Josh Glahn, 19-year-old student at Yeshivat Har Etzion in the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut, hitchhikes about 10 times a week.
"'Tremping' (the slang term for hitchhiking) is the way of life here — it’s more about necessity than anything else. Transportation is incredibly impractical otherwise,” Glahn, originally from West Hartford, Conn., said. The term is an Israeli-accented adaptation of the European word “tramp.”
Like Glahn, the three teenage boys kidnapped from their local yeshivot (two from the yeshiva Mekor Chaim) last Thursday evening weren’t doing anything out of ordinary. Standing on the side of a nearby highway with forefingers (the thumb is not used in Israel) down, they were waiting to hitchhike a ride home, like any other day.
While the practice of hitchhiking might strike fear and suspicion in American hearts, in Israel, and particularly in the West Bank, the practice is commonplace, especially among yeshiva students.
They do it because they don’t have cars, and there are no buses to convey them from one settlement to another.
Glahn explained that hitchhiking is accompanied by a very specific set of guidelines — referred to by students as “tremp etiquette.”
“Don’t speak unless spoken to, if the driver is on the phone try and ignore their phone conversation, always sit in the backseat, try not to sit next to girls if you’re a boy — these are the rules you quickly learn when you hitchhike on a regular basis,” said Glahn.
But how does one discern which car is safe, and which car might be headed for danger?
“There are signs you look for,” said another 19-year-old student Yeshivat Har Etzion who preferred not to give his name. “Are there kids in the car? Is the driver wearing a kipa? Do they speak foolproof Hebrew?” he enumerated.
“Of course, none of these signs are foolproof, but it’s a general feeling you have: This is safe or this isn’t,” he concluded.
According to Haaretz, Hamas recently published an 18-page booklet entitled “Guide for the Kidnapper,” which delineates a parallel etiquette. The booklet contains operational guidelines for carrying out kidnappings. For example, the guide recommends acting on rainy days, using pistols with silencers, using backup cars to move the victims and kidnappers and to know Hebrew well and to speak it. The booklet also recommends waiting until the victims are in a safe hiding place before announcing the kidnapping.
Professor Ruth Pat-Horenczyk, expert on mental resilience and coping with trauma at Hebrew University, said hitchhiking might decrease for a short time after the kidnappings, but is sure to resume.
“The immediate response of all parents is to ban their children from hitchhiking. But this won’t last. After a certain time, people habituate back into their normal patterns. Those who will continue hitchhiking promise to do so ‘safely’—they’ll only take a car with an Israeli number, or with people they recognize from the neighborhood. But in the tragic event of these kidnappings, the terrorists used an Israeli car and were dressed like settlers. It is an illusion that you can tell the difference between a safe vehicle and a dangerous one,” she said.
The essence of terrorism is, after all, to “disrupt the everyday life of an open society,” she said. “It’s not about how many people the terrorists kill or kidnap. It’s about creating a general sense of fear and helplessness that seeps into our infrastructure.”
Despite the danger, teenagers are not deterred. According to Lily Wilf, a 20-year-old alumnus of Beit Midrash Migdal Oz, a women’s yeshiva in the West Bank, hitchhiking is “definitely” as prevalent among young women as it is among young men.
Wilf, who is originally from New Haven, Conn., was quickly “initiated,” as she put it, into the hitchhiking culture when she arrived in Israel for her post-high school year abroad.
“There’s a big gap between the idea of hitchhiking, and the negative connotations that go along with it, and the actual reality on the ground,” she said. Wilf, who hitchhiked frequently, “remarkably” never had a negative encounter.
“There is a widespread trust in the settlements,” she explained. “It’s a whole different ball game. You’ll most probably end up in a car with someone you know, or at least someone you know by two degrees of separation.”
“The craziest thing that ever happened to me was sitting next to iguana in the back seat,” she laughed.
While Wilf maintained “conservative” hitchhiking practices, some of her peers are not as careful. Some students played “hitchhiking games,” challenging one another to travel across the country as fast as possible exclusively via hitchhiking.
“It’s like a race around the country: Who can get to Eilat first?” Wilf said.
Yeshivas in the area do instruct their students not to hitchhike. “It was more of a warning to be careful,” Wilf qualified. “It’s too much of a reality to try and prohibit.”
Since the kidnappings, the schools have tried to tighten their security measures. “We received a mass text instructing students to stop tremping after the kidnappings,” said Glahn.
Will students stop? “Probably not,” he said. “We also received instructions on the first day of yeshiva not to hitchhike — but except for one first-year kid who wouldn’t tremp because his parents told him not to, everyone else began to do it.” Officials from the yeshiva have not yet provided further comment.
Karen Fromowitz, a parent from Woodmere whose son attended Yeshivat Har Etzion in 2008, made it clear to him before leaving that tremping was out of the question.
"Sending my son across the green line was a huge leap to begin with. Before he went, I was very clear: Absolutely no hitchhiking. I know it's part of the way of life there, and maybe Israeli parents are more okay with the idea, but as an American parent, the answer was an absolute no. I don't know if he listened, but I made it clear," she said.
Asked if their parents knew about how frequently they hitchhiked, both Wilf and Glahn said no.
“If my parents knew I was hitchhiking, they would not be happy,” said Glahn. “But most parents don’t know, and those who do know might protest, but the students keep doing it anyway. It’s the way of life.”