As you read this, hundreds of bike riders are currently on the road in Israel, sweating their way up a hill, pausing to take a swig of water and glance at the scenery, perhaps adjusting their bike seat.
October, as you may know, is a popular month for bike rides in Israel. The weather is good – warm, but getting cooler. It’s after the chagim, the month-long holiday season, but before the onslaught of Thanksgiving celebrations and December’s winter vacations. And for riders wanting to bike down south, where the sun can be punishingly hot during the summer but incredibly pleasant in the fall and spring, October – and March and April – are the months to consider.
If they’re biking now, they may be Cycling for Peace, Partnership and Environmental Protection with the Arava Institute and Hazon, heading from Jerusalem to Eilat. They could be participating in Wheels of Love, the international bike ride from Mizpe Ramon to Jerusalem for the children of Alyn Hospital, a pediatric and adolescent rehabilitation center in Jerusalem. If they’re cycling in the spring, they can join the Ride4Reform, advancing the mission of the Reform movement in Israel, or bike in another Hazon ride that takes place in the spring.
Whatever the ride, there’s often a twofold mission. The ride itself, and the cause.
“The rides show that Israel, if you don’t read the papers for a week, is a regular country,” says David Benninga, an American-Israeli who lives in Mevasseret Zion, a suburb outside Jerusalem, and first organized the Ride4Reform eight years ago. “The rides are a fundraising tool to advance a mission – ours was to point out the mission of the Reform Movement in Israel, which includes education, social justice issues.”
For the Reform ride, the riders are a combination of locals and visitors from abroad, including Hebrew Union College students studying in Israel for the year, as well as rabbis and cantors from the movement, and Israelis active in the movement. For Benninga, the proof that the ride was working was its immense popularity and the riders’ amazement at this particular side of Israel.
“It’s not a huge ride, it doesn’t have the same appeal as fundraising for sick kids on the Alyn ride,” says Benninga, explaining that there is no permanent fundraiser for the Reform ride, and riders pay a fee for the expenses, around $450 and have to raise $2,000 each. and there’s no permanent fundraiser to push the ride forward.
The Hazon ride, for example, is five riding days and a fundraising commitment of at least $3,600 in support of Hazon and the Arava Institute, a regional center in Israel’s southern Arava desert that supports environmental leadership. The Alyn ride requires a minimum fundraising commitment of $2,000, although they report that the average sponsorship is closer to $5,000 per rider. Last year, they raised more than $2 million from 700 participants.
Fundraising is clearly a large part of any ride’s purpose. But it’s not the focus.
Rabbi Misha Zinkow, from Columbus, Ohio, was in Israel in October with his 25-year-old son to take part in the Hazon ride for his first time.
“I’m here because of a love of Israel and a love of bicycle riding, so this is a great combination of the two,” said Rabbi Zinkow, who is a serious rider back home. “It’s my first time doing a group ride, or a ride of this length, and I’m looking forward to five or six beautiful days of Israeli weather and seeing the countryside up close and not through the window of a bus.”
As for the riders, they’re all types. There are the outdoorsy types, the David Benningas who spend a lot of their free time biking, everywhere and anywhere. But there are also those who haven’t done much biking, who have never been in Israel, or those who are casual, amateur riders, at best. The rides can usually accommodate all types, and do. There are family groups, mothers and daughters, fathers and son, grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles. There are office teams, organizational teams and teams of friends. And there are many who come on their own, just because they enjoy the overall experience.
Some become avid riders because of their participation in a ride. Zvi Levran, a Jewish educator and licensed tour guide who lives in Jerusalem and leads groups for Da’at, became a regular bike rider because of his longtime participation in the Alyn ride.
He was one of the 40 riders in Alyn’s second 2001 ride – the first had just nine riders, they now have more than 700 – when “they were still giving out regular tee-shirts, not real bike shirts like we receive now” – and it was the riders who were organizing the fundraiser.
Ten years later, there are several routes for the many Alyn riders, rougher, off-road options for the more experienced riders, a combination of easier rides and bus rides for the less experienced. But the overall concept is the same, says Levran. A good cause, a great sport, and the camaraderie of a group that has become closer over time. Levran, who is involved in organizing the ride, tends to ride during the week with the friends he made through the Alyn ride.
“The onset of fundraising bike rides caught a wave of increased biking around here,” he said. “It gets you outdoors, it’s exercise and the routes are absolutely gorgeous. It’s a win-win-win.”