Natural Wonders

Young Professionals Take Life-Changing Guatemala Trip

What do you get when a group of forty young Jewish adults travel together with three shluchim to Guatemala for a weekend? A lot of hiking, deep discussion, and even more inspiration.
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What do you get when a group of forty young Jewish adults travel together with three shluchim to Guatemala for a weekend?

A lot of hiking, deep discussion, and even more inspiration.

That’s exactly what happened in early November, as a large group of Jewish young professionals traveled together with Rabbis Yaya and Devorah Wilhelm of Chabad Young Professionals of the Upper East Side, Sholom Meir and Rochel Holzkenner of Las Olas, Florida, and Shmuli Levitin of Hoboken N.J.

The brainchild of Wilhelm and his crew and helped along by the staff of CYP International at Merkos 302, the weekend journey to Guatemala proved to be beyond what any of the participants had expected. “We have always wanted to travel together with a large group of young professionals for an extended weekend, and after considering some options, the logistics with the incredible shluchim at Chabad of Antigua coupled with the extraordinary natural beauty of Guatemala proved to be the best bet,” said Wilhelm. “We knew it would be a terrific trip, but the level of intensity and inspiration was something out of this world.”

You see, Guatemala is a country with almost unparalleled natural wonders, among them several active volcanoes. Hiking the majestic mountains is both grueling and breathtaking, and for hikers who successfully make it to the top, the views are unparalleled. Witnessing an active volcano at heights of 10,000 feet above sea level is not something one experiences every day, and indeed, people come from all over the world for the thrill.

But getting up the mountain is hard work. “Not everyone can go on a trip and say they hiked a volcano, nor can many say they would wipe away what they thought was rain, only for it to be black and realize it was raining actual ash,” said Mikey Rubin, a participant on the trip. “It’s not something people experience on the subway through New York.
“On our way up we quickly realized that we were racing the clock to reach the summit by sunrise, and that was something many of us were not prepared for. The altitude, the weather, the darkness, and the unfamiliarity made this hike as much a mental challenge as a physical one. Whether we knew it or not, all of us were bonded by our common internal struggle to make it to the top. Looking back it is a very humbling experience, something we can take into our lives moving forward, even something to reminisce about cramped in the urban jungle of our respective cities.”

Arriving at a base camp 10,000 feet up, the group was greeted by the majestic sight of the neighboring Fuego volcano erupting every fifteen minutes. A truly captivating experience, they were privileged to make the rare brachos for such natural occurrences, as well as a rousing discussion about the lessons it can teach in life.

“Hiking the volcano in Guatemala was one of the most empowering things I’ve ever done,” said Natalie Knepper, another trip participant. “When we finally got to the top and I looked straight ahead at this active volcano, surrounded by the most incredible nature, the only thing that came to mind was that this was all created by G-d.

“Living in New York City, you sometimes forget about this, but in that moment overlooking all this incredible nature, it would be impossible for anyone not to believe in G-d. Being able to share that incredible experience with my and my husbands’ Rebbe and Rebbetzin, Devora and Yaya Wilhelm, and to sit throughout the night fabrenging, sharing stories, and laughing greatly enhanced my spiritual high and is a moment I’ll always remember and cherish, especially now back in New York.”

Cabins and tents at a base camp on top were the overnight accommodations for the group. All night long, meaningful conversation and soul-stirring songs around a bonfire kept everyone warm against the cold and thin air.

As they made their way down the mountain the next morning and the fatigue from the previous day started to wear off, spirits returned. “It was incredible to see just how connected everyone was,” said Holzkenner. “We met a group of Israeli backpackers on our way down, and without any prodding, guys from our group reached out and put on tefillin with them. It was just an organic display of all the inspiration we had been experiencing.”

After such a grueling physical experience, coupled with a magnificent walkaround tour of the historic city of Antigua on Friday, Shabbos at Chabad of Antigua was unlike any other Shabbos anyone had experienced.

“The start of a trip is always adrenaline packed; the end of a trip one reminisces,” said Joshua Friedman, another participant. “Every moment during this trip was better than the next; truthfully, words can’t do it justice. How can one begin to justify what is magical? That is what every moment felt like in Guatemala. We shared tears of joy and pain as we hiked in freezing temperatures, to high altitudes, to come to the most breathtaking views. Magic. Sitting around a fire with Rabbi Wilhelm at the top of the mountain, 10,000 feet in the air, signing songs and sharing stories will forever inspire those of us who were blessed to be there. This trip with CYP is something that will keep us bonded and inspired for a lifetime.”

Special thanks are due to Antigua’s incredible shluchim, Rabbi Chaim and Daria Silber. They farbrenged with the crowd for a long time, and as baalei teshuvah themselves, their personal stories and overall discussion were especially meaningful.

Participants spent time learning Chassidus until late morning, and farbrengens lasted all Shabbos long.

That electric feeling didn’t let up. Motzei Shabbos was spent kumzitzing until late in the night, and unexpectedly, Sunday proved to be the cherry on top. “Our return flights were delayed, and we weren’t able to go back Sunday night. So we went back and made a farbrengen in the Chabad House,” explained Wilhelm, “We sang and danced through the night, with the energy palpable in the air. It was a befitting climax to such a powerful trip and something everyone will remember for a long time.”

“After seeing such unprecedented success from the trip, we are already working with more CYP Shluchim to create the same experience for their communities,” Rabbi Hershy Weinstein, director CYP programming and coordinator of the trip, “The unique bond created amongst the participants and the effect of such an immersive Jewish experience on the young professionals is an unparalleled opportunity.”

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