Daniel Saul, 21, and two of his friends are biking across the country this summer. Starting in Livingston, N.J., on June 26, the team of young rabbinical students will ride through North Carolina, across Texas and on to California in just seven weeks, all for the benefit of children with special needs.

They’re debating an extra stop in S. Francisco if they can get back to school on time.

Saul, Zalman Perlman and Shmuel Rothstein teamed up with Friendship Circle International, a Chabad-Lubavitch organization with scores of branches around the world that pair teenage volunteers with children with special needs. Along their circuitous route from coast to coast, they’ll be getting the word out about the organization and seeing who they can connect with along the way.

“On a bike you get to meet all different types of people, other bikers and hikers that might be on the path,” explained Saul. “It’s a way of reaching people who otherwise might not be reached.”

The riders got exercise bikes in their rooms at the end of November, and have been finding time to train early or late in between classes and other obligations ever since.

“At first it was hard; it was definitely not easy. Biking is not as easy it might sound,” Saul said of the rather daunting task at hand. “We are rabbinical students. We’re not jocks or anything. We aren’t the most in shape guys; at least, we weren’t at the time.”

These days, Saul can pedal away indoors or outside, listening to Jewish music, audio books and classes while he rides. His team has even learned how to fix their bikes in case they run into trouble along the way. They’ll be carrying day packs and burning fleets of calories a day, taking spare parts and food and sending perishable food ahead.

“We’re taking food stuff, bike stuff and religious stuff,” he said.

And just in case, a support van will be along for the ride.

Saul said he wants to get the word out about Friendship Circle’s work, in case people know someone who could benefit from it. He also wants to use the ride as an opportunity to clear up misconceptions about rabbis.

“We don’t even need to meet them. If they hear about us, that’d be amazing,” he said. “They’ll say rabbis are ‘normal people.’ ”

Daniel Saul and Zalman Perlman
Daniel Saul and Zalman Perlman

The trio will get a special send-off from the Friendship Circle of New Jersey in Livingston, where 100 children with special needs will ride alongside them. For many of the children, who are receiving the bikes courtesy of Olivia Lefkovits and her family in honor of her Bat Mitzvah, this will be their first ride.

The Bat Mitzvah project and bikers’ ride coincided perfectly, said Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, executive director of the Livingston branch of the Friendship Circle. The kids will come with their families to check out their bikes, each made special to meet the child’s needs. Each bicycle is also outfitted with a personalized license plate.

“We thought, what better way to send these rabbinic students off on a cross country trip than with the kids who are going to be on their bicycles for the first time,” he said. “It’s so meaningful for us as an organization to have someone step forward like this.”

Saul, who has never gone cross-country before, said he’s planning on putting the rabbinic saying that you can learn something from everybody to use.

“Everyone has something unique to offer the world,” he explained. “We’re going across America and seeing people who are actually doing good things with their lives.”

The riders are set to pass through 16 different Friendship Circles along the way, said Rabbi Bentzion Groner, director at Friendship Circle International. Some of them will host the travelers, whose ride expenses between bikes, hotels, food, equipment and clothing are expected to be $25,000 to $30,000.

Groner has been working on the ride’s logistics, but said there’s much more than logistics to this journey: The ride has the potential to help people learn to see beyond the exterior of another person, to not judge and instead see what they can learn from each other, he said.

The ride will conclude in Agoura Hills, California.

Said Saul: “I’m excited to bike across America.”