“You have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling, I shall walk before the Lord in the land of the living” (Hallel, Psalm 116:8-9). As I said these words on Yom Ha’Atzmaut in Tel Aviv on the 61st anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel – and at the beginning of the longest bicycle ride I have ever done – I realized how literally they applied to me.
Two months ago, I had begun to ride my bicycle again after a six-week hiatus, owing to treatment of my larynx for cancer. I had been literally speechless since the middle of January, able to communicate only in gestures and whispers, and here I was in the middle of Tel Aviv about to embark on the ride of a lifetime. How did it happen? I resolved that if and when I recovered, I would do this ride, to prove to myself that life on the bicycle has not come to end. In addition, I wanted to see whether I could do it on a folding bike (Brompton) that fits in a suitcase. That is how I came to participate in Israel Ride, sponsored by Hazon and the Arava Institute.
Day 1: Tel Aviv to Ashkelon
The ride began on Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Wednesday, April 29, at 7:15 a.m. After a short ceremony including Tefillat Haderech (the traveler’s prayer) and the sounding of the shofar, we cycled into history, passed Rabin Square, where the prime minister was assassinated Nov. 4, 1995, then down the bike path on Rothschild Blvd. We stopped briefly at #16, Independence Hall, where the declaration of the establishment of the State of Israel was signed on this exact Hebrew date 61 years ago. After leaving Yafo, we headed down the coast, ending in Ashkelon, the place where the biblical Samson pulled down the Philistine temple.
About five miles into the ride, my rear tire blew out. It was very embarrassing. I had been keeping up pretty well with the group, but now I was hopelessly behind. They couldn’t get it fixed, so I was loaned a hybrid bike for the rest of the day. The support staff on this ride was amazing. I did manage to catch up on the hybrid but developed sores on my rear. During the evening, I replaced my tire and was able to ride the Brompton for the rest of the trip. We learned that Ashkelon is famous for having the world’s largest desalinization plant, providing 5-6 percent of Israel’s water. We also passed a large JNF reservoir. The importance of the research on water conservation being done at the Arava Institute was stressed.
Day 2: Ashkelon to Mashebei Sade
The second day started at 7:15 a.m. and included a gradual uphill climb, moving from the coast to the northern Negev and ending at Kibbutz Mashebei Sade. I managed to keep up with the group initially, but gradually fell behind, until I was riding by myself between the main group and the support van. For much of the way, there were no cars, just the desert scenery. It was not hilly or picturesque, but there were flowers along the road. There were very few buildings; I had the feeling that I was in a real midbar (wilderness area). I could relate well to the ancient Israelites walking these paths with their camels and herds, with nothing but the sky above and land beneath their feet. The road itself was just an asphalt ribbon that enabled me to take a spiritual journey and connect with my ancestors. This was also the longest ride I ever did in one day – 72 miles officially, but 74 on my bike computer – and I felt like saying a Shecheheyanu (prayer that celebrates reaching a milestone in life).
Day 3: Mashabei Sade
to Mitzpe Ramon
On Friday, the ride was shorter but more intense. We left before breakfast and stopped to eat it at Sde Boker, the home of David Ben Gurion, first prime minister of Israel. He was so imbued with the pioneering spirit that he resigned his office and became an active kibbutz member, working on sheep-shearing and other manual activities with great joy. He is buried here, and at his grave we discussed his philosophy of conquering the desert. Today, this is no longer an accepted practice, and it is not considered sustainable. We must learn to work with, not against, the environment, and not every square inch of desert needs to be made to bloom. We then took a short off-road excursion on mountain bikes. I found this scary at first, but was amazed at how well the bike handled going over rocks the size of baseballs.
Saturday was a true and much-needed sabbath. We had an egalitarian service with a full Torah reading, preceded by a short visit to the maktesh (crater). We learned about its geological origin, from running water eroding the limestone, resulting in a settling. The maktesh is a beautiful crater and richly deserved the blessing recited on seeing the wonders of creation, which I recited as soon as I saw it. Following services and Shabbat lunch, alumni of the institute made a presentation stressing that in order have real peace in the Middle East, we must learn to show respect for the Arab position and realize that most of the people want peace as badly as we do. Building bridges through a shared environmental vision may be a key step in this process. The rest of Shabbat was spent eating and walking around the rim of the crater and generally relaxing and talking to members of the group. There were 34 other riders beside myself. They ranged in age from 12 to 76. I was the second oldest. Most were men in their 40s and 50s, but there were a mother-daughter team, three father son/daughter groups, and a married couple. We ended Shabbat at sunset with a Havdalah service at the maktesh.
Day 4: Mitzpe Ramon to Kibbutz Ketura ““ Arava Institute
The ride to Kibbutz Ketura was mostly downhill and delightful. I arrived at the kibbutz at about 3 p.m., after 60 miles of riding. We were treated to a tour of the institute’s facilities and heard firsthand about student projects and how students from Jordan and Israel get along with one another. The institute was founded in 1996 by Alon Tal, Israel’s foremost environmental lawyer and winner of the Bronfman Prize for outstanding achievement in 2006. Its purpose is to bring peace to the Middle East through environmental cooperation. More about the institute and its projects can be seen at http://www.arava.org/.
Day 5: Kibbutz Ketura to Eilat
The last day of the ride was unusual. Some riders were bused to the top of a hill (Shizaphone), while others rode to the top. I joined a third group that was to tour and bike ride in Timna. We got to see the formations and the copper mines, but before we could do the bike riding, our bus was recalled to rescue the main group from a sandstorm. It was impossible to ride and dangerous to breathe. We were bused to within about 10 miles of Eilat and had a smooth downhill ride from there, riding at times right next to the Egyptian border. While the others were disassembling their bikes, I took a ride to the center of Eilat in one direction and to the Taba border in the other. The experiment was a success. My little bike and I survived, although I was the last rider most of the time. Evening activities included a buffet banquet, a slide show of the many pictures taken by the official photographer, and some celebratory speeches. It was hard to believe the ride was really over.
For me, this ride was the culmination of years of study of and advocating for environmental causes. I first developed an interest in the connection of Jewish tradition to environmental issues in the mid-80s as byproduct of work I was doing as a Boy Scout leader. I subsequently started an environmental study group (Hug Teva) at Cong. Beth Sholom in Teaneck, and what I learned greatly increased my respect for Jewish tradition and what it says about the environment. According to the Rambam, one must “contemplate the world to know Him, who said, and it was.” This was a critical turning point in my thinking. With my new-found zeal for the environment, I joined and subsequently chaired, as I currently do, the Teaneck Environmental Commission. Supporting the work of the Arava Institute provides a new dimension, since this ride was more than a pleasure jaunt. It was both an education and an opportunity to raise money and awareness of a Jewish institution that is attempting to deal with real environmental as well as political problems At the Arava Institute, international cooperation happens in projects emphasizing that “nature knows no bounds” – including research on solar energy, water conservation, and plant diversity and fostering cross-cultural understanding. It is my hope that others will support the institute and come to look at the world, and particularly Israel, in a new way.