November 19, 2019

One Man’s Long, Inspiring Walk to Jerusalem for Sukkot

Elan Marguiles

There’s an ancient Chinese proverb that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. For Elan Margulies, a six-month trek from Portugal to Jerusalem, where he hopes to arrive on Sukkot, started that way. By the time he enters Israel’s capital, he will have walked more than 3,200 miles. 

Margulies, 34, is an environmentalist who most recently worked as Hazon’s director of education. His family owns Pushing the Envelope Farm, a Jewish farm west of Chicago on the site of what was once an envelope manufacturing plant.

We spoke while he walked — of course. It was his 5,000th kilometer, he said, as he trekked just north of Antalya, a town on Turkey’s southern coast, heading to where he would spend the Day of Atonement.

He plans to dip in the Mediterranean as a mikvah and spend the fast day in Antalya. Early the next morning, he intends to board a flight to Ben Gurion Airport. When he lands, he hopes to immediately start walking, all the way to Jerusalem, where he plans to stay. That last segment should take about a day and a half, he said.

“I started this trip wanting to be alone, to do my own thing and be immersed in nature. But now I see that people are generally good and doing what they can. For me, what’s changed most is my outlook toward humanity.” — Elan Margulies

Margulies started in April and will have walked through a dozen countries: Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Bulgaria, Turkey and Israel. He encountered some trouble along the way, including a visa issue, which blocked him from walking through part of Italy and Slovenia within the E.U.’s Schengen Area. He circumvented the issue by going to Croatia. 

In Macedonia, he learned that his grandmother had died. “I wasn’t sure if I should stay on the trip or go home. Last time she and I spoke, she said it was the trip of a lifetime and I would meet her in Jerusalem,” he recalled. After talking it through with family, “I decided to hike faster and interpret it as God pushing me forward on the trip to get me to Jerusalem for Sukkot.”

There have been a few other hiccups — a scorpion crawled into his tent one night. Wild and shepherd dogs didn’t like him on their turf. There was a heat wave in France, with temperatures above 95 degrees, leaving him dangerously dehydrated.

Then there has been being Jewish in places not known to be hospitable. “A few times when I’ve mentioned I’m Jewish, there’s a political pause, mostly in Turkey, but on a personal level there has been no tension,” Margulies said.

Positive encounters have far outweighed the negative, he said, like while he walked through Kosovo.

“I had a home hospitality stay that was one of the most profound acts of charity I’ve experienced,” he said. “When I was passing this town at night, some guys invited me to sit. When they learned that I camped every night, one volunteered to bring me home to his rural family. His cousin could speak English. They drew a bath for me with buckets of water. When I said I was hungry, they brought me plates of food, apples from their orchard, clean clothes to change into. They insisted I take a crocheted blue evil eye, which is on the back of my backpack now. The next day, the guy filled my backpack with apples and took me out for coffee. They aren’t a wealthy family, but it was one of the most generous evenings I’ve ever had.” 

After several years of working in environmental education — first at Eden Village Farm, the National Park Service, then running Teva and ultimately as Hazon’s director of education — he was ready for something different. It has been a journey of personal growth, as well as physical endurance. Margulies is now walking 35 miles a day, he said, significantly faster than when he began.

“I started this trip wanting to be alone, to do my own thing and be immersed in nature,” he said. “[But now] I see that people are generally good and doing what they can. For me, what’s changed most is my outlook toward humanity. I’ve tried to take the lesson of Hillel the Elder to heart. He greeted people even before learning anything about them. I’m trying to do the same.”

Debra Nussbaum Cohen is the Jewish giving maven at Inside Philanthropy and is a freelance journalist in New York City.