal hard-boiled reality. Such is the Hermon's exotic lure during the winter that on an average weekday, it attracts some 3,000 Israelis, a lot more on weekends.

By international standards, the Hermon's skiing facilities are modest. Few Israelis go skiing or snowboard there and clearly many who do would be better advised to take a lesson or two before hurtling down the slopes. It seemed nothing short of miraculojus that they didn't crash into other skiers and actually made it to the bottom in one piece.

Our kids had a magnificent time. It was the high point (pardon the pun) of our Golan trip. They played in the snow, rented sleds to slide down hills, rode the Alpine Coaster and took a chair lift to the top of the Hermon for the spectacular view of northern Israel, Syria and Lebanon. Their only disappointment was that the sun set so early, at 4:30 in the afternoon, ending their fun.

"I think this will be one of our best years since the site opened in 1971," Menachem Baruch told me. A resident of nearby Kibbutz Neve Ativ, he's managed the resort since 1997.

And what does Menachem think of all the recent talk, yet again, of possible peace negotiations with Syria leading Israel to lose the Golan.

"I really don't think most Israelis would ever agree to give up something so strategic as the Golan Heights, especially to a dictatorship," says Baruch. "Our best ally is the Assad family [that has ruled Syria for decades]. As long as an Assad is in power in Damascus, we're in good shape. They don't genuinely want to make peace with Israel."

Based on the latest polls, most Israelis have little confidence in Syrian President Bashar Assad, and even less in a peace agreement that would require yielding the Golan Heights. And it's not because of the snow.

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