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Taking minyan to the mountain at Lion’s Head

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Jews come from all over South Africa and the world to be a part of the Lion’s Head Minyan in Cape Town in December, climbing Table Mountain and davening, lighting a menorah, and singing Hallel with one of the most spectacular views in the world.

On 26 December, Rabbi Dovid Wineberg, who runs Hamakom (The Space) an organisation that finds innovative ways to bring Judaism into Jewish people’s lives, led almost 60 people up the mountain from Signal Hill to Lion’s Head. At the top, they transformed an ordinary day in paradise into “something beautiful, special, and holy on the eighth day of Chanukah”, according to Wineberg. They davened together, lighting a menorah, and singing Hallel with an endless view of Cape Town and its environs.

Men and women of all ages, the youngest about five, from countries including South Africa, Israel, Australia, Canada, England, and Denmark climbed the 5km up to Lion’s Head to be part of the service.

The climbers loved the initiative, Wineberg says, with Johannesburg visitor Antony Seeff describing it as “a special experience on a perfect, crystal-clear day” and Australian visitor Samantha Kavonic calling it an “exhilarating and unforgettable” experience.

It was Seeff and Kavonic’s first Lion’s Head Minyan experience, although Wineberg has been holding the minyan for the past 11 years.

In the beginning, he says, “We climbed up once a week early in the morning, putting on tefillin at the top. It was a great way to connect with people, use the outdoors of Cape Town, and involve people who wouldn’t necessarily come to shul. There was a bit of a vibe. Sometimes we had a minyan, sometimes not.”

But then it was Chanukah, which meant they had to read the Torah during the service, and Wineberg refused to let that stop them. “Why should we cancel? Let’s take the Torah up and read it on Lion’s Head,” he said.

And so, the idea gained traction.

Now, Wineberg does the Lion’s Head Minyan and climb only once a year because he has become too busy with Hamakom. He’s also chairperson of Cape Town Torah High.

The climb and minyan has “become a staple of the holiday experience for tourists to Cape Town”, Wineberg says. “People hear about it from far and wide. They reach out. They want to know what it is. The day after we went up last month, I was being messaged, ‘Are you doing it next week? We just arrived in Cape Town and would like to go up.’”

When they went up in December, they took up the Ichikowitz Tefillin Bank Torah (also known as Kevin’s Torah), written in memory of Kevin and Ashley Shapiro. “This Torah is special to my heart,” Wineberg says. “More than 15 years ago, my beloved friend, Kevin Shapiro, died suddenly when he was young.”

Seeff, who hadn’t climbed a mountain in a while and did the climb with friends from Johannesburg, says the climb “was more hectic than I expected. You had to wipe off all your sweat before you put on your tallit and tefillin. It’s not a little walk in the park, but getting up wasn’t too bad, getting down was a bit more challenging.”

An entrepreneur involved with a new start-up, Seeff saw great pictures over the years of people doing the climb, and always wanted to try it, so he grabbed the opportunity when it coincided with his holiday in Cape Town last month.

Kavonic says the climb and davening with the minyan was the highlight of her family’s time in Cape Town.

She did the climb with her husband, Garron, and two of her children (aged 12 and 15). “I also climbed with my brother-in-law, Brett Kavonic, and two of his children.”

“The last time we were in Cape Town was about nine years ago, when we heard about the Lion’s Head climb but unfortunately missed it,” she says. However, they were in South Africa last month to be with their family and cousins and celebrate Kavonic’s parents-in-law’s 50th anniversary. “We were determined to experience the climb on this trip, so made every effort to find out the details and join the WhatsApp group.

“We didn’t train or prepare at all for the climb, besides setting an alarm, packing lots of water, and taking our siddurim. Luckily, we’re a family who loves the outdoors. In Sydney, we do lots of hiking and beautiful walks.”

For Kavonic, being part of the minyan was special and meaningful. “It was amazing to hear everyone davening together. A particular highlight was when two Israeli backpackers reached the summit and were stunned to see the Torah being lifted. They were reminded, HaKadosh Baruch Hu is everywhere. They immediately called their friends and family back in Israel to share their incredible experience.”

Wineberg did a little bit of training ahead of last month’s climb, climbing up a few mountains in Cape Town and on the Garden Route.

He puts the whole project together, reads from the Torah, arranges the aliyot, and finds someone to lead the service. “Everybody who climbs up gets called up to the Torah, and they typically give a donation towards Hamakom to raise some money for charity,” he says.

Wineberg says people climb Lion’s Head for two reasons. “First, you can’t access it with a cable car, so you have to climb, meaning that everybody is doing the same thing and making the same effort. It’s a real climb, not a hike. With Table Mountain, you can just take a cable car. It’s also not as high as Table Mountain, so it doesn’t take as much investment and effort for people to get to the top. Second, it’s so beautiful at the top of Lion’s Head. The view from there is absolutely otherworldly. It’s a gift to stand there and get a 360-degree view.

“It’s about the effort, camaraderie, everybody joining and encouraging, pushing, and helping each other. When everybody reaches the top, there’s a beautiful sense of accomplishment and achievement.

“The idea of bringing Judaism to people is a passion of mine. This climb really ticks that box in a beautiful way,” he says. Wineberg also puts his passion into his two-minute daily dose of Torah and pop-up shuls, among other initiatives.

Seeff says Wineberg’s Lion’s Head Minyan helps people connect with Hashem and bring a bit of kedushah to the mountain.

“It was a moment of great pride seeing the Torah being lifted high on the top of the mountain,” Kavonic says. “It’s an experience we’ll definitely repeat on our next trip to Cape Town.”

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