Climbing Kilimanjaro

Climbing Kilimanjaro

Locals climb high to boost Israelis with disabilities

Gina and Joseph Grunfeld climbed Kilimanjaro together. (PHOTO COURTESY JOSEPH GRUNFELD)
Gina and Joseph Grunfeld climbed Kilimanjaro together. (PHOTO COURTESY JOSEPH GRUNFELD)

The image of two dozen Jewish trekkers carrying a Torah scroll up the world’s tallest freestanding mountain in the year 2020 can’t help but conjure the image of Moses carrying the tablets of the law down another mountain more than 3,300 years ago.

But for Joseph Grunfeld, who grew up in Teaneck and now lives in Piermont, a different biblical comparison came to mind. Mr. Grunfeld saw great symbolism in that Shabbat’s Torah portion of B’shallach, in which the Children of Israel miraculously cross the Red Sea on their journey to Mount Sinai and ultimately to the Promised Land.

And so, at 16,000 feet up Mount Kilimanjaro on February 8, Mr. Grunfeld, 63, on the trip with his wife, Gina, shared an unusual sermon — his first-ever d’var Torah — with his fellow trekkers on a mission to raise funds for Access Israel and prove that even people with physical disabilities can make it to the peak.

“The only way to reach your mountain is to split your sea,” he told them. “We’re all taking a journey that marches us forward up Kilimanjaro to reach the summit. The trip is our Red Sea; the summit is redemption. Many have faced some incredible odds to make this trek — much greater odds than myself.”

Aaron Muller, left, and his father, Dr. David Muller, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro together on a trip organized by Friends of Access Israel. (PHOTO COURTESY FRIENDS OF ACCESS ISRAEL)

The trip is a fundraiser for the New York-based Friends of Access Israel, and most of the climbers were able-bodied, there to challenge themselves, meet lifelong goals, and support an organization in which they believe, but some of them faced more specific challenges. In addition to Mr. Grunfeld, who has congenital degenerative discs and suffered severe injuries to both knees three years ago, the group included four people with lower limb paralysis and several others dealing with effects of physical or emotional trauma.

Last summer, Mr. Grunfeld started hiking with the aid of trekking poles and was looking for a way to take this activity to the next level.

That opportunity presented itself when he was introduced to James Lassner, Friends of Access Israel’s executive director. Mr. Lassner told him about the inclusive trek he was planning to Kilimanjaro during Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month. The trip would raise money for the Israeli nonprofit organization, which works to improve accessibility and inclusion for people with disabilities and the elderly.

“Enter Jamie, whom I recently met through a mutual friend, and not coincidentally he was creating the perfect trip for me,” Mr. Grunfeld related in his sermon on the mount. “It had purpose and meaning and was epic.”

Joseph and Gina Grunfeld — he’s a private wealth adviser — contributed $12,000 toward their fundraising goal. Supporters added another $5,000. “I have a friend who has a company, and he said that if I displayed his water bottle thermos at the peak he’d support us too,” Mr. Grunfeld said. “So I did product placement at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro!”

Not that reaching the highest of Kilimanjaro’s three summits at 19,341 feet was a piece of cake.

“I was ready to tap out when I had altitude sickness already at 17,000 feet,” Mr. Grunfeld said. “So to make it to the top was quite an accomplishment that in hindsight was probably pretty stupid. But I made it, and I feel unbelievably accomplished. I made it only through mind over matter. It was the biggest mental challenge of my life.”

Dr. David Muller of Teaneck, dean of medical education at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, almost didn’t make it to the last peak either. During the final 14-mile moonlit climb, he’d run out of water and decided to start heading down. But then he was rejoined by his 32-year-old son and traveling companion, Aaron.

Here’s how Aaron Muller, who lives in Philadelphia, recalls that moment and the subsequent father-son climb to the top.

“Everyone goes up the mountain with a porter, at their own pace,” he said. “It’s very grueling and hard to breathe at that elevation. I was looking down at my feet, counting steps till I got to the top. There are three peaks and between them I found my dad ready to turn back because he had no more water. I had some spare water and I said I’d share it with him so he could continue. We ended up going together, actually pretty fast, as dawn was breaking.”

He will never forget that sunrise. “You’re on the highest point on the continent, and you turn around and see there is black above and black below and a line of burned orange in between, like the beginning of creation. As we walked back, the whole sky began lighting up, and I expected a giant ball of fire as the sun came up. But instead a tiny red ball poked its head over the horizon. I was openly weeping. It was like seeing the sun being born.”

Joseph Grunfeld took this picture of sunrise on Mount Kilimanjaro.

Mr. Muller had a serious hiking accident about seven and a half years ago that left him with a head injury, as well as debilitating anxiety and PTSD.

“I woke up one Sunday in January to an email from my dad asking me to call him,” he said. “He said they’d had Shabbos lunch at a friend in Teaneck, and Jamie Lassner was also there, and told them about the trip to Kilimanjaro. My parents initially decided to go together but then thought to invite me to go with one of them.

“I was not very up for making that kind of decision at the time. I said I’d think about it. But my wife picked up the phone and told my dad I would do it.”

Once the decision was made for him, “It gave me huge motivation to go to the gym and train,” Mr. Muller said.

David and Aaron Muller posted a joint fundraising page and surpassed their goal of $20,000 “with the help of tons and tons of people from Teaneck who contributed,” Dr. Muller said.

Many friends also brought Dr. Muller “shaliach mitzvah gelt” — money intended for the traveler to give to needy people at the destination. He deposited his shaliach mitzvah gelt in the charity box of the tiny Tanzanian Jewish community of Arusha, which hosted the group for Shabbat.

This community has an unlikely local connection, as described in the Jewish Standard last December (“Bringing a Torah to Tanzania”). It’s the story of how Stefanie and Matt Diamond of Teaneck joined a group of 36 other people, led by Ms. Diamond’s brother-in-law, Rabbi Eytan Kenter of Kehillat Beth Israel in Ottawa, in bringing a much-needed Torah scroll to Arusha.

For Dr. Muller, the ability to pray with a minyan — a quorum of 10 Jewish men, in Orthodox practice — was the deciding factor in his determination to join the Friends of Access Israel trip.

“My father passed away in August and I’m saying kaddish every day,” he said. “When Jamie said we’d have a minyan and a sefer Torah on the trip, I said immediately, ‘I’m in.’ I couldn’t believe that on this incredible journey I’d be able to say kaddish. That felt very compelling.”

He found the davening just as beautiful as the awesome physical surroundings.


“Davening in a place like that feels like you’re breaking new ground, taking your heritage to a place that really hasn’t seen it very much,” he said.

The 27-person delegation was accompanied by nearly 100 locals: three cooks, 21 guides, 70 porters, and a park ranger.

“The Tanzanian porters and guides watched us daven every day,” Dr. Muller said. “Their culture is deeply religious and they pray on a regular basis, too. They were fascinated by our group.

“One porter said his dream is to be a pastor and he was inspired by what looked to him like a devotion to God he typically doesn’t see in climbers. He asked if he could come pray with us on Shabbat.”

Not all the climbers were able to continue to the end, but Dr. Muller expressed appreciation that non-practicing Jews in the delegation helped assure he had a minyan almost the entire time. “It brought us together as a group in a way that I think we may not have been brought together otherwise,” he said.

Joseph and Gina Grunfeld stand at Gilman’s Point, one of Kilimanjaro’s three summits. (PHOTO COURTESY JOSEPH GRUNFELD)

“On Shabbos, we davened in a hut elevated 20 steps off the ground. Arnon, one of the guys in a wheelchair, came to the bottom of the stairs, and we decided to move the minyan down onto the slope itself so he could get an aliyah” — a call to recite a blessing over the Torah. “It was a very powerful experience for him, and he is a secular Israeli. He was very excited about it.”

The participation of Arnon and three others in wheelchairs was made possible by an Israeli company called Paratrek. Its unique Trekker is an off-road wheelchair with front and rear supports enabling helpers to stabilize and lift hikers with disabilities during their journey.

According to Mr. Lassner, the Friends of Access Israel hike up Kilimanjaro made history because it included “the largest group of paralyzed people to reach the peak at the same time.”

Two women, one from Peru and one from Montana, were among the other members of this foursome. The last one was Anold, 44, who lives near the base of Kilimanjaro and always dreamed of making it to the top. The Israeli apparatus allowed him to become the first Tanzanian man with paralysis to do so.

“Anold didn’t speak English, but after we came down and back to the hotel, he gave a little speech through a translator,” Mr. Muller said. “It was incredible; there wasn’t a dry eye. In his culture, when you have a disability or physical difference you become a non-person. For him it was amazing to feel like a human being again.”

This accomplishment, too, did not come easily.

“The porters had never seen Paratrek Trekkers before, so there were some hiccups at the beginning and one of the chairs broke on the second day,” Mr. Muller said. “Fortunately, the Israelis who designed the chairs had brought a lot of spare parts with them. It was barrier-breaking to do something that most people think can’t be done. This trip demonstrated that accessibility is possible even in extreme situations.”

Mr. Muller said the trip didn’t have a dramatic impact on his own recovery, although he did make strides in overcoming his social anxiety and his limitations.

“People wondered if this would be a breakthrough moment for me. It wasn’t that. But aside from the exposure to the social environment and being comfortable with it, it was an expansion of my circle of resilience. The notion of what I thought I could handle if I had to was expanded. I’m still going through life carefully to avoid certain triggers, but I now know I can be less timid about things than I was before. It’s a significant small step,” he said.

“It was an incredible experience to do this trip together as father and son,” Dr. Muller added. “Spending 13 days one on one as part of a larger group, with a particular goal in mind, made it into a profound experience of interacting with each other and watching each other interact with others. The whole group, including the two of us, gelled more and more each day. The opportunity to do this was really a powerful growth experience.”

Mr. Grunfeld also found the social aspect of the trip powerful. “What I didn’t realize was that the people I met would be so amazing — not only the disabled climbers but the others too,” he said. “We all grew closer every day of the trip. That was by far the highlight.”

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