Such great heights

Shalva, the Association for Mentally and Physically Challenged Children in Israel, raises $300,000 with 27 volunteers summiting Mount Kilimanjaro

Jerusalem couple Avi and Helen Moskowitz (photo credit: COURTESY THE MOSKOWITZES)
Jerusalem couple Avi and Helen Moskowitz
Rachel Illouz told her children that when she finished cancer treatments she would go climb a mountain. And on the day of her final radiation session last January she saw a Facebook post about Climb4Shalva, a trek up Mount Kilimanjaro to benefit Shalva, the Association for Mentally and Physically Challenged Children in Israel. She was one of the first to sign up.
The 27 climbers, plus several support staff from Israel and more than 100 Tanzanian guides and porters, spent nine days in October scaling the world’s highest freestanding mountain. They raised a total of $300,000 from sponsors to benefit Shalva, which is building a state-of-the-art national campus in Jerusalem.
Beyond the triumph of reaching the 5,895-meter-high peak and putting a nice chunk of change into the coffers of a worthy organization, the climbers report that the exhilarating and often difficult experience brought them to new heights personally and collectively.
“We had such a lovely group,” said Illouz, 45. “We all had each other’s backs, and there was such a feeling of love and ahdut (unity). Reaching the top was not the highlight – as incredible as it was – because that wasn’t what this was all about. It was about being there for each other and the love and friendships we made. It was about the kids at Shalva, who have their mountains to climb every day.”
The idea originated with Gaby Hirsch of Ra’anana, chief executive of the British Friends of Shalva. “It’s difficult for Israeli charities to raise money in the UK and I wanted to come up with something a little different. It’s becoming popular to take on challenges for charity, so I thought Kilimanjaro seemed like a good once-in-a-lifetime challenge that could be of interest in the UK.”
Trek leader Perry Sugarman, a certified Ironman coach, running coach and cycling instructor living since last year in Ra’anana – and coincidentally a preschool classmate of Illouz back in the UK – had previously led a group of British runners joining in Shalva’s 2014 Jerusalem Marathon team.
He helped Hirsch plan the Climb4Shalva extreme challenge, administered by the British company Charity Challenge.
Participants signed up from Israel, Canada, the US and UK.
The oldest trekker, and the first to register, was Jerusalem resident John Corre, who raised a total of NIS 125,000 for Shalva from family and friends in honor of his 70th birthday.
The two youngest participants, both 27 years old, were Rabbi Ari Shainfeld, associate rabbi at St. John’s Wood Synagogue in London; and team physician Dr. Callum Gillespie of Scotland.
As it turned out, the group was on Kilimanjaro on the Shabbat of the worldwide Shabbos Project and made the most of that occasion despite their unusual venue.
“We didn’t walk that day,” said Illouz. “We all agreed to keep Shabbat – even those who don’t ordinarily.”
Under the direction of Shainfeld, the porters put up an eruv around the campsite. An experienced cantor, London attorney Anton Eriera, led the group in spirited prayer, some of it set to tunes from The Lion King.
“You’re 4,000-plus meters above sea level, the clouds are surrounding you, and you are singing harmonious tunes arm-in-arm,” said Gary Jason of Ra’anana. “People from other tents were peeking in to see what was going on.”
“We spent Shabbat just singing and singing, and enjoying the amazing vegetarian food. It gave us a chance to rest and acclimatize,” said Illouz.
Resting was a wise choice just then, as the next day they tackled the 257-meter Barranco Wall, a notoriously difficult part of the trek.
Altitude sickness is always a possibility for extreme climbers, and despite drinking copiously, this kept three of the Shalva group from making it to the peak.
For Josh Straus from Tel Aviv, the rigors of the climb brought to mind the late Catherine Montgomery, founder of the American Institute for Stuttering in New York. Growing up in New Jersey, Straus learned to control his severe speech impediment with Montgomery’s help.
“The night before we summited, Perry said this was going to be 50 percent physical and 50 percent mental,” said Straus. “I remembered that Catherine’s intensive course was effective because she addressed all the ‘spokes in the wheel,’ mental and physical.
On the trip there were similar mind-over-matter moments, times when my body wasn’t ready to give up but my mind said it was crazy. And I kept going.”
He had never heard of Shalva before a friend told him about the trek, and went for a guided tour of the center’s Jerusalem headquarters in Har Nof. Because he struggled physically, emotionally and socially with his speech dysfluency for many years, he said, the children he saw there touched a chord in him.
Upon his return from Tanzania, Straus marked his 32nd birthday with a two-day hike around Eilat. “I’m researching several other summits I can do next,” he said.
Gary Jason spent nearly a year getting in shape for the climb, inspired by the chance for a once-in-a-lifetime adventure while raising money “for an amazing cause that I truly believe in.”
“For my children, who are quite young, it showed that anything is possible if you put your mind to it,” he said. The physical effort paid off in ways he may not have expected. “The climb wasn’t about reaching the summit but about the journey itself, being with incredible people,” said Jason.
Avi and Helen Moskowitz of Jerusalem were one of two married couples on Climb4Shalva. (The other was Daniel and Leah Hill from California.) Helen Moskowitz jokes that it was a sort of “midlife crisis” activity as they near 30 years of marriage, but it also seemed fitting as they originally met as teenage counselors at a New York camp for Jewish children with special needs.
“We’ve been supportive of Shalva for years, and we like the outdoors, so when I saw the email from Shalva in January, we went for it,” said Helen Moskowitz.
“We didn’t think it was so crazy at the time. But when we got there and saw these little tents that two of us had to sleep in, it was a little jarring. It was a very tough climb.”
Avi Moskowitz says they gained much from facing the challenge as a twosome. “There are journey people and destination people, and Kilimanjaro combines those two. Having the opportunity to really enjoy the journey and make it to the summit brought another level of satisfaction and reinforced our relationship.”
His wife added that the camaraderie among the group was extraordinary. “Living in Israel, I feel a little insulated sometimes from the rest of the Jewish world. Spending over a week with Jewish people from other places adds a nice dimension to my outlook on our people,” she said.
Shalva’s next extreme fund-raiser will be a trek and bike ride during the first two weeks of July in Iceland. “We are hoping to do Kilimanjaro again next December,” Hirsch said.