The Original Article Published in The Jewish News Syndicate

The true meaning behind “All Jews are responsible for each other.” Even, or maybe especially, at 15,000 feet.

When New York cardiologist, Dr. Aaron Gindea read the entire Torah portion of Beshalach at the Kibo Hut on Mount Kilimanjaro, he may have broken the record for reading from a Torah scroll at the highest recorded altitude—4,700 meters (15420 feet). But Gindea did not come to Tanzania to break any records. He and 25 participants on the Friends of Access Israel (FAISR) Kilimanjaro climb, including four climbers with paraplegia, came to reach Uhuru Peak 5895 meter (19,341 feet) in the name of accessibility and inclusion.

Gindea, his wife Geri, and hikers from Texas, Montana, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Israel set out to climb the dormant volcano in support of FAISR, an organization that promotes accessibility, inclusion and respect for people of all abilities around the world. FAISR’s collaborative partner, Access Israel, was founded a little more than 20 years ago in Israel and hosts an international conference each year in Israel, in addition to “Dinners of the Senses,” and consults on accessibility and inclusion worldwide.

Daily mileage would range from 3.1 miles on the acclimation days to 13.7 miles during the final midnight-to-sunrise ascent to the summit. The group would spend nights in very basic accommodations, including the Mandara Hut (2,700 meters), Horombo Hut (3,700 meters) and Kibo Hut (4,700 meters). The delegation would be accompanied by three cooks, 21 guides and 70 porters, who carry all participant clothing and sleeping bags, as well as food, water and cooking supplies. Cooks provided kosher meals both at the huts and along the route.

Marcela Maranon, a Peruvian-born woman from Dallas who is both an amputee and has paraplegia, along with Arnold John, a Tanzanian father of three who lives at the base of Kilimanjaro and had always dreamed of making it to the top. Credit: Friends of Access Israel.

Hikers with physical disabilities who participated in the strenuous, multiday climb included Starla Hilliard-Barnes of Montana, a twice-paralyzed participant; Marcela Maranon, a Peruvian-born woman from Dallas who is both an amputee and has paraplegia, and travels the world alone in her signature “The Journey of a Brave Woman” denim jacket; Arnon Amit, an Israeli man paralyzed in a car accident during his service in the Israel Defense Forces; and Arnold John, a Tanzanian father of three who lives at the base of Kilimanjaro and had always dreamed of making it to the top.

‘A humbling experience’
The hikers with disabilities navigated the mountain with the help of a specially designed off-road, rugged wheelchair known as “The Trekker,” made by Israel’s own Paratrek company. Omer Zur, founder and CEO of Paratrek, designed the chair to enable his father, paralyzed in Israel’s 1973 Yom Kippur War, to enjoy outdoor adventures with peers with and without disabilities. Zur, his colleague Rowee Benbenishty and Israeli Trekker-user Arnon Amit transported five trekkers, tools and replacement parts from Israel to Tanzania. Zur and his team maintained the Trekkers throughout the journey and trained the Tanzanian porters—six per Trekker—in proper pulling, guiding and pushing procedures.

Hikers and their porters pose at the top of Mount Kilimajaro. Credit: Friends of Access Israel.

Participants without disabilities divided into teams—Team Marcela, Team Starla, Team Arnon and Team Arnold—and hiked together through five climatic zones and often rough terrain. David Icikson, president of Congregation Orach Chaim on New York City’s Upper East Side, had the additional responsibility of transporting a carefully wrapped Torah scroll in his day pack. Eleven members of the synagogue, including FAISR’s executive director and trip organizer, James Lassner, participated in the expedition. The group made good use of the scroll, reading it at morning minyans on Monday and Thursday mornings, as well as on Shabbat.

Despite the very real need for sleep following each strenuous day of hiking, group members were committed to getting up early for daily minyan as one participant was saying mourners Kaddish. Even the secular Israeli Paratrek mechanics—busy each day maintaining the special chairs—and Arnon, the Israeli climb participant, joined in the prayer session. Gindea remarked: “Sharing this unique experience with this special group made the davening itself remarkable. Having Omer, Rowee and Arnon (the three Israelis in the group) participate in the minyan (and help make the minyan) reinforced to me that Kol Yisrael areivim (“All Jews are responsible for each other”), even at 15,000 feet!”

On Friday evening, with four tough days of hiking complete, group members gathered in the mess hall for Kabbalat Shabbat services and dinner—complete with grape juice and challah from New York—carried in a backpack all week long. On the cold Shabbat morning, group members assembled in a dorm room with a wooden table and two sets of bunk beds. The Torah was carried down 10 steep stairs so that Arnon could have an aliyah from his wheelchair. Manhattan pediatrician Dr. Barry Stein recited the Haftarah portion on the 50th anniversary of his bar mitzvah, which he had celebrated in his native South Africa.

At lunch, Joseph Grunfeld (known affectionately to the group as “Joey G”), who experienced a traumatic knee injury to both knees three years ago, delivered a d’var Torah about crossing seas and climbing mountains. Gindea was moved. “As Joey G pointed out, B’nai Yisrael had to cross the barrier of the Red Sea before reaching Mount Sinai.” Gindea, still reflecting on the experience of celebrating Shabbat and reading Torah on the mountain, continues, “To be privileged to read about the crossing of the Red Sea and realizing that after Shabbat, beginning the week of Yitro, we would be climbing our own mountain was a humbling experience.”

‘How blessed we are with all we have’

At 11:30 pm. on Saturday night, with head lamps and layers of warm clothing, the group set out for the final all-night ascent. Thankfully, each participant—with and without disabilities—reached one of the three summits—Stella’s Point (5,756 meters), Gilman’s Point (5,685 meters) or Uhuru Peak (5,995 meters).

Josiah Baer and wife Emily, friends of Starla Hilliard Barnes and Shannon Barnes—all from Kalispell, Montana—were glad they had the opportunity to participate. “We all developed in to a family on this trip!” Josiah reports. “I learned about thankfulness and how blessed we are with all we have.” And he praised the porters. “They work so hard—and they never complain!”

A view of the team hiking across the snow fields on the top of Kilimanjaro. Credit: Friends of Access Israel.

Josiah found the four participants with disabilities on the trip to be “super brave” as they put their trust in others who assisted them up the mountain. Ari Storch of Manhattan was impressed with how the group consistently “came together as a community” and “didn’t care about egos,” even when the group faced challenges. Arnold John, the local Tanzanian climber who always s dreamed of climbing Kilimanjaro, was very emotional, declaring, “I am very happy to climb this mountain. I prayed to God to bless me, and he answered my prayers!”

The group returned to their hotel in nearby Moshi for much-needed showers and the first opportunity in more than a week to check email and to call family members. Following a celebratory dinner, most delegation members opted to participate in a two-day safari, seeing baboons, rhinos, giraffes, elephants, zebras, flamingos, ostriches, gazelles and lions in the Tarangire National Park and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.

The final day in Tanzania began with a rare opportunity to meet and pray with the small Arusha Jewish community, descendants of Yemenite and Moroccan Jews who came to eastern Africa in the 1880s. Yehuda Amir Kahalani, a local lawyer and college professor, is head of the community, which recently received its first Torah scroll, a donation from a synagogue in Ottawa, Canada. The group next enjoyed the opportunity to visit Shanga Village, a vocational training program for people with disabilities, and to purchase hand-crafted souvenirs at Shanga, the Arusha Cultural Heritage Center, and at the Maasai Market before flying to their respective homes.

Group members praying with the small Arusha Jewish community of Tanzania. Credit: Friends of Access Israel.

David Icikson returned the well-traveled Torah to its home at Orach Chaim Congregation in Manhattan. The synagogue’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Ben Skydell, greeted him. “We are extremely proud that so many members of our community participated in this amazing climb. Both through their raising awareness of the technologies for inclusion that are being produced in the State of Israel, and in convening the highest-altitude minyan/Torah reading in history, these climbers embodied the deepest teaching of our tradition—that the Torah is for everybody, everywhere.”

Lassner was similarly proud of his fellow congregants and all of the climbers. “This definitely wasn’t a week of ‘I.’ The biggest thrust in this exceptionally difficult feat is that all came with the attitude that ‘we’ are our sisters and brothers’ keepers!”

As a journalist who focuses on Jewish disability inclusion, I was privileged to attend the Access Israel conference last May, where I learned more about accessibility, inclusion and technology from, and along with, 800 participants from 22 countries. I also discovered that James Lassner, from my New York City community, had co-founded FAISR, Friends of Access Israel, and that a group was planning its first-ever climb on Mount Kilimanjaro. It took place from Feb. 4-10 (with me in along for the ride).

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Original Article Published On The Camp Ramah in New England

This year, as Ramah New England celebrates 50 years of the Tikvah Program, inclusive camping and the visionary leadership of Herb and Barbara Greenberg, it is worth acknowledging their equally impressive vision for vocational training within our Ramah camps. Herb Greenberg recounts, “I recall at early parent conferences that most parents were ecstatic about the outcomes of the summer and at the same time were expressing frustration and anguish that Tikvah had a cutoff age. So again, in the late 70’s we started the vocational training. The first efforts were one to one recommendations in the kitchen, bakery, mercaz and the gan. “

In my 15 years as director of the Tikvah Program at CRNE, we worked to expand the Voc Ed program. Participants learned jobs skills as well as what is known as “soft skills,” on the job behavior and etiquette required for success, and have been employed at such job sites as the Greenberg Guest House, chadar ochel, Voc Ed bakery, the gan and the misrad.   We have also offered supported, salaried employment to some voc ed graduates as well as to others with disabilities.

Proudly, each Ramah camp with a Tikvah Program offers vocational training programs, known by such names as Ezra and Atzmayim, with some programs offering employment in local towns near camp–in coffee shops, grocery stores, day care centers, motels and children’s museums.

Even with the success of our vocational training programs, all families and Ramah programs still face the same issue the Greenbergs were dealing with in the 1970s—what happens when young adults “age out” of high school and camp?   Many Voc Ed participants enjoy meaningful employment at camp—and are unemployed or underemployed in their home communities.

I have been concerned with parents not knowing what options exist when they age—a period commonly known as “falling off the cliff.”   Thanks to the generous support of the Covenant Foundation, I have embarked on what has so far been a two-year journey to identify creative job sites and training programs for people with disabilities.  While some major companies are to be commended for their programs which train and support people with disabilities (Our Tikvah grad, Aaron, who has been working at Walgreens distribution center in Connecticut is a great example!), many parents have had to be very creative—often starting their own programs and businesses.  I have identified car washes (Rising Tide and Gleam), pizza stores (Smiling with Hope Pizza), t-shirt and sock companies (Spectrum Design and John’s Crazy Socks), hydroponic farming (Vertical Harvest), computer (Blue Star Recycling) — and even microbreweries (Perkiomen Valley Brewery).  (https://howardblas.com/disabilities/job-sites/)

Perhaps the most exciting businesses are the businesses started by people with disabilities. Truly Scrumptious by Alexa, https://www.trulyscrumptiousbyalexa.com/, was started by our very own Alexa Chalup, a 14 year participant in various Ramah programs—inclusion, Seminar, Amitzim and Voc Ed.  Who doesn’t enjoy custom made Oreos dipped in chocolate—with special logos and monograms?!  Alexa was invited last week to share the story of her company and to share her creations with 125 attendees at the 3-day Covenant Foundation Project Directors meeting in Pearl River, New Jersey.

Alexa told the packed room at the conference, “In High School, I sold coffee and baked goods out of a Kiosk and enjoyed making people smile. It gave me an idea, that coffee would taste much better with a Truly Scrumptious Treat by Alexa.  My passion lead to the creation of my very own business.  At Camp Ramah, I met Howard 14 years ago as a first year camper. I’m now in their Voc Ed program, which is a combination of staff and life skills training. My jobs at camp included food prep in the kitchen and the bakery. Both taught me skills that helped prepare me for my business. The lessons I learned have really changed my life. My goal is to dedicate more and more time to Truly Scrumptious by Alexa as the business grows. Eventually, I would like to hire my friends, all with different special abilities, to grow my business. It’s important that everyone has a place to go every day, do what they love, have a wonderful social life with friends and keep teaching the world everyone can be productive and have a dream.  I would like to thank Covenant Foundation for this opportunity to tell my story. Through your support of Howard, his programs have taught me skills and confidence that made my dream come true by starting my own company, like anyone else.”

We thank the Greenbergs for their visionary leadership, Ramah for continuing their mission and to funders like the Covenant Foundation for their support.  We hope Alexa’s story continues to inspire others!

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Original Article Published On The Jerusalem Post

“Climbing a mountain is more about the mind. If you take it easy and relax, all goes easy,” said Sabino (“Sabi”) Kweka.

Marcella Maranon approaches the immigration booth at Kilimanjaro International Airport in Tanzania, hands her passport to the agent, looks up from her wheelchair and exclaims, “I did it. I climbed Kilimanjaro!” He and his fellow agents are respectful yet seem a bit surprised, as Maranon produces photos on her iPhone to prove it.

“There were four of us – in a special chair,” reports Maranon, explaining that four of the 27 climbers had paraplegia and other disabilities. “Were there any Tanzanians?” the agent asks. “Yes, Arnold lives in Moshi at the bottom of the mountain!” Arnold John, a father of three, lives at the base of Kilimanjaro and had always dreamed of making it to the top.

Maranon’s enthusiasm and determination are infectious. Dressed in her signature “The Journey of a Brave Woman” jeans jacket, she travels the world alone, sharing her experiences with accessibility on social media – and with anybody willing to hear her amazing story.

Maranon and John represent two of the 27 hikers with different abilities who recently climbed the 19,341-foot mountain to benefit Friends of Access Israel (FAISR), an organization promoting accessibility, inclusion and respect for people of all abilities around the world. FAISR’s collaborative partner, Access Israel, was founded just over 20 years ago in Israel and hosts an international conference each year in Israel, hosts “dinners of the senses,” and consults on accessibility and inclusion worldwide.

The FAISR Kilimanjaro 2020 Team included hikers from Texas, Montana, New York and New Jersey in the United States, as well as participants from Israel. Other hikers with physical disabilities who participated on the strenuous, multi-day, heavily supported climb included Starla Hilliard-Barnes of Utah, a twice-paralyzed participant, and Arnon Amit, paralyzed in a car accident during his IDF army service. 
Preparing for the climb

The American delegation arrived in Tanzania with a wide range of gear, including hiking boots, poles and appropriate clothing to assure comfort as they passed through five ecosystems. The Israeli delegation, consisting of Arnon, Omer Zur and Rowee Benbenishty, had a more extensive packing list; they were charged with boxing, transporting and assembling five Paratreks (“Trekkers”) – specially designed chairs that, with the help of Tanzanian porters, would help get the participants with disabilities up the mountain.

Zur is the inventor and CEO of Paratrek, a large-tire wheelchair-like device that relies on the abilities of both the rider and a team of up to six who pull, push and steer to make it possible for people with disabilities to join peers in such treks. Zur designed the initial Paratrek for his own father. Three years into his post-army trek, Omer realized that his father never had this opportunity for a post-army trip, as he was paralyzed in the in the Sinai Desert during the Yom Kippur War when he was thrown from a tank. Omer invited his dad to travel with him in the mountains of Turkey for a month, but needed a way to accommodate his mobility needs. They designed and subsequently refined the Paratrek. Zur, a licensed tour guide, father of four and resident of Hannaton, and colleague, Rowee Benbenishty, skillfully packed up four Paratreks, tools and replacement parts, which they skillfully maintained throughout the Kilimanjaro climb.The delegation assembled at a hotel in Moshi, Tanzania at the base of the mountain for a specially prepared kosher dinner, evening prayers and orientation. The group met Sabino (“Sabi”) Kweka, a former porter and guide, who is now owner of the Popote Africa Adventures and the trip architect and coordinator.

“Climbing a mountain is more about the mind. If you take it easy and relax, all goes easy,” Sabi noted. He explained that the group would follow the Marangu route, also known as the Coca Cola trail. We would stay overnight at the Mandara Hut (2,700 meters), Horombo Hut 3,700 meters), and spend Shabbat at the Kibo Hut (4,700 meters). Following a restful Shabbat on the mountain, we would attempt the all-night climb to the 5,895-meter Uhuru Peak. Kweka has guided several Israeli groups in the past, including groups who were kosher and Sabbath observant. Veteran guide, Shani Mrema, observes, “Israelis are very fast,” usually preferring to reach the summit in four days over the recommended six days.

In accordance with best practices and Tanzanian law, which assures the safety of hikers with and without disabilities, the delegation would be accompanied by three cooks, 11 guides and 70 porters. Porters carry all participant clothing and sleeping bags as well as food, water and cooking supplies. Cooks provided kosher meals both at the huts and along the route. Daily mileage up the dormant volcano would range from 3.1 miles on the acclimation days, to 13.7 miles during the final midnight to sunrise ascent to the summit.Each year, approximately 35,000 people attempt to climb Kilimanjaro. They use the six official Kilimanjaro routes. The chances of reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro is highly dependent on the number of days taken to trek the mountain. The more days devoted to the climb, the higher the probability of success, as the body has more time to adapt and acclimatize. According to success rate figures published by the Kilimanjaro National Park, there is a 45% success rate for reaching the summit with chances of success rising to 85% if done over an eight-day period. Between three and seven people reportedly die on Kilimanjaro each year.

As the group set out from the Marangu Gate on February 4, John, the Tanzanian climber, was surrounded by Tanzanian media interviewing him for TV and newspapers; they wanted to hear the story of the local man who grew up at the base of the mountain, now having his first opportunity – with the support of the Israeli-designed Paratrek – to climb the mountain. At the same time, hikers were filling water bottles, checking emails and making calls for the last time in 10 days, and porters were receiving their orientation on how to “drive” and operate the four Trekkers.It quickly became clear that the multi-day climb ahead would be very challenging for climbers with and without disabilities. Navigating steep ascents, boulders, streams and more would require extreme effort by all and additional support for the porters assisting the Trekkers. Six porters would be needed to assure the safety of the trekkers and to reduce risk of burnout of the otherwise indefatigable porters. An additional 10 guides were soon added to the delegation. Hot meals at the end of each day – and very tasty local avocados and mangos – provided somewhat of a morale boost, though lack of showers, sitting toilets, cell/Wi-Fi access and very cold nights were ongoing sources of frustrations.

Yet the group pulled together throughout. Even during moments of frustration and low morale, group members encouraged and inspired each other. When the group was brainstorming needed tweaks, Shannon Barnes of Kalispell, Montana, husband of twice-paralyzed participant, Starla, reported, “I just want to say that Starla had a great day and has no complaints.” The group continued on.After four days of hiking, the group celebrated Shabbat together at the 4,700 meter Kibo hut. Dr. Barry Stein of Manhattan led Kabbalat Shabbat prayers in the dining room in a subdued voice out of respect to fellow dorm mates from other groups, catching some sleep before their Friday 11 p.m. ascent. Mara Lassner, wife of James Lassner, executive director of Friends of Access Israel, brought grape juice and several challah rolls for the group’s Shabbat dinner.Shabbat on the mountain was relaxing, though it offered several logistical challenges for the fully Sabbath observant. In the absence of an eruv, there were questions of how to bring toilet paper to a dark bathroom. While most carried water and poles on the Saturday afternoon, acclimatization hike, some opted out due to leaving t’chum Shabbat (Sabbath boundaries), and others were comfortable with a compromise – walking without hiking poles as porters carried water.

Dr. Aaron Gindea, a New York cardiologist, was excited to read the Torah portion of Beshalach at 4,700 meters, an elevation he believes to be the highest where the torah was ever read. Fellow hiker, David Icikson, president of Gindea’s Manhattan Orthodox Synagogue, Orach Chaim, was pleased that the Torah he carefully and respectfully transported throughout the trip was read on Shabbat morning and afternoon, Mondays and Thursdays of the trek. In order to assure a minyan of men, at least one of the secular Israelis had to agree to participate in each prayer service – no small task, given the amount of time they needed to dedicate to assuring proper daily maintenance of the Paratreks. On Shabbat morning, the Torah was carried down many stairs so Arnon could recite the Torah blessings from his wheelchair.

Following Shabbat lunch, hiker Joseph Grunfeld, who experienced a traumatic knee injury to both knees three years ago, delivered a moving d’var Torah (sermon) about crossing seas and climbing mountains. Each participant then shared reasons for participating on the hike. Dr. David Muller of Teaneck, New Jersey, dean for medical education at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, observed that the participants – fully dependent on our Tanzanian porters, guides and cooks for food and water – experienced a small taste of what it must be like for our fellow trekkers with disabilities who daily rely on others for various aspects of care and support.The all-night climb to the summit Following an early dinner and a four-hour late Saturday evening nap, the group assembled, wearing three layers on their legs, at least five layers on top and with gloves, hats, head lamps and warm drinking water so as to delay the time before water would freeze on the mountain. The group trekked in the dark, through elevated deserts and snowy terrain for approximately nine hours. Some experienced rapid heartbeat, tiredness and nausea. The trekkers and porters continued their ascent. Hiker Amy Verschleiser’s guide reported that the summit was the second windiest he had ever seen the summit in his 300 climbs! Thankfully, each participant – with and without disabilities – reached one of the three summits: Stella’s Point (5,756 meters), Gilman’s Point (5,685 meters), or Uhuru Peak (5,995 meters).

James Lassner, executive director of Friends of Access Israel, and the creative mind behind the Kilimanjaro expedition, notes, “Every day, people with disabilities face many personal ‘mountains to climb,’ some visible, but most hidden. They are no different than anyone else, as they have the same dreams, desires, hopes and aspirations, including ‘bucket list items.’ We at Friends of Access Israel are so proud of the accomplishment of all of the individuals that joined us to make up our diverse FAISR Kilimanjaro Family. United together, they used their collective physical strengths, mental toughness, diverse abilities, musical/dancing talents and humor to make each inch of Kilimanjaro accessible together!”

Karen Tamley, who recently left her position with the Chicago Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities (MOPD) Commissioner and now serves as president and CEO of Access Living, presented at the May, 2019 Access Israel conference. She is similarly proud of what the group accomplished and what the trek represents.

“Growing up as a wheelchair user, I sat on the sidelines and was never able to participate in sports or recreation with my peers. This trip, which includes climbers both with and without disabilities, shows me how our society is becoming more inclusive and accessible for people with disabilities. This trip represents the pushing of the boundaries toward a more inclusive world where hikers/climbers with and without disabilities can meet this meet this incredible challenge together. This trip represents the ways in our world can become a more accessible for everyone in all aspects of life.”

The celebratory safari – and meeting the Jewish community of ArushaThe group purchased soft drinks and souvenirs at the base of the mountain, ate lunch and drove quickly to the hotel in Moshi for hot showers, boot cleaning and Wi-Fi access. Everyone enjoyed a celebratory dinner and received certificates of completion for reaching the summit.Most hikers elected to participate in safaris to both the Tarangire National Park, and the Ngorongoro Conservation Park. Highlights included seeing giraffes, elephants, zebras, flamingos, ostriches, gazelles and even lions in their natural habitat. Toyota Land Cruisers with roofs that open up to allow photography in four directions were the perfect vehicle for navigating the safari’s sometimes muddy terrain.

The Ngorongoro Coffee Lodge, accommodations for the group between safari days, offered large private rooms – each with two king-sized beds, a desk, large bathroom with a shower and tub, and porches. Views of the large pool, foliage and coffee trees were stunning.The final day in Tanzania was action-packed. A large group left the upscale Mt. Neru Hotel in Arusha early morning to meet the small Arusha Jewish community for morning prayer services. A synagogue in Otttawa, Canada recently donated a Torah scroll to this unique Jewish community whose members are descendants of Yemenite and Moroccan Jews who came to eastern Africa in the 1880s. We were warmly welcomed by community head, Yehuda Amir Kahalani, who is a local lawyer and college professor.

Following breakfast at the hotel, the group enjoyed the opportunity to visit Shanga Village, a vocational training program for people with disabilities, and to purchase colorful, hand-crafted souvenirs at Shanga, the Arusha Cultural Heritage Center and at the Maasai Market. A very tired, satisfied group then began to make its way to the Kilimanjaro International Airport for a 45-minute flight to Nairobi, Kenya and an additional 15-hour flight to JFK. The four trekkers from Kalispell, Montana and Maranon from Dallas had additional layovers and flights before arriving safely home. On the Kenya Airways flight from Nairobi to New York, the pilot, who somehow learned about the FAISR group, congratulated Marcela as the first Peruvian-born paralyzed woman to climb the famous mountain.

Parartrek’s founder, Omer Tzur, who had returned safely to Israel a few days earlier, had an opportunity to reflect on the Kilimanjaro experience.

“Ascending the peak of Kilimanjaro is a dream come true not because of the mountain. That was never a dream of mine. The dream that we fulfilled is to see this group, people with and without disabilities – and major ones – climbing up together, as a group, as people who see each other as equals. To see that, out there in a super non-accessible trail, for me, is a reason to continue doing what we do!”

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Original Article Published On The Chabad.ORG

When Eric Brodkowitz left home in Potomac, Md., to study at Yale University and to pitch for the Yale Bulldogs baseball team, his mother, Jill, did what any concerned Jewish mother might do: She turned to her local Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi, who reached out to Chabad on Campus at Yale.

“Rabbi Shua Rosenstein at Yale was open and very inviting,” says Brodkowitz, today an investment analyst with Goldman Sachs and a pitcher on Israel’s national baseball team, which will compete in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. During his time at Yale, Brodkowitz—who in his senior year at Yale was a unanimous first-team All-Ivy League selection and finished the season with a 2.80 ERA—grew close to Rosenstein and his wife, Sara, co-directors of Chabad at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. “The rabbi invited me and my friends to Shabbat dinner. It was just a very welcoming environment.”

During his junior year, Brodkowitz lived on the same street as the Yale Chabad and began wrapping tefillin twice a week at the Chabad House.

“When Eric was on campus, we would meet often to lay tefillin,” recalls Rosenstein. “We always joked that it would help him as a pitcher.”

It certainly didn’t hurt.

Brodkowitz, who was discovered by Team Israel manager Eric Holtz towards the end of his senior year in 2018, has had a successful run so far with Team Israel. The right-hander started two games in the July 2019 European Baseball Championship B-Pool in Bulgaria—winning one game and striking out 15 in 9.1 innings pitched—as part of Israel’s sweep into the playoffs. Team Israel beat Lithuania in the best-of-three playoff series, qualifying for the 2019 European Baseball Championship, from which Israel emerged as one of six teams heading to the 2020 Summer Olympics.

Even post-graduation, Brodkowitz has continued to stay in touch with the Rosensteins. He recently stayed at their home in New Haven for the weekend of this year’s Harvard-Yale football game, and after being selected to play for Team Israel in the Olympics, he gifted a prized team jersey to one of the rabbi’s children.

“Rabbi Rosenstein was a big influence on me,” says Brodkowitz, who credits his mother for giving him the push he needed. “She said, ‘Go for a free dinner and explore… I had a great dinner, a great time and became very close to the rabbi.”

A Family That Focused on Traditions

Today an investment analyst with Goldman Sachs, Brodkowitz participated in the Sinai Scholars study program at Yale. (Photo: Margo Sugarman)
Today an investment analyst with Goldman Sachs, Brodkowitz participated in the Sinai Scholars study program at Yale. (Photo: Margo Sugarman)

Brodkowitz, who grew up in Potomac in the greater Washington, D.C. area, has always been connected to baseball, to his family and to his Judaism. His father, Ken, pitched and played outfield and first base during his student years at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore before injuring his arm. “He had Tommy John surgery and didn’t pitch after that,” says Brodkowitz. When Ken married and had children, he focused his energies on patiently and carefully coaching his children.

Brodkowitz speaks affectionately of his father, who was always “dedicated, caring and focused” with him and his two younger siblings and their sports pursuits. “He focused on mechanics, always practiced with me and never missed a game,” relates Brodkowitz, who says he continues to feel his parents’ active support.

While baseball was always a passion for the younger Brodkowitz, Jewish life holds no less an important place in his life. His family has always been affiliated, Brodkowitz attended Hebrew school and went to Jewish overnight camp for six years, and the family and continues to be connected to Chabad of Potomac.

He also benefited from a close relationship with his maternal grandfather, who he says “grew up in an Orthodox neighborhood in New York” and “faithfully practiced Judaism.” His grandfather proudly prepared Brodkowitz—and all twelve of his grandchildren for their bar and bat mitzvahs. “He is the type of guy where you learned the whole service and all the blessings; it was intense.”

Despite the high expectations, the ball player says “it was a good bonding experience.”

Despite his packed work and training schedule, Brodkowitz is never too busy to discuss his Jewish pride with reporters or fans. (Photo: Margo Sugarman)

Wrapping Tefillin, Throwing Pitches During College

Brodkowitz continued to grow Jewishly while at Yale, even with the demands of playing varsity baseball all four years, coupled with the equally intense demands of being a double major in economics and molecular, cellular and developmental biology with a concentration in biotechnology. During sophomore year, he participated in a Birthright Israel trip, an experience he describes as “transformative.” Little did he know that only a few years later, he would become an Israeli citizen and play for its national baseball team.

As his baseball career developed, so did his Jewish engagement. Along with Shabbat meals at Chabad and regular tefillin pit stops, Brodkowitz enrolled in the Sinai Scholars program run by Chabad on Campus that integrates the study of classic Jewish texts, social programming and networking for top Jewish college students around the world.

Team Israel manager Eric Holtz first saw Brodkowitz pitch when Holtz’s son, who plays baseball for Columbia University, was playing against Yale.

“My son was a freshman at Columbia when Eric was a senior. I watched a championship game in which Eric pitched eight innings, giving up one run, and was just phenomenal. He refused to let his team down,” reports Holtz. “I didn’t know he was Jewish at all. After the game, I was looking at the stats and saw the last name was Brodkowitz. I immediately called the coach at Yale; he put me in touch with Eric, and the rest is history. Beyond being a great right-handed pitcher, he is one of the most wonderful young men you will ever come across.”

When Brodkowitz got a text from his Yale coach about Team Israel’s interest in June 2018, he was both surprised and flattered. By now a college graduate, he had just recently been hired as an analyst at Goldman Sachs, so he was also unsure of what to tell his new employers. Considering that he might need to miss some work to play in various baseball tournaments in Europe and Asia—not to mention the Olympics—it was an unusual request to say the least. Instead of rejection, to Brodkowitz’s delight his chance to play for Team Israel was met with an outpouring of support. “You have our blessing. How can we help?” came Goldman’s reply almost instantly, for which the pitcher/analyst says he is forever grateful.

In the months leading up to the Olympics, Brodkowitz stays in shape by working out in the gym and throwing baseballs daily at a field close to his work. And despite his packed work and training schedule, he is never too busy to discuss his Jewish pride with reporters or fans. “It has been a blessing and privilege to be able to wear ‘Israel’ across my chest,” he affirms.

Aside from his ongoing connection with Chabad at Yale—he remains active as an alumnus—Chabad continues to play an important place in Brodkowitz’s life in his work with Team Israel. (Photo: Margo Sugarman)

An Active Alum with Yale and Chabad

Aside from his ongoing connection with Chabad at Yale—he remains active as an alumnus—Chabad continues to play an important place in Brodkowitz’s life in his work with Team Israel. Take, for instance, the team’s Friday-night experience while in Lithuania for a game against the country’s national team in the small city of Utena—about an hour and 20 minutes northeast of the capital, Vilnius. Rabbi Sholom Ber Krinsky, co-director of Chabad of Lithuania since 1994, made the trip before Shabbat to drop off all the supplies Team Israel needed to have an authentic Shabbat experience—something Brodkowitz and his teammates say they will never forget.

“There was nothing better than being in a country like Lithuania and having Shabbat dinner driven 100 miles from Chabad so that the team could celebrate Shabbat together,” adds Holtz, the manager.

Indeed, Peter Kurz, president of Israel Association of Baseball and general manager of Team Israel, has found Chabad to be an invaluable support to the team wherever they go. “Chabad has always played an important role in helping our national teams keep the Jewish spirit while we play in overseas tournaments—be it in Italy, the Czech Republic or even Bulgaria,” he says. Chabad has enabled “our team to maintain our Jewish traditions while still playing the game of baseball.”

More than a nice sentiment, Kurz says it’s this idea that stands at the heart of Israel baseball. The importance of Jewish tradition is in “our slogan,” he says: “‘Israel Baseball: Where Traditions Meet.’”

And it’s a key to what drives Brodkowitz.

“Eric takes great pride in his Jewish identity and his ability to help Israel compete in the summer Olympics,” attests Rosenstein. “I am confident that he will continue to inspire others in his journey, both as a committed Jew and a great baseball player.”

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