You might conclude that 60 is the new 30 after speaking with Jeffrey Erdfarb and Harman Grossman, two of the riders in the recent 2019 Wheels of Love bike ride.
Both men, Teaneck residents in their early 60s, took part in a five-day bike ride in Israel to raise funds for the Alyn Pediatric Rehabilitation Hospital in Jerusalem.
“I had started riding in 2001 and I fell in love with the ride,” Mr. Erdfarb, a retired contractor, said. “I decided to go back for the ride the next year.” And that became his annual tradition.
Jeffrey Erdfarb’s story is compelling not just because he rode the strenuous off-road course, and not simply because it was the 19th time he’s ridden. His story is inspiring because after his third ride for Alyn, he was diagnosed with stage four cancer and told he had six months to live.
Mr. Erdfarb went through debilitating chemotherapy and radiation treatments for months. “I was a vegetable,” he said. But despite the grueling treatments he still rode that year. He fought his way back to fitness, regained his stamina, and continued his yearly tradition of riding to raise funds for the children of Alyn hospital.
Several years ago he literally hit another bump in the road. “I had a major accident on the ride. I flew into a big boulder and broke my ribs, clavicle and scapula,” he said. His accident landed him in Soreka Hospital in Beer Sheva for three days. It took awhile to heal from the accident, but he got back in the bike saddle and continued to train, and to ride the Wheels of Love each year.
Four years ago, yet another challenge loomed. “My hip and femur completely disintegrated,” he said. “They replaced my hip and femur on the right side.” That type of injury seemingly would sideline anyone — certainly it would stop the ordinary bike rider — but not Mr. Erdfarb. “Now it’s stronger than the other side,” he said. And so he continued to ride, training on the road — on Route 9W — and also off the road — on trails that go through the woods.
His most recent Wheels of Love trek was early this month; from November 10 through the 14, Alyn supporters rode from the north of Israel down to the finish line in the hills of Jerusalem.
“The five-day ride in Israel gives riders a choice of routes: touring, regular, challenge, off-road, or hiking,” Mr. Erdfarb said. (Riders have many choices; they can do the Challenge route, more than 130 km per day; the Road route, 70-100 km per day; the Trail route, wilderness trails, 45 km per day; the Touring route, half a day of biking and half a day of touring, and the Hiking route, where non-cyclists hike three to five hours and then enjoy some leisure time each day.)
“I’ve made friends with people, and we room together every year and have a great time,” he continued. “I do the off-road where I get to see the back roads of Israel. You see forests and different agricultural settings, all different kinds of beautiful scenery,” he added. “But it’s hard!”
Harman Grossman, who turned 60 this year, just completed his ninth Wheels of Love bike ride; he reported that at least six of the approximately 400 riders this year are from Teaneck. (So’s he.) Mr. Grossman, who is assistant general counsel for Johnson & Johnson, did the on-road route. He said that “most of the riders are Israeli, and the second largest group is Americans. But people from all over the world participate, including from Mexico, Canada, and Italy.
“The route changes every year. It alternates between north and south. This year the route was in the north, and it was very hilly — but it was out of the range of the Islamic Jihad rockets,” he continued. “At every rest stop people took out phones to check on friends and relatives.”
The ride coincided with the rocket attacks from Gaza; that the ride could continue uninterrupted is testament to the tenacity of Israel and all the dedicated riders.
Alyn’s website, alyn.org, is in English, Hebrew, Arabic, and Russian. The site tells readers that Alyn is an acronym for Agudah L’ezrat Yiladim Nachim, which means “Association for the rehabilitation of disabled children. “It was founded in 1932 by American orthopedist Dr. Henry Keller, who volunteered his skills to treat disabled children in Jerusalem.
When a polio epidemic struck Israel in the 1940s and ‘50s, hundreds of children needed special care. The Ministry of Health provided Alyn with a building, an old monastery. In 1971, Malcolm and Dorothy Woldenberg donated funds that helped build the modern hospital in the Kiryat Yovel neighborhood of Jerusalem.
Alyn has grown tremendously in the past 20 years. It now has a staff of more than 400 professionals who treat about 500 children each year as inpatients, and another 3,000 children who are seen as outpatients. On its website, it advertises “medical tourism,” which is a mechanism for parents from other countries to bring their children for treatment. “Alyn Hospital, the only pediatric and adolescent rehabilitation center in the Middle East, rehabilitates children from all over the world,” the website says. Young patients have come from Israel, Europe, the United States, Russia, Argentina, the Palestinian Authority, and Jordan.
“It’s for kids with congenital defects, or injured in accidents, or wounded in terrorist attacks,” Mr. Grossman said.
Mr. Erdfarb said that Alyn doesn’t just treat children; it also designs special devices for the rehabilitation of a range of injuries and disabilities. “It has an innovation lab to design products that can be used all over the country,” he said.
Mr. Grossman said that because Wheels of Love is a major fundraiser for Alyn, each participant must raise at least $3,000 to participate in it. “I raised about $16,000 or $17,000,” he said. That’s just this year. “You continue to get donations after the ride. The total raised for the ride so far is $2.6 million.”
“A lot of people from the community contribute to my ride,” Mr. Erdfarb said. “Others from the community also ride. But I have the longest record, 19 years.”
At the end of the ride, bikers ascend the steep hills that lead to Jerusalem to finish at Kiryat Yovel, the grounds of Alyn Pediatric Hospital. “It’s crazy, like a balagan,” Mr. Erdfarb said. “There’s dancing and refreshments” to celebrate the participants and the race. The most meaningful part of the experience is that when you arrive at the finish line “the kids being treated at the hospital give you a medal,” he added.
“The highlight of the ride is the last day,” Mr. Grossman said. “It’s always a very difficult day. We rode up the very steep Nes Harim approach to Jerusalem in 90-degree heat. It was difficult physically.
“The kids who we’ve been raising money for are waiting with medals to put around our necks,” he continued. “I always tear up. It’s very emotional.”
“I do this for the hospital,” Mr. Erdfarb said. “I do it because it’s in Israel. I do it because I enjoy the camaraderie.
And it also helps that they give you all your meals, all you can eat, and the food is great.”
“It’s a great athletic event, a great social event, but most important is the raising of money for the hospital,” Mr. Grossman said. “People always talk about the holy places in Jerusalem, but if you want to see a real holy place you have to go to this hospital. There are profoundly disabled kids and injured kids who get the best of care.
“Somewhere there’s a high school gym teacher laughing his head off that I am doing this kind of activity,” he said.
For more information on Alyn Pediatric Rehabilitation Hospital and Wheels of Love, go to www.alyn.org.
Dr. Miryam Z. Wahrman of Teaneck is a professor of biology at William Paterson University. She greatly admires 60-somethings who have such dedication and tenacity.