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Pilot Sets off for Antarctica with Mezuzah and a Prayer


When David Wakil departs for Antarctica this weekend, he will be leaving behind his girlfriend, his family and his home — but not his Judaism.

The 39-year-old Australian pilot will live in subzero temperatures for the next six months flying scientists around bases in the South Pole as they research the effects of global warming.

All the while he will carry a Jewish survival kit that includes a menorah, a siddur, a mezuzah and tefillin.

Wakil also will keep in the pocket of his flight suit a copy of the Jewish traveler’s prayer, Tefilat Haderech, and a $1 bill from the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

Wakil has Rabbi Levi Wolff, the Chabad-Lubavitch Chasid who heads Australia’s largest synagogue, Sydney’s Central Synagogue, to thank for the package.

“The rebbe once gave me the dollar with a blessing for spreading the warmth of Judaism,” the U.S.-born Wolff told JTA. “I thought the dollar bill would symbolize this same message for David, as there are not many places colder than Antarctica.”

Wakil, a pilot since 1994, said he was thrilled by Wolff’s generosity.

“I’m going to bring it back to him next year,” he said. “I should be back in time for Pesach.”

Schneerson used to hand out $1 bills to be given to charity to visitors to his Brooklyn headquarters. Many visitors kept the bills as mementos and gave other money to charity.

Wakil works for Skytraders, an aviation company hired by the Australian government to link Antarctica to Australia for scientists who work in the Australian Government Antarctic Division.

Wakil will take off in a small Hercules-type aircraft from a 13,000-foot ice runway in Antarctica, where the lowest temperature ever recorded was 128 degrees below zero.

It will take him 10 days to reach the end of the Earth. Wakil is not flying; he’s going by ice-breaker.

“The Antarctic weather is hostile and can change very quickly, and beyond a certain point the plane can’t make it back,” he said.

It will take a week to hit the icecap, then a few days to break through it until the vessel cannot go any farther, Wakil said. A helicopter then will transfer him to the base.

Only about 2,000 people — most of them researchers — live on the continent during the Southern Hemisphere’s summer.

Lighting candles on Chanukah may be a bit tricky for Wakil, since Chanukah coincides with the two weeks per year that Antarctica experiences 24-hour sunlight.

Wakil, who was selected from a pool of about 180 pilots, said he underwent rigorous training in the past year and a half.

“It’s not the sort of job I necessarily want to do, but it’s an amazing opportunity,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the beauty of the continent and the nature, as well as the interaction of working with scientists.”

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