Throughout her grueling cancer treatment, Rachel Illouz knew just one thing. "When this is over, I'm going to climb a mountain," she told her family. She didn't know which mountain, or even what climbing one entailed. A kindergarten teacher from northern Israel and a mother of four, she had never so much as scaled a hill. And yet, a year later, she kept Shabbat on the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro – “the rooftop of Africa” – while raising money for children with disabilities.
During her last round of treatment, while browsing Facebook, she came across a post that made her sit bolt upright. People of all ages were invited to climb Mt Kilimanjaro to raise money for the Shalva foundation. Shalva is an Israeli non-profit organization that helps children with mental and physical disabilities. From a state-of-the-art facility at Shaare Zedek Medical Center – the largest of its kind in the country – Shalva helps equip disabled infants, children, and teenagers from around the country with vital life skills to live a “normal” life. Therapeutic solutions are tailored to each child and include art therapy, animal therapy, speech therapy and hydrotherapy. “It’s an amazing place,” says Rachel. “They have all sorts of wonderful activities, and any family can bring their kids there for a free treatment – no matter what race, religion or gender. There are Jewish, Muslim and Christian kids studying and playing together in an enriching and empowering environment.”
Last year, a group of 28 adventurers from Israel, the UK, US, Canada, and France, of all ages, many with little to no experience, summited Mt Kilimanjaro. “It’s a way of reaching people who otherwise would never have been exposed to the amazing work of Shalva,” explains Rachel. “But this was about more than simply raising money. Shalva’s goal to reach more people and my own personal goal to fulfil a dream came together in this experience.”
Four days into the eight-day climb – a Friday – the group set up camp at Barranco Wall, 13,000 feet above sea level. All participants had decided to observe Shabbat – joining Jews in 918 cities and 84 countries around the world taking part in the international Shabbat Project – and had organised an eruv and special Shabbat meals in advance.
“By around 5pm you could feel the buzz of excitement around camp as everyone prepared for Shabbat,” recalls group leader, Perry Sugarman.
“At 6 pm, we gathered in the mess tent to start Mincha and a very special Kabbalat Shabbat above the clouds. We proceeded to sing and even dance our way through a beautiful and exceptionally memorable Kabbalat Shabbat service.
“The next morning, the dulcet tones of our resident chazzan could be heard echoing around Barranco Wall for all to enjoy. Shabbat Kiddush was made over some prized whiskey and everyone enjoyed a well-earned rest and an afternoon of chatting and card games.
“We ended our Shabbat with a beautiful Havdallah service and lots more singing and dancing. It was an unforgettable and intensely spiritual Shabbat.”
Rachel agrees. “It was unusual,” she says. “Different hiking groups camp at similar points, and tend to be very quiet. I usually don’t keep the Shabbat fully, but we decided as a group to keep this one Shabbat together. We did the whole thing, including Shabbat songs, and felt a connection you really can’t describe in words. The other hikers came by to see what was going on.”
After the Shabbat, she kept on going until she reached the top, and fulfilled her dream. “I always thought it was reaching the top that was most important, but I realised it’s not that, it’s the journey, one’s will, that matters.”
Today the group is still in touch via a Whatsapp group.
“There are unique, life-long connections that are formed during these experiences,” says Sugarman, who has led adventure tours in Africa, the British countryside, the Negev Desert and Eilat Mountains. “It’s not a trip, actually, it’s a life-changing experience”.
This year Shalva is in the process of organizing a challenge bicycle ride to Machu Picchu, the ancient kingdom in Peru. During the 350km cycle, participants will explore the Inca ruins and Peruvian villages, cycle the Sacred Valley through the rainclouds deep into the Amazon Rainforest, and spend Shabbat in the Andes, 400m above sea level – “Keeping it Together” with the rest of the Jewish world. For more details, visit: http://cycle4shalva.org/