In many ways Danny and Leah Hill are a typical middle-aged couple. Married with three daughters and four young grandchildren, they live in the Pico/Robertson neighborhood and are active members of the LINK Kollel and Shul. In other ways, both Mr. and Mrs. Hill are extraordinary, both in the way they have parented their special needs daughter who was born prematurely, and in the way they have raised funds for schools and organizations that help families like themselves. Over the years, and despite numerous challenges, the vitality of the Hills has increased rather than decreased.
In late September, during the yomtovim, Danny learned of a hiking challenge unlike any other. An international group was set to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa. Climbing Kilimanjaro had been an elusive goal for Danny for more than 15 years. The mountain is the highest in Africa, the highest free-standing mountain in the world, and the largest dormant volcano in the world. The climb involves more vertical gain than any other mountain, “Kili” is only 200 miles from the equator yet topped with glaciers, and the climber passes through six ecosystems from base to summit, including rainforest, alpine desert and arctic terrain.
The trek was a fundraiser for Shalva, the Israeli Association for Mentally and Physically Challenged Children. The organization provides highly-needed free services in Israel for more than 600 kids each year, from infancy to young adulthood. They provide respite care, therapies, social programming and more. Their need for funds is especially acute as they move from a 20,000 foot facility to one that is ten times the size. They will go from serving hundreds to thousands. This was a cause very close to the heart for Danny, and he realized the climb would truly represent a once in a lifetime opportunity: a kosher and shomer Shabbos group of like-minded Jews, the Shabbos Project at 13,000 feet, and an Israeli institution devoted to special needs.
Most astonishing of all, Danny’s wife opted to accompany him. “The fact that my wife would commit to this climb made it so much richer and more meaningful. She had always responded to my talk of Kilimanjaro with a teasing comment: you’ll go with your next wife. Leah has vertigo, a fear of heights, had never been in a sleeping bag or tent or at high altitude in her life, and doesn’t exercise. And yet, upon hearing me on the phone registering, she said, “‘Me, too!’”
In October the Hills flew to Israel, then Ethiopia and then into Arusha, Tanzania. There they joined 25 other Jewish climbers, 4 trek leaders, a Scottish Doctor and 103 Tanzanian guides, porters and cooks. The goal? The glaciers and crater that crown 19,341 foot Uhuru Peak, the highest point on Kilimanjaro.
Now back home, the Hills reminisced about the trip in its entirety. “It was intensely physically and mentally challenging. It was both a spiritual and an emotional experience. It was definitely more difficult – and steeper! – than we’d expected.” Although Danny has experience climbing and used to exercise frequently, this was without doubt the hardest thing he’d ever done.
“We signed up unbelievably late; in fact, registration was closed. Many of the participants had spent 6-12 months preparing: fundraising, training and getting their equipment. Unfortunately, we had just three weeks which included lots of yomtovim. It was a lot of pressure to try to pull things together, but I didn’t know if I’d ever have another opportunity like this and I wasn’t about to pass it up. We got in a few long practice hikes, did some fundraising, and borrowed or rented much of the equipment.”
“This trip came a week before my father’s 29th yahrzeit. I’m 57, the same age as my father when he was hit with an aggressive cancer that had him in the hospital for lengthy stays for years. I thought about his fight through such a terrible disease without any support network. He was both stoic and heroic. When I felt worn out, I’d think about how mine was an exciting, goal-oriented journey I’d voluntarily undertaken, in contrast to his which was forced upon him.
The trip was over the weekend of The Shabbos Project and this was another exciting dimension. There was a daily minyan, and each afternoon we had a shiur in Chumash with Rashi. One of the climbers, a rabbi from London, took charge of eruv construction (at 13,000 feet!) and kashrut. A London lawyer was a professional chazzan. Between the two of them and the enthusiastic participation of everyone else, the Shabbos Project became a successful and deeply memorable experience, full of song, spirit and ruchnius. For some of the climbers this was their first ever kosher Shabbos. They’ll undoubtedly remember it for a long time, and hopefully incorporate some of what they experienced into their own lives.
After days of hiking an average of 8 hours each, the group set out at midnight on the 8th day, bundled up in multiple layers of clothing to protect against expected temperatures as low as -20 degrees, for the final seven hour trek to summit, Uhuru Peak. Following a gorgeous sunrise, the participants summited in staggered knots of climbers in the early morning. The weather was surprisingly good, and a clear blue sky permitted magnificent views of the mountaintop glaciers, the volcanic crater, and the vast countryside far, far below. “We were all a bit loopy from the altitude, and so elated that even the appearance at the summit of some hostile and aggressive Palestinians did nothing to dampen our spirits. The chances of such an encounter on a mountain that takes days to climb and is twice the size of London at its base are infinitesimally small. Why Hashem chooses to orchestrate things as he does is such a mystery, although I’m pretty sure meeting these antagonistic Palestinians this divine location was intended as some kind of learning experience.”
“After the trip we visited Shalva in Israel. What a great place. It was gratifying to see how the $300,000 that we’d raised was going to be put to use. Shalva has numerous wonderful programs, included extensive respite care for families. We thought about what our lives would’ve been like if there’d been a Shalva in Los Angeles when our daughter was younger.”
Danny concluded with speculation about the future: “I’ve climbed Mount Whitney to raise money for Yeshivat Ohr Eliyahu and I participated in a five day trek though the Grand Canyon to support The Friendship Circle. This was the most ambitious undertaking yet. What’s next? If Hashem gives me the strength and my wife approves or better yet, joins me again, perhaps an extensive kayaking trip on one of the world’s great rivers for another Jewish cause. There are so many that are worthwhile.”
To contribute to climb4Shalva please visit http://www.climb4shalva.org/view_profile.php?id=1440. Donations can be made at American Friends of Shalva, PO Box 7008 Beverly Hills CA 90212-7008. You can also make a contribution over the phone at: 212-725-0900.