The night before his 14-hour hike up Mount Meru – a nearly 15,000-foot tall volcano in Tanzania’s scenic Arusha National Park – Dr. Itamar Shein couldn’t sleep.

“Is this altitude, attitude or just anxiety?” the Londoner wrote in his journal.

In the end, it didn’t matter. The general practitioner, who joined a group of 12 Jewish men from Great Britain and Israel for a trek through the African nation benefiting London’s Chabad-Lubavitch of Hendon, battled fatigue and the elements to successfully make it to the summit.

For Shein, a native of South Africa who now calls the English suburb of Hampstead Garden home, and the other participants, the climb capped off a week-long spiritual journey. When they reached the top, the nine who made it discussed their place in the world.

“We spoke words of Torah based on the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov,” said Rabbi Dovid Katz, the trip’s organizer and educational director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Hendon who trained for three months to brave the ascent. “Every place that a Jew finds himself, he has to purify and elevate it spiritually by praying and speaking words of Torah.”

“Climbing a mountain is a serious physical challenge. It breaks you, exposes you and builds you again,” noted Rabbi Ari Shishler, learning director of the Chabad House of Johannesburg, South Africa, who came along to offer spiritual insights. “On day three, as we inched towards the summit, the life’s lessons of mountain climbing became clear. As spectacular as it is to reach the top, you need to come back down.

“Spiritual inspiration is only useful if you know how to ‘take it home’ and make it part of daily living.”

With the climb to the top behind them, the whole group enjoyed the view from the shore of Lake Minyara the next day, praying the afternoon and evening services by the water’s edge. They sang Chasidic melodies known as niggunim under the stars.

A Personal Test

Participants of a Tanzania trek sponsored by Chabad-Lubavitch of Hendon in London celebrate upon reaching the top of the nearly 15,000-foot tall Mount Meru volcano.
Participants of a Tanzania trek sponsored by Chabad-Lubavitch of Hendon in London celebrate upon reaching the top of the nearly 15,000-foot tall Mount Meru volcano.

The May adventure – which Rabbi Shlomo Bentolila, the Congo-based director of Chabad Lubavitch of Central Africa, helped organize – was the third time Katz led a trip to an exotic location. Two years ago, he took a dozen people to India to hike through the Himalayas. Last year, his tour saw the same mountains from the Nepalese side.

In each of the trips, participants raise their own money through pledges and contributions from family and friends. This year, they raised $25,000 for the Hendon Chabad House.

For Shein, who admitted he “did a pretty bit of training,” the trip was a personal test. The entire journey included three flights, including one in a small propeller plane that had to navigate between Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya.

“That was a very long day,” said the physician.

After their arrival in the village of Arusha, the hikers encountered fellow Jews.

Before they set out for the wilderness, they met an Israeli man, who agreed to put on tefillin during morning services. In the middle of the hotel lobby, they called the man up to recite a blessing on the Torah.

On the first day of hiking, they saw giraffes, warthogs, buffalos, baboons and bushbuck, as well as two troops of Colobus monkeys. Along the way, the group prayed three times a day, ate kosher food they brought from London, and shared insights.

After the climb up Mount Meru, they drove in two jeeps through the Ngorongoro Crater – a largely untouched interdependent ecosystem whose only sign of human contact is a single dirt road – where they saw lions, Serval cats, buffalo and flocks of flamingos.

After a small accident, the travelers sought other means of transportation.

“We hitchhiked and a young Jewish couple on their honeymoon took us through the canyon,” said Katz. “The guys took advantage of the ride to speak to them about Yiddishkeit.”

Shabbat was spent resting, learning, praying and eating at the Serena Manyara Game Lodge.

“Even the Tanzanian chef insisted that he have a taste of our cholent,” offered Shishler.

Shein said that he felt uplifted by the trip.

“It seemed to elevate all the people to new heights of camaraderie, friendship and commitment to charitable aims,” said Shein. “We helped each other reach new heights.”

The doctor added that he’s already thinking about next year’s trip, which might traverse Peru’s Inca Trail.