For many children, a summer day just wouldn’t be complete without riding their bicycles around the neighborhood. But until this Sunday, that quintessential summer rite was little more than a dream for a group of 100 children with special needs.

Timed to coincide with the beginning of three Chabad-Lubavitch rabbinical students’ cross-country ride to raise awareness for children with special needs, the bike distribution at the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston, N.J., turned their dreams into reality. Each received a brand new bike of their own, specially equipped with their personal needs in mind.

The initiative was the brainchild of 11-year-old Olivia Lefkovits, an avid cyclist herself, who was looking for a meaningful project she could run in honor of her upcoming Bat Mitzvah. Inspired by her elder siblings’ volunteer work with the local branch of the Friendship Circle – an international program that pairs teenage volunteers with children with special needs – Lefkovits launched Olivia’s Friendship Cycle to make the joy of riding accessible to all.

Sunday morning, more than 500 people gathered to witness the 100 children mount their shiny new wheels and take their first spin around the track. With the help of her parents, Jeffery and Marci Lefkovits, Lefkovits raised the money from family, friends and fellow Jewish community members to provide the bikes, which ranged from standard style with adaptive wheels to custom therapeutic bikes costing upwards of $5,000. Each bike sported a license plate personalized with each child’s name and a helmet.

After a few words, the children sped through a stream of confetti beneath a colorful balloon arch.

“I’m just glad I’m wearing my sunglasses,” said Elizabth Volfman, gazing at the parade of bicycles, “so my son Joseph can’t see my tearing me up.

“The bikes don’t just ‘accommodate’ the children, they enable them,” said Ellen Seidman, who has an eight-year-old son with cerebral palsy. “This is the first bike Max can use independently, and with that comes an incredible freedom and confidence. When he’s on that bike he can be like any other kid.”

Joseph Volfman, 12, was thrilled to show off his new wheels. He proudly demonstrated how his sneakers strapped into the pedals, the handlebars were closer to his chest, and the seat molded perfectly to his back – all so he can spend less energy on holding himself up, and more time on the fun stuff, like actually riding the bike. It was even in Joseph’s favorite color: apple green.

For Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, director of the Friendship Circle of New Jersey, Lefkovitz’s project enabled children with special needs to reach yet another milestone that would typically be out of reach.

“Everyone remembers their first bicycle, what color it was, who helped them learn to ride,” he explained. “We’re so proud we can give the children those precious moments of freedom.”

That’s a message that rabbinical students Daniel Saul of Pittsburgh, Pa., Zalman Perlman of Los Angeles, and Shmuel Rothstein of Baltimore, Md., will pedal hard to spread on their seven-week New Jersey to California, coast-to-coast mission. (Their blog on their journey can be found on the Judaism website by clicking here.)

“We want to raise awareness about Friendship Circle but also to show people how each person can make a huge difference in the world,” said Saul. “When you think about a little girl like Olivia helping to coordinate something that touched the lives of so many kids and their families; that’s inspiring. We want to inspire others on our road trip in the same way.”

The event also kicked off three rabbinical students’ cross-country tour of the United States.
The event also kicked off three rabbinical students’ cross-country tour of the United States.

Hal Sass described watching his daughter Danielle, who was born with a rare brain disorder, take her first short hops on her new bike.

“She’s been through numerous surgeries and has a limited use of her right arm, yet here she is riding a bike,” he said. “You look around and there are all these children with different issues and challenges, yet today, they’re all happy. What Olivia has done, what the Lefkovitses have done, it’s unreal. Their generosity is unbelievable.”

Jeff Lefkovits was quick to credit the entire community.

“While my daughter Olivia may have thought of the original idea, it was once again a community effort that transformed an idea into another miracle,” he said.

“It’s so great to see all the smiling faces and shiny new bikes,” remarked his daughter. “I am so honored that in some small way I am able to be part of so many summer dreams.”

She added quickly, “Today is awesome!”