Bike 4 Friendship

A Southern Bar Mitzvah

July 29, 2011 9:54 AM

The Mayor of Natchez, MS, arranged for us to meet Jay Lehman, a member of the local Jewish community, at his store - Lehman’s Cash and Carry. We spoke for close to an hour and Jay filled us in on the community and its history. We planned to meet at the synagogue later in the day.

We returned to our hotel, which overlooked the Mississippi River, to cook dinner and wash up. We had directions to the synagogue and wondered what to expect. We’d learned that Jewish life had existed in Natchez since before the Civil War and that the community still prayed in an old temple.

We arrived to discover that the temple had been built in 1905 after the previous temple burned down because of faulty wiring. The Natchez Jewish community once included almost 500 members but in 1908 the boll weevil arrived devastating the cotton industry and the Mississippi River flooded, causing even further damage. Many businesses were forced to close and over the next ten years the Jewish community dwindled to 150 members. The community continued to shrink and now consists of 13 individuals, the youngest of whom is 60. Several years ago the community deeded the temple to the Museum of Southern Jewish Experience as a way of preserving it, and the temple now houses an exhibit about Natchez Jewry which we found fascinating.

In the temple, we asked the two men who were showing us around if they would put on tefillin and they happily agreed. While doing the mitzvah with them, we heard some voices calling out in Hebrew, “Ma nishma?” – “How are you?” Turning around we saw an Israeli family who were touring Natchez. They were on their own cross-country trip, and when we explained that we were just getting a tour of this old synagogue, they came inside and joined us. Itzik, the husband, readily agreed to put on tefillin.

We soon found out that one of the Natchez residents giving us the tour had just put on tefillin for the first time in his life – a true cause for celebration! And celebrate we did. In the temple was a grand piano and our new Israeli friend, Itzik, sat down and began to play the traditional congratulary song – Siman Tov, as well as other traditional Jewish melodies.

And together, two of the only remaining members of the Natchez Jewish community, an Israeli tourist and his two sons, and three Chassidic bikers danced and sang with joy and unity as we celebrated a Bar Mitzvah more than 50 years in the waiting.

Meeting with Mayor Bell of Birmingham
Meeting with Mayor Bell of Birmingham

Ups and Downs

July 28, 2011 11:27 PM

Riding through Bremen, Georgia, en route to Atlanta, we stopped to check out a local icon, Callie’s Alley. Callie’s Alley is a restaurant that initially opened to give students at a local special education facility a combination of life skills and work experience. Prices on all dishes in the restaurant are in multiples of $1.00 to enable the teenagers to serve as cashiers without worrying about small change. To this end, tax is already incorporated into the prices on the menu.

The workers at Callie’s alley were extremely friendly and even gave us t-shirts with their store logo on it! As we geared up to continue on to our next stop, Callie handed us each a heart she had cut out of construction paper. Now, we may have started to think of ourselves as big strong guys toughing it out cross-county on our bikes, but when she handed us those hand-cut hearts there was no doubt that deep down we’re all softies.

Experiencing Callie’s Alley rejuvenated us and encouraged us to continue biking to raise money so the Friendship Circle can run similar programs. Perhaps one day there will be a kosher version of the Alley.

Our next big stop was Birmingham where we jumped right into a game of “Gaga ball” with the Camp Gan Israel Children and were treated to homemade pizza for lunch. We spent a wonderful Shabbat in Alabama and left on a high note.

Unfortunately our moods began to fizzle when the next couple of days brought one bump after another. We cycled ten miles out of our way trying to find or hotel, hit a major storm, extreme humidity and exhaustion. We stopped to regroup and noshed on energy bars, and high protein and carb snacks to boost our energy. After four flat tires, a tangled chain and a collection of other bike-related mishaps, we arrived in Natchez, Mississippi where we had quite an experience which dramatically altered our sour moods…

(...to be continued)

Cycling through tornado devastated Alabama
Cycling through tornado devastated Alabama

Virginia, Here we Come!

July 15, 2011 1:38 PM

On Wednesday morning, we met with the mayor of Bedford County, Virginia and held our first press conference where we officially announced and read aloud a Proclamation signed and sealed by the Bedford County Mayor, Skip Tharp, recognizing our efforts on behalf of special needs children. After extensive interviews with the local ABC and NBC affiliates we stuck around for a while and asked one of the policemen about the local Jewish community.

He only knew one Jew but phoned him asking him to come down to the municipality building and meet with us. Incredibly, less than ten minutes later, there he was! (Ah, the beauty of small towns.) We chatted for a while and our new friend agreed to put on Tefillin with us. When all was said and done, we went back to our hotel to pack up the car, jumped on our bikes, and were on our way. WSET (the local ABC affiliate) followed us for about a mile or so along the road.

We had to hurry because we were schedule to meet with the children at a Jewish summer camp run by Temple Emanuel of Roanoke, VA. Our appointment there was for 1:00-2:00 pm and we left Bedford County at11:00am. We had thirty miles to go which normally wouldn't be a problem, but the route was all up-hill. To prevent getting lost in Roanoke, we parked our bikes at a CVS and drove the rest of the way to the Temple. (Don't worry, we drove back to the same point and continued on our way. There are no short cuts across America!)

Our experience at the Temple was incredible! After telling them about the Friendship Circle and why we are on this trip we had a long question and answer session. We were asked about everything under the sun, including our trip, but more importantly, about Judaism. One of their spiritual leaders explained to us that most of the children have had very limited interaction with observant Jews.

Towards the end of our time there, we asked the campers if they would like to see a Jewish ritual in action. They all said yes, so we called up one of the older boys and put on Tefillin with him while explaining what we were doing and why. Afterwards we answered more questions while the other boys over Bar Mitzvah put on Tefillin. We explained to them that while Tefillin is something only men have to do, women and girls have their own special rituals, such as lighting Shabbat candles every Friday night starting at age three.

After saying our goodbyes we drove back to CVS and rode from there to Blacksburg through the Blue Ridge Mountains. In Blacksburg we were able to relax for the first time in days. It was 12 Tammuz, the anniversary of the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe’s liberation from prison, and we held a farbrengen (chassidic gathering) over dinner.

To beat the heat we’ve been starting our days early in the morning so we can get a good few hours of biking in before the sun is at its hottest. We leave at 5:00am… next stop Jonesville!

Tefillin, a Flat Tire, and a Proclamation

July 8, 2011 11:39 AM

Wednesday we finally left New York and began our serious cross-country biking! But before setting off we had some important business to attend to. We needed to find Gold Street and pick up a Proclamation, signed and sealed by New York Mayor, Mike Bloomberg, declaring July 6th Bike4Friendship day.

Although we’d intended to leave from 75th and 5th streets at 3pm, it took us longer than expected to get the Proclamation, as is often the case in government offices. By the time we were ready to leave we looked at our watches and realized it was already 2:37pm and we were a full 6.3 miles away from our kickoff point. (For anyone who is counting the route is now 4006.3 miles.) Normally, that wouldn’t pose a problem, but we were in the city, and the traffic lights were slowing us down considerably. To try and speed things up we hopped onto the Hudson River Greenway and flew. We rode faster than we ever had before and only arrived ten minutes late.

As we pulled up to the crowd, we heard a tiny pop; our first, and hopefully last, flat tire. After quickly replacing the tire we were finally off and the realization that we are going to be biking all the way to California began to kick in. I turned to my friends and joked, “I hope this isn't an elaborate April fool’s joke!” His reply, “Even if it is, we’re going anyway!”

At one point, while biking along the Hudson River towards the George Washington Bridge, we all turned to each other, and said at the same time, "sunscreen!" Apparently our mothers’ had synchronized their voices to pop into our heads at the exact same moment. More likely, we were all struck by the intensity of the glare coming off the river.

We reached the bridge only to discover that the outbound biking lane was closed. That meant we ended up biking against intense winds and at one point I was pretty sure we were pedaling but going backwards! In all seriousness, our necks were pretty stiff by the time we reached the other side.

In the middle of the bridge we actually got off our bikes and took some time to enjoy the view. I’ve sat on the bridge before, stuck in traffic, but never have I seen the view this magnificently. Unfortunately, our cameras were in the car and our cell phones were tucked away in plastic bags because of the light drizzle so we were unable to take photographs.

Once we’d crossed the bridge we stopped to ask for directions. The person we asked was actually Jewish and we explained our biking mission to him. He appeared to be moved by our encounter and agreed to put on tefillin for us when we asked him to.

The rest of our day was relatively uneventful but we did have a broken spoke, which we fixed, and Thursday we were up and off at 4am, aiming to reach Philadelphia by noon!

“Why are you Still Here?”

July 5, 2011 9:26 PM

Everywhere we’ve ridden this week, we’ve been asked “Why are you still here? Didn’t you have a grand kickoff in Livingston, New Jersey?”

The answer is quite simple. We did indeed have a grand departure in Livingston, but we are not actually starting our cross-country trip until Wednesday, when we will leave from the corner of 75th and 5th Streets on Manhattan’s East Side at around 2:30p.m. (All who want to see us off are welcome). For the past week we have been cycling around the tri-state area, and the obvious question is, “Why?”

In order to answer that question, we must first answer another question that we have been asked recently. Who is our inspiration?

Whenever we need a role model, in any aspect of life, we look to Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory.

We wonder, how should we treat a complete stranger? We remember that the Rebbe displayed a boundless love and acceptance toward everyone and we try to emulate that. We wonder, how can we overcome a particular challenge? We read books of the Rebbe’s teachings and find the advice he gave in counteless areas.

The Rebbe often emphasized the importance of a “chance” meeting. In fact, the Rebbe taught that there is no such thing as a “chance” meeting, for every time we meet someone there is a purpose and a reason for the encounter. At the same time, the Rebbe also stressed that we are all connected. We share in each other’s pain and joy. Therefore, the Rebbe taught us to reach out and help another, even if we are complete strangers.

This very idea is the focal point of our trip.

Today, Tuesday, is the anniversary of the Rebbe’s passing. The Rebbe taught that the day a person passes on is the day that he has completed his mission on this earth and should be commemorated as such.

Therefore we stayed. We chose not to leave New York until after the very day that represents the whole purpose of our trip. And today, when we prayed at the Ohel of the Rebbe, we asked for blessings to make this trip as successful as possible.

Visitors at the Rebbe’s resting place (Photo by: Baruch Ezagui)
Visitors at the Rebbe’s resting place (Photo by: Baruch Ezagui)

How Does a Bike Relate to Judaism?

July 3, 2011 8:31 AM

I don’t know about most people, but the way I learnt to ride a bike was through a series of stages. First I was given my very own tricycle. Next I progressed from using my feet to push myself along, to learning how to pedal. When I outgrew the tricycle I received a bicycle with training wheels - a whole different biking experience. The angle of sitting was different; I was higher off the ground. Pedaling required more force and the center of balance had changed. When I’d mastered that bike, I knew it was time to remove the training wheels. After a few wobbly starts, and a number of bumps and bruises, I was finally on my way. All this, of course, came to pass under the faithful watch of my parents.

Similarly, when progressing in Judaism we need to take it one step at a time. First we learn the ropes. Then we figure out what needs to be done and make sure that we are doing it in the right way. Next, we position ourselves so that when the time comes we will be ready. Finally, we take off the training wheels and go off on our own. Bumps and bruises are okay, as long as we are trying and going in the right direction. All the while we must realize that we are working under the watchful and caring eyes of our Father in heaven.

Our theologian was not satisfied with the metaphor so we put our heads together and came up with a second one.

A bike has many parts but the main structure includes two wheels and a frame. Likewise, each person’s life is made up of many parts. Many people have influenced our lives, but it all boils down to two parents and G‑d. In order for each of us to be born into this world there was a partnership: our parents and G‑d. We are doing our own balancing act, which itself is an important part of life. We are doing the riding, but we must always remember that it’s not just us who make the ride successful. Remembering this helps to keep our egos in check, and allows us to experience the best bike ride, or lifelong journey, ahead.

All smiles, our theologian friend continued his day satisfied, thanking us for letting him take up our time. We thanked him, too! There are many people who we can learn from. This man challenged us think of a lesson to take from our bikes, something we would not necessarily have done on our own. Now we have something else motivational to contemplate while pedaling.

Three rabbis cycle across america. This is their blog. Learn more at Bike4Friendshiop.com
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