For Kilimanjaro Climbers, Jewish Experiences at Every Altitude

WOODBRIDGE – When Avi Bar-Aharon invited two New Haven area buddies to climb Tanzania’s 19,345-foot Mount Kilimanjaro with him, he had no idea it would be one of the most intense Jewish experiences of his life.

The long ascent up Kilimanjaro, which ended with 24 climbers from ten countries (and their 95 Tanzanian porters and 5 guides) reaching the summit on Feb. 14, actually began ten years ago when the Israeli-born Bar-Aharon and his wife Denise started Make-A-Wish Foundation-Israel, in memory of Denise’s brother, David Spero, a young man who loved and helped children. Spero died at age 28.

[Make-A-Wish Foundation International ( grants wishes to children around the world who are living with life threatening illnesses.]

Bar Aharon, who moved here from Israel a few years ago, decided to join the February expedition climbing Kilimanjaro to raise funds for the Make-a-Wish Foundation.

Jonathan Perkins, a local attorney, answered Bar-Aharon’s offer to join the climb without hesitation.

“I like to travel—I thought it would be a physical and mental challenge, a chance to be with the guys, and a way to do something worthwhile to help sick children,” said the South African native.

Eitan Battat, a Woodbridge businessman, was less decisive.

“I counted 26 real fears and I was upfront about them. I would wake up twice a night—one time thinking I’d go, one time thinking I wouldn’t go!” laughs Battat, who proudly reports, “I buried my fears on the top of the mountain!”

Battat credits Bar-Aharon for his patience and New Haven’s Rabbi Sheya Hecht, who told the men to each bring a tzedakah (charity) box and put in one dollar each morning, with the final dollar being deposited once they returned home from the safe journey.

“These rocks have been waiting for you for 5,000 years,” Hecht told the

men as he offered some pre-trip encouragement. Hecht also accompanied the three men to the Ohel, the gravesite in Queens, New York of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, to pray for a safe journey, prior to their departure.

While the climb was rigorous and required packing lightly, the men were determined to bring Jewish ritual objects. A large percentage of Battat’s more than 1,000 digital photos show members of the delegation praying with siddurim, wearing tallitot and wrapping tefillin at various elevations.

“When we started, the temperature was 85 degrees in the Serenghetti. When we got to the summit, it was 20 degrees below zero—we had to put the tefillin over our jackets,” notes Battat.

A fellow tefillin-wearer on the mountain was Israeli Yonaton Dotan. Dotan, son of the late Israeli entertainer, Dudu Dotan, is the current international spokesperson for Make-A-Wish Foundation. When Dotan was a 16-year-old with lymphoma, Bar-Aharon helped grant Dotan’s

wish—to meet with [then] U.S. President Bill Clinton. “Usually, these meetings are 10-15 minutes long. In this case, there was such good chemistry that the two talked and joked and still have an ongoing relationship,” reports Bar-Aharon.

Dotan presented Clinton with a T-shirt which said, ‘I met Yoni Dotan.’ He loved it and promised Dotan that he would wear it someday. Soon after, photographs captured Clinton jogging, wearing the T-shirt. The photograph appeared around the world in such publications as The New York Times and The Washington Post. According to Bar Aharon, this created major momentum for the Make-A-Wish Foundation in Israel.

Eight years later, Dotan, 24, and in remission, is the music director for Israeli radio station Galei Tzahal and an important spokesperson for the Foundation. Dotan completed the climb up Kilimanjaro with his fellow climbers, who all paid their own way and helped raise more than $100,000 for the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

Toughest day

According to the men, all of whom are members of Chabad of Orange and live in Woodbridge, the toughest day by far was the final ascent to the summit.

They climbed slowly, fighting thin air and lack of oxygen, and were only able to stay at the summit for about 20 minutes due to the cold and thin air.

“We left at midnight and made the final nine-hour climb to the summit. As we got higher, we could feel the pressure in our bodies, it was hard to breathe, and we had to take baby steps through the volcanic ash. We even saw some climbers return before reaching the top. But the best part of getting there was that we made it together, with friends,” said Bar-Aharon.

At the summit, Dotan spoke with Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and he received a letter of congratulations from former President Clinton. Upon reaching the summit, all climbers received a T-shirt with “I climbed with Yoni Dotan” on the front; Dotan, of course, wore the “I’m Yoni Dotan” shirt.

On the journey, an emotional Dotan turned to Bar-Aharon and said, “Eight years ago, I met you and you said, ‘The sky is the limit. Now, I am eating with you, and sleeping in a tent with you, high in the sky over Africa!’

Tella-Jerusalem connection

On Feb. 16, just one day after returning from the summit, the three Connecticut friends were enjoying a leisurely breakfast in the courtyard of the Keys Hotel in Moshi, Tanzania. They had a few hours to kill before returning home and decided to visit some of the remote villages of Moshi in order to get a feel for the extent of the poverty. The three plus Dotan felt fortunate to meet Dr. Fideles Owenya, who drove them to Tella. They first encountered men and women walking three or four miles to the marketplace. They then toured the Tella school, where 50 friendly, curious children greeted them in Swahili. The men toured the school and were shocked by the lack of supplies, including basic sugar.

The men were so moved by the experience that they purchased food for the school and made a commitment to help the school in an ongoing way. They have since started the website, which offers information on the school and seeks donations of money, food and equipment.

As the men look back on their entire two-week experience in Tanzania, they

are convinced of God’s presence throughout.

“God was watching us,” notes Battat.

They recounted how one Israeli woman (climbing with another group) named Galit was to light Shabbat candles on the mountain. Just as itwas time to welcome the Sabbath, the men could not find Galit; they learned that she needed to descend to take care of medical needs. Suddenly, a woman appeared on the mountain from nowhere. It was another Israeli, Limor. They invited her to light candles—the last in a series of unforgettable Jewish experiences high atop Mount Kilimanjaro, deep in the heart of Tanzania.

To donate to Make-A-Wish Foundation International, visit For information on the Connecticut Chapter, call (877) 203-9474.

To donate to the village of Tilla, visist

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