Wheelin’ around

Wheelin’ around

Jewish bikers shatter some motorcycling myths

Renee Kornbluth, a member of Hillel’s Angels who teaches motorcycle riding at Fairleigh Dickinson University, shown during the 2006 Ride to Remember. Courtesy Renee Kornbluth

Ilan Mamber hears two kinds of music. One is in the synagogue, Beth Rishon in Wyckoff, where he is the cantor. The other is on the open road, where the 800cc engine in his Honda Pacific Coast hums as he cruises down the highway.

“The ultimate is a beautiful ride in the country,” said Mamber. “When the weather is perfect, and the road is perfect, you can see and feel everything much better than in a car; you become part of it,” he said in a telephone interview.

For Mamber, though, and other members of the Jewish motorcycle riding community, riding goes beyond a nice day in the country. There is a special camaraderie associated with riding with other Jews and doing good works.

Stereotypes of the typical “biker” are out the window, as far as Jewish riders are concerned.

“We are a subculture of a subculture,” said Gil Paul of North Edison. “Motorcycle riding in general is a unique sport. We have surgeons, dentists, lawyers.” Paul is a sales executive and a member of Hillel’s Angels, a New Jersey-based club that grew out of Mamber’s initial interest in riding.

If the name Hillel’s Angels brings a grin to your face, how about the Chai Riders, another area club with members in New York, Long Island, and New Jersey. The clubs are among some 40 across the country and overseas that come under the umbrella of the Jewish Motorcycle Association (www.jewishbikersworldwide.com).

The club names are good for a chuckle. North of the border there are the Montreal Maccabees and Toronto’s Yidden on Wheels. Northern California has the Ridin’ Chai club. The Jews that Cruise ride out of Pittsburgh. Iowa City has the Hawkchai Riders (Iowa is the Hawkeye State). Then there are the Chais of Texas, what else?

In addition, there are clubs in Australia, England, Israel, and South Africa.

It is more than just cute names, however, said Mel Morris, communications director for the JMA. “If you’re on a bike, say in Iowa, you can call somebody, they’ll invite you over,” he said. “What is our bond? We ride motorcycles and we’re Jewish ““ Reform, Conservative, Orthodox. That’s what it’s all about.”

“Jews have been riding motorcycles since motorcycles were invented,” said Mamber. In the late 1990s, people began to ride together in the Bergen County area. From that came Hillel’s Angels. Morris, a former Mahwah resident now living in Florida, was one of the early members.

As clubs proliferated, they began to discover each other, and that eventually gave birth to the JMA, Morris said. The initial get-together for the JMA was a “meet-and-greet” for members of various clubs in Delaware in 2004.

Locally, the riders do charity work, such as entertaining disabled youngsters. They support Israel, riding in the Salute to Israel Parade in New York. Their signature event, however, is the annual Ride to Remember, or R2R, to commemorate the Holocaust, said Morris.

The inaugural ride was to the Holocaust Museum in Washington in 2005. The following year, Jewish motorcyclists from across North America converged on Whitwell, Tenn., where a school project collected millions of paper clips as a symbol of Holocaust victims. The riders raised $35,000 for the school Holocaust education program. (The project was the subject of an award-winning 2004 documentary film, “Paper Clips.”)

In May, the Jewish bikers rode to Virginia Beach. Next year, they plan to convene in Toronto.

A highlight for the local riders is the Celebrate Israel parade, which was held this year on June 5. “We proudly ride up Fifth Avenue,” said David Himber, president of the Chai Riders.

Himber is dean of students at Yeshiva University. Weather permitting, he commutes the 25 miles from his home in Brooklyn to YU’s Washington Heights campus.

What do the students think when they see the dean ride up on his Yamaha Stratoliner? “Cool,” they say.

Avi Kuperberg of Fair Lawn, a Chai Rider, says he is an anomaly at his shul, Shomrei Torah in Fair Lawn, when he rides up on his Honda Goldwing, “People get a kick out of it,” he said.

“It’s the rebellious side of all of us,” said Kuperberg. He knows about things of the spirit – he’s a practicing psychologist and an Orthodox rabbi. He cited the Israel parade, and spoke of tremendous “Jewish self-pride” in riding with other Jews.

Dr. Charles Knapp, a dentist, is a prime mover of Jewish motorcycle activity in the Fair Lawn area and an early Chai Rider. He and his fellow riders kick off the season with a “Poker Run” ride beginning with a bagel-and-lox breakfast in the Temple Beth Sholom parking lot.

They combine good works with fun. This year members participated in Gooch’s Garlic Run, an annual ride of some 2,000-plus motorcyclists, many police officers, to raise funds for ailing children. The ride went from Morris County to Newark’s Ironbound section, Knapp said.

He and the Jewish riders began the day with a kosher barbecue in Fair Lawn. On the second Wednesday of the month, they meet for dinner at a kosher restaurant in the region. “We’re Jewish, we do Jewish stuff,” he said.

As much as the Jewish bikers ride for pleasure, they ride to help others, said Lauren Secular. She is the Chai Riders treasurer, a member of Hillel’s Angels, and active in the wider motorcycle community.

She cited visits to brighten the day for special-needs children at camps Simcha and HASC in the Catskills. Because of Orthodox practice, she said women bikers give rides to the girls at Camp Simcha.

Safety is paramount for the riders. “We’re not Hell’s Angels, we want to enjoy life,” Knapp said. “We definitely focus on safety,” Himber added, noting that Chai Rider members must take a safety refresher course every three years.

Hillel’s Angels also highlights safety. “We stress continued education and safe practices on group rides,” said Paul, safety officer for the club. “We try very hard to minimize the risks.”

Another stereotype to do away with is that motorcycle riders are young. Bob Nesoff of New Milford, a Chai Rider, began riding at age 66. “I will be 73 and I am still learning,” said the writer and journalist.

“I’ve heard that Jews aren’t athletic,” he chuckled. “Why, because you’re Jewish, you should sit down and play canasta?”

Nesoff began by taking riding lessons at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, he said. That is where Renee Kornbluth teaches new riders.

Kornbluth, a member of the Hillel’s Angels, began riding while in Thailand in 1989, and the sport took hold. She said her participation in the 2006 R2R to Tennessee was a tribute to her parents. She is the daughter of Holocaust survivors.

An IT consultant by profession, Kornbluth said her motorcycle riding and Jewish connection are intertwined. “In a way, it has brought me back to my Jewish identity,” she said.

As with Himber, the YU dean, Kornbluth’s motorcycle is her main form of transportation. She rides all year. “I froze for the first 18 years. Now I have a heated jacket,” she said.

Kornbluth said her students at FDU range from 17 to 79. The course runs two days and includes classroom work plus actual riding.

Most important is the ability to stay calm under pressure, she said. “You don’t have to be a great athlete,” she said. “You have to be patient with yourself.” The “mechanical skills will become second nature,” she added.

Passing the basic course leads to an endorsement for a motorcycle license, Kornbluth said.

“Yes, it’s more difficult than riding a car, but it’s also more fun,” she said, and not everyone gets it the first time around. “It can take longer if you’re older, and you may have to take the course twice.”

For riders like Dean Himber, 67, riding a motorcycle was a dream he had as a teenager. Then, in his 40s, he said to himself, “I am a big boy now and I am going to go riding.”

Mamber said his passion for motorcycles was born both out of his memory of being taken for a ride back in Israel at the age of 10 and his need for transportation as a young man working in Brooklyn. He taught himself to ride.

For the riders, the concept of Jews on bikes is simple. “We are people who support Jewish causes and get together to ride motorcycle,” said Himber.

“I just enjoy motorcycling,” said Kuperberg, who rides a plush machine with cruise control and four speakers piping in music. “It’s a wonderful experience.”

“It’s better than riding in a cage,” said Knapp, the dentist. “It clears your head.”

“It’s not the destination, it’s the journey,” Himber said.

There is one more stereotype to toss out: All bikers have tattoos. Most Jewish bikers do not.

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