The four women sat in Eat’n Park on Murray Avenue in late summer 2008, an ABBA melody playing in their ears, and composed the chorus: “We can dance, we can drive/ We’ll have the time of our lives/ Sixty girls, we’re havarim/ We are the Desert Queens!”
By that fall, they found themselves in southern Israel, among a caravan of silver pick up trucks navigating the rocky desert, singing their new version of “Dancing Queen” along with Jewish women from around the world, the lyrics projected onto the side of a boulder.
Amy Weiss, her sister Jackie McCafferty, her sister-in-law Ellen Weiss Kander and their friend Cathy Cohen Droz took a different approach to vacationing in Israel last October. Rather than hit just the usual stops — the Western Wall and a dip in the Dead Sea — they also spent a week sleeping under the stars and driving through the desert.
“We’re nice Jewish girls from Squirrel Hill,” Kander said. “We’re not used to this.”
This was Desert Queen, a popular outdoors expedition for Israeli women. Think “The Amazing Race” as re-imagined by the Lifetime Network: a chance for women to bond and grow through the personal challenge of traversing remote corners of the world.
Since its beginning in 1999, Desert Queen has become a regular affair in Israel, where people back home keep track of the daily progress of the caravan as it stumbles over rugged terrain in countries like Turkey, Ethiopia, Thailand and India.
But for the 2008 version, Desert Queen tried something different: coming home.
To celebrate the 60th anniversary of founding of the modern state of Israel, the Jewish Agency for Israel and Partnership 2000 decided to set the expedition in the desert of southern Israel. And to foster ties between Jewish women in Israel and those from the rest of the world, they opened half the slots to women from the Diaspora for the first time.
Those 30 open seats went to teams of women from Germany, Argentina, South Africa, New Zealand, Miami and Pittsburgh. Or, in the accent of the locals: Peetsbourgh.
The Jewish Agency wanted each group to give something to the other. The Israeli women could offer a personal view of Israel. And the Diaspora women could help the Israelis rekindle their Zionism, and their love for the land — the actual dirt and rocks — of Israel.
Despite the rugged nature of the trip — climbing over rocks, sleeping on mats, bathing rather infrequently, no cell phones and no toilets — the Pittsburgh women described the trip as the vacation of a lifetime: affordable, challenging and completely different.
The trip was difficult, but not overwhelming. The coordinators didn’t bail women out of sticky situations, like tricky driving spots, but the women teamed up on everything from serving meals to filling in divots in the road to more relaxing activities like painting canvases of the landscape, cycling through the desert, rappelling down rock faces and, of course, singing a modified ABBA song whenever the opportunity presented itself.
“It wasn’t doing Outward Bound, Weiss said. “It was a little bit cushier than something like that.”
Planning for the trip was need-to-know, the women said. The Jewish Agency distributed a list of what to pack and where to be, and not much else.
The Pittsburgh women — coming from careers, husbands and children — described that lack of control as being difficult to handle at first. Soon, though, it became the best part: completely letting go.
“That’s what vacation’s supposed to be, but how rarely does that actually happen?” Droz said.
The success of the 2008 expedition prompted the Jewish Agency to try it again. Desert Queen 2009 runs from Oct. 27 to Nov. 3, once again in Israel, with women from all over.
For a video of the “Desert Queen” sing-along, visit the Singing ABBA in the Negev Desert blog at thejewishchronicle.net.
(Eric Lidji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (412) 687-1006.)