Zaki Djemal

In pursuit of God and myself on Mt. Everest

Joining the trek was terrifying, but celebrating the vitality and wonder of creation was slowly transformative

This October 15, trekkers from Israel and the US completed the first-ever “Climb for Justice” to Gokyo-Ri (5,360 meters high), overlooking Mt. Everest, raising $90,000 for Israeli NGO Tevel B’Tzedek and its work in Israel and in Nepal. This is the first-hand account of one of the climbers, Zaki Djemal.

October, 2018, Everest region, Nepal.

Every morning of the Trek, I gazed up at the magnificent peaks of the Himalaya, and bid “good morning” to the ancient masses of rock and earth. Every morning, as the rising sun painted their majestic crests with gentle hues of pinks and reds, forging a crown in a world of giants, I would share with them my dreams, hopes and fears.

And every morning, they — the mountains — would answer: telling me about the myriad of living creatures seeking shelter in their nooks and crannies, of generations of farmers, who for centuries have been laboring to extract life out of their rock-strewn bulks; about the climbers who insolently dared to challenge their majestic omnipresence, whom they buried beneath avalanches of snow and ice.

I had traveled to the Himalaya together with 14 other trekkers from Israel and the US to attend the first ever “Climb for Justice” to Gokyo-Ri (5,360m), overlooking Mt. Everest (8,848m) and three other of the world’s highest peaks , Lhotse (8,516m), Makalu (8,485m) and Cho Oyu (8,188m). We had embarked on this journey to raise money for Israeli NGO Tevel B’Tzedek (“the Earth in Justice”) and its critical work in Israel and in Nepal.

I had expected to find beauty and challenge and purpose; I had not expected to find God or myself.

I landed in Nepal after many months of hard-work setting-up my VC fund. The expanse separating these two realities far exceeded the distance between Jerusalem and Kathmandu. The relentless cell-phone and overflowing inbox were replaced by my two walking sticks; and the never-ending struggle that is startup life and the frenzied claustrophobia of the many metropolitans I had visited raising the fund melted into rolling terraces bejeweled with emerald green rice paddies glistening in the morning sun.

The beauty was breathtaking and the change of pace, a breath of fresh air. Still, I was terrified; and the physical challenge and biting cold were the least of it. Here I was, leading a trip to Nepal, 3,000 miles from my comfort zone, “disconnected” from my inbox and the world, and the multiple distractions I have come to rely on to avoid looking inwards too deeply and confronting whatever it is I might find.

In the mountains, I felt stripped of the false sense of control I’ve spent a lifetime cultivating. For example, a day of bad weather at Lukla airport (2,900m) had delayed our disembarkment by over 24 hours, and a bout of idiosyncratic mountain sickness afflicting one group member called for a helicopter evacuation down the mountain. I couldn’t quite “take it up with management.”

I was also terrified of being part of a group. To be sure, the climb consisted of nothing but wonderful sweet people. And yet, I knew the extremity of the experience would draw out everyone’s quirks, myself included, highlighting both virtues and vices. It didn’t help that one of the members of the group was saying Kaddish and that he relied on me for a daily Minyan. I was happy to help, of course, but I had left religion long ago, and the idea of praying every day out of duty to someone else pushed all kinds of buttons for me. Lastly, I was going to be trekking with my dad. I love him dearly, and I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to spend time together, but I’d be lying if I said the idea of spending two weeks on a mountain together wasn’t daunting. I imagine he had similar reservations.

But these challenges, in part, were why we decided to join the Climb. And the mountains offered not only difficulties but also a framework for healing.

The daily hike we embarked on every morning, on our way to the world’s highest mountain, became a requisite part of my daily ritual. This was an opportunity to stop by an ice cool spring, soak in the beauty, meditate, and celebrate the vitality and wonder of life and creation. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, I was transforming myself back from the “human doing” I had become, into the human being I wanted to be.

The cause we chose to support added another important dimension to the experience. It wasn’t only about me and mine, but about raising my gaze from the trail and taking in the big picture.

In the days leading up to the trek, we visited remote villages where Tevel — led by expert Nepali staff augmented by Jewish and Israeli volunteers — has made a lasting impact. We learned about Tevel’s unique approach to Tikkun Olam, which includes Jewish leadership development for Israeli and Jewish young adults coupled with an innovative model for integrated impact-driven community work.

One of the highlights was a visit to a village called Chalice, where we met a women’s microfinance group that had been set up by Tevel more than three years ago. Although the organization was no longer active in the village, the group was still thriving independently, and the passion and strength emanating from the dozens of women who turned up to greet us was contagious. They had learned to replace a feeling of powerlessness and fate with initiative and the power of women’s togetherness. Their vulnerability had turned into strength, independence and opportunity. I conjured the image of these brave women every time I struggled up the trail reminding myself that no matter how hard I climb, these women climb so much harder every day to raise themselves from extreme poverty.

The Climb raised $90,000 from over 300 donors to help some of the poorest people on earth break out of the cycle of extreme poverty.

The group I had feared had also turned out to be a source of inspiration.

Forty-nine years separated the youngest and oldest trekkers on the first ever Climb for Justice. Micha Price (24) from Jerusalem, who completed four and a half years of military service as an infantry officer just three weeks ago, would stop during some of the toughest ascents to sing and play his guitar for other climbers. Phil Lehman (73) is a retired businessman and veteran spinning instructor from Maryland. He didn’t let his two prosthetic knees stop him on the way to the top.

Micha and Phil were joined by Naomi Schachter, Director of Partnerships & External Relations at the National Library of Israel; Tamara Edell Gottstein of the The Rochlin Foundation; Mark Meskin, a professor emeritus of Nutrition at the California State Polytechnic University; Joe Djemal, former chairman of Terem Medical Centers; Rabbi Micha Odenheimer, founder of Tevel; Yonatan Bram Tevel’s incoming executive director; business woman Ricky Fried and her husband Yisachar Fried; theatre writer and director, Alana Ruben Free, and our fearless leader, Yedidya Fraiman of KosherTreks.

Finally, the Climb offered me the opportunity to lower my defenses and relate to my own religion from a new perspective — something I could never do back home in Jerusalem. Best-selling author, philosopher, and Jewish thinker, Micah Goodman, our scholar-in-residence, taught a course during the trek on the History of God. Together, we explored the God of Spinoza, of Sigmund Freud, of Maimonides, of the Kabbalah, of William James and others. Inspired by the high mountains, and under Micah’s expert tutelage, we tried to dig deep into one of the most complicated, enigmatic, terrifying and exciting ideas in history — the idea of God.

The History of God

We have a special Shabbat treat for you- Dr. Micah Goodman, best-selling author, philosopher, and Jewish thinker, who taught a course during the trek on the "History of God", this is just a little taste:) Enjoy!#climbforjustice #c4j2018Video credit : Zaki Djemal

Posted by ‎Tevel b'Tzedek: The Earth in Justice תבל בצדק‎ on Friday, November 2, 2018

I’m still not religious or particularly spiritual. But as the sun came out over Gokyo Lake and the water and mountains broke into a million shades of blue, green and white; and Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt (Morning Mood) serendipitously came up on my music player (I’m not kidding; of the thousands of songs on my player, that is what came up), I suddenly recalled an Einstein quote I first heard from Prof. Peter Galison while I was an undergrad at Harvard:

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. […] He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead —his eyes are closed.

[…] To know what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.

At that very moment, as my consciousness expanded in awe, and my eyes swelled in tears, for one of the first times in my life, I felt the presence the God.

Later that day, less than two weeks after arriving in Nepal, I stood on the peak of Gokyo-Ri, 5,360 meters high, at the base of Mount Everest, looking down at the green valley and its magnificent glacial lakes. I knew I had climbed an ascent that had presented all kinds of unpredicted challenges and felt simple joy in my accomplishment, happy to be alive. I also knew that this human achievement was possible only thanks to the benevolent grace of the mountain.

Although seemingly “a vacation,” the few weeks I spent in Nepal were, in actuality, a strenuous voyage, always uphill, to the crest of a mountain. I experienced the prerequisite change of pace and the important lesson in humility almost as a physical effort. I was struggling to breathe in a rarefied atmosphere. And yet, at the same time, I found myself gulping in air for what felt like the first time.

I went to Nepal in search of adventure and purpose and found a white mountain, and at its peak, I found myself.
Anyone interested in joining Climb for Justice next year (October 2019) or sponsoring a climber can read more about the trek and the cause at or, and/or express tentative interest here and someone from the organization will be in touch.

About the Author
Zaki Djemal is Managing Partner of, Israel’s first university focused venture capital fund. He is also Co-Founder of דאבל ירושלמי دابل مقدسي Jerusalem Double, Jerusalem’s first backgammon league for Jews and Arabs, which in just over a year of operation is already 8,000 strong. In 2018, Zaki was selected for the Forbes 30 Under 30 list or emerging tech business leaders. He is a proud member of the Schusterman Foundation ROI and REALITY networks and serves on the boards of the Israel Harvard Club and Tevel b'Tzedek. He graduated with honors from Harvard College, where he studied Behavioral Economics. Zaki co-chaired this year’s Climb for Justice with fellow Tevel board member, Saul Singer, co-author of the book “Startup Nation.”
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