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Climb every mountain

Former Bergenites take ‘kosher trek’ to Kilimanjaro

You don’t wake up at the age of 49 and suddenly decide to climb Mount Kilimanjaro," said Bob Carroll, a Jerusalemite who made aliyah from Teaneck in ‘005.

Maybe not, but this former Eagle Scout and "nature boy" did decide to do just that after careful thought and a bit of encouragement from his wife, Ruthie Levi. She was the one who had spotted an ad from an Israeli-based travel firm called Koshertreks, which happens to be co-owned by a former Brandeis classmate of Carroll’s.

Koshertreks offers multi-day mountain hikes to extraordinary destinations — Kilimanjaro (Tanzania), Mount Everest (Nepal), Dolomites Traverse (Italy), Inca Trail (Peru), Kackar Circuit (Turkey), Great Glen Way (Scotland), Escalante Canyon (Utah), and a Mediterranean-to-Kinneret route — for people who are Sabbath and kashrut observant.

This particular 10-day trek in February was led by another Bergen County native, Yehoshua Halevi. A professional photographer, Halevi was born in Englewood in 1961 and has lived in Efrat since 1998. Four years ago, he took his first Koshertreks journey to Kilimanjaro, and subsequently he became a guide.

Eight adventurers flew from Tel Aviv to Tanzania for a kosher hike up Mount Kilimanjaro. Photo credits Yehoshua Halevi/Golden Light Images.

"This was my third time, but it was the first time I’d done this particular route," said Halevi. "It was more difficult, although I was in the best shape of the three trips. I gave myself the luxury of hiring a personal trainer, and I worked out specific muscle groups for three months. There’s no way to acclimate to high altitude ahead of time, but if you’re conditioned you can be less tired when you encounter those difficult points."

Carroll, who volunteers with the border patrol once a week and is no stranger to trekking, said he was afraid that some old injuries might give him trouble. Fortunately, he felt fine — at least, until the end. "The descent was brutal; by the time we arrived at camp at the bottom we were all pretty well worn out, and I could barely walk," said Carroll. "Almost everyone had some physical issues they had to deal with — that’s the challenge."

The group of six men and two women (including two Americans) ranged in age from the early 40s to the mid-60s. They flew from Tel Aviv to Addis Ababa, then to Nairobi, and on to Tanzania.

"Sitting there with kippot on our heads during a long layover in the Addis Ababa airport made me extremely uptight because the Ethiopian security people were staring at us," said Carroll. "At one point on the way back, Yehoshua called the [security] guy over and started showing him pictures from our trip to defuse the tension."

Koshertrekkers held services along the trail, although they did not have a minyan. Photo credits Yehoshua Halevi/Golden Light Images.

The trekkers spent their first night in a hotel, where local guides provided orientation for the trip ahead. The next day they started up the mountain.

"Each day we did a number of hours of climbing and walking, then made camp and had dinner, and slept in tents," said Carroll. "We had brought most of the food with us, and we acquired other vegetarian things and gave them to the cook, who was an employee of a Tanzanian company that was extremely cooperative. The food was fantastic, especially considering that he was cooking on top of a mountain in the dark."

As Sabbath fell, the trekkers were perched at around 15,000 feet, "high enough so that just walking around took a lot of koach [strength]," said Carroll. "We had an incredible view of the African plain below."

Before sunset on Friday, they jerry-rigged an eruv (the symbolic boundary that allows observant Jews to carry objects within it during Shabbat), using their fiberglass walking sticks, twine, and duct tape.

Using their walking stick, twine, and duct tape, the trekkers set up an eruv before shabbat. Photo credits Yehoshua Halevi/Golden Light Images.

"Nobody in our group had ever built an eruv before," said Halevi. "Everybody participated and we all learned the intimate details and came to appreciate some of the things we have at home but take for granted."

Both men said the trip had a strong spiritual element.

"Being in wilderness places has always been a religious experience for me," said Carroll. "By experiencing God in nature, my tefillot [prayers] were very much energized. I also collect rocks, and I like seeing ‘art’ created by the original Master. The vistas we saw were something no human artist could ever equal."

Halevi added that being out in nature on a mountain puts one at a greater degree of vulnerability. "You feel God’s presence more palpably, and your dependence on God is more evident."

There weren’t enough Koshertrekkers for a minyan, but morning and Shabbat prayers were generally done as a group. The Tanzanian staff and other hikers watched respectfully.

"I find now that I’ve been in Israel 10 years, living within the comforts of my Judaism, outside the country I feel strongly that I am in the public eye as a Jew," Halevi said. "When dozens of other campers see you putting on tallit and tefillin and erecting an eruv, it forces you to be more careful because you’re being a model to a world that has little notion of what a Jew is — or has a negative image of Jews from the media. It pushes you to be very serious about what you are doing, and on another level you become aware of the practical value of those things."

At koshertreks.com, founding partners Mordy Hurwich-Kehat and Yedidya Fraiman explain: "Hiking … both in Israel and abroad has been among our most formative personal and family experiences.… A Jewish perspective has framed these journeys. It has presented (surmountable!) logistical challenges, but more importantly, has given us a better sense of our place in this world, and a better understanding of the essential role that the mountaintops have played, both literally and figuratively, throughout our biblical heritage."

Back at home, some of the intrepid trekkers’ neighbors were incredulous at the notion of a group of Jews roughing it.

"Somebody refused to believe we had actually spent Shabbat without a hot plate," said Carroll with a laugh. "Hey, we didn’t have beds, and conditions were a little tough! But the physical difficulties were more than made up for by what we gained."

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