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Ride of the Living

Rabbi Zig Zag, aka Zachery Betesh, is a Lubavitcher rabbi from Fort Lauderdale who, with other Jewish bikers, is taking part in Yom Hashoah observances in Washington.  (Robert Wiener/NJ Jewish News)

Rabbi Zig Zag, aka Zachery Betesh, is a Lubavitcher rabbi from Fort Lauderdale who, with other Jewish bikers, is taking part in Yom Hashoah observances in Washington. (Robert Wiener/NJ Jewish News)

WASHINGTON, May 20 (JTA) — They roared into the national’s capital 200 strong on May 6, with police waving them past halted traffic as they reached Raoul Wallenberg Place behind the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Moments later, Jewish motorcyclists from the eastern seaboard and Canada, participants in what they called the Ride to Remember, assembled on a rugby field across the street from the museum, combining a spirited gathering with a somber observance of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. For Gil Paul, a salesman from North Edison, N.J., the day had a special meaning. “My parents are both survivors,” he told NJ Jewish News on the eve of the rally. “My father fought in the underground. My mom was a survivor of Auschwitz.” Like other members of Hillel’s Angels, a Jewish bikers’ association from the Garden State, Paul said he signed up because “at first we thought it would be a great excuse to get away for a weekend. But as the date came closer we realized the real meaning of the ride: to remember the Holocaust. “It was a little thing we could do and maybe create a little bit of noise, a little bit of spectacle. If people see a couple of hundred motorcycles and they ask why they are all riding today, we can answer.” The Angels are part of a loose confederation of Jewish motorcycle clubs that includes the Chai Riders from New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. They were joined by the Yidden on Wheels from Toronto, who call themselves “Yowies”; the King David Bikers from Florida; the Washington-area-based Tribe, and a group of women and men from Hadassah’s Pittsburgh chapter. Many rode two days or more to be part of the gathering, rumbling from Atlanta, Chicago, Miami, Michigan and Pittsburgh to converge at a Harley Davidson dealership in Dumfries, Va., before riding the 25 miles to the Holocaust Museum together. Some wore kipot beneath their helmets; others arrived bareheaded or wearing baseball caps. Perhaps none of them attracted as much attention as Zachery Betesh, a Lubavitch rabbi from Fort Lauderdale, who wore black pants, a turtleneck shirt, a black leather vest and a matching cowboy hat. An ordained rabbi for two years and a biker “since I put a lawnmower engine on a bicycle at the age of 13,” Betesh calls himself Rabbi Zig Zag, “because I zig and zag when I ride. I am all over the field.” As spiritual adviser to the King David Bikers, he rode from Florida with a Torah scroll encased in plastic and attached to the windshield of his Harley-Davidson with bungee cords. The scroll, inscribed in Czechoslovakia in 1929, was smuggled into Germany, then to Jerusalem, to elude capture by the Nazis. At the rally held in the shadow of the Washington Monument, Betesh held the scroll aloft. “We brought this sefer Torah back into the world after 60 years,” he told the audience. “The Torah means a whole lot more than something physical. “The last 36 letters of this Torah were inscribed by bikers. All Jews of no particular type or denomination. We do this great mitzvah in honor of those who perished in the Holocaust and the survivors who will always be remembered. What we did when we inscribed these letters was we brought back to life the souls of those who perished. This is a very special moment. “Never forget.” The ride and the rally allowed participants to be both light-hearted and deeply introspective. “Why am I here?” Ari Wallach, a clothing store owner from East Brunswick, said. “My parents are Holocaust survivors from Lodz, Poland, so this was a very important trip for me. “It is probably the first ride my mother was happy to see me go on. She is not thrilled that her only son is riding a motorcycle. But if you look around, this is something that is OK for a nice Jewish boy to do.” “It is a mixture of something fun and something serious, but I felt it was something I needed to be a part of,” Maury Jayson said. Jayson, a Florida urologist who rides with the King David Bikers. “The club has brought myself and many of us back to our roots and our culture and our Jewishness. Bikers come in all different flavors and we just happen to be bunch of bikers who are Jewish and so we share that cultural thread.” Debbie Edelman, an aerobics instructor from New Jersey who rode “two up” on the back of her husband Larry’s BMW, said it was “pretty awesome that a lot of Jewish riders are here to do this. I am pretty amazed there are as many Jewish riders as there are. I never realized there are a lot of Jewish bikers. It’s wild.” Her husband, a patent attorney who has ridden a motorcycle for 30 years, said he made the journey “to be here with friends. You want to meet new people and laugh, but it is also a very somber thing to remember. Memory is not long.” Remembering is also important to Sam Cohen, an information technology manager from New Jersey. “It’s a great combination of remembering the Holocaust, which is critically important to the Jewish people. Especially because the generation that was so victimized is dying out,” he said. “It is so important for us to remember and it’s an opportunity to combine our Judaism with those who love to ride our motorcycles. It breaks the stereotype that Jews don’t ride motorcycles. It really is a great combination of doing something you love and doing something that is so important.” Mel Morris, 67, a New Jersey engineer, from Mahwah, is president of Hillel’s Angels. “The statement that we are going to make — not just as bikers but as Jewish bikers — is that the world can never be allowed to forget what went on,” he said. “Bikers have, like it or not, a bad boy image. So guess what? Some Jews have an image that we are not docile people anymore. It is a statement of solidarity that needs to be made, and we’ll get attention because we are Jewish bikers.” At the rally, Rabbi Zig Zag introduced Kaddish, the memorial prayer for the dead, by asking members of the audience to close their eyes and observe a moment of silence in memory of those who died in the Holocaust. ” ‘We were once slaves in Egypt,’ we just read on Passover. Now we are free men.” he said. “Through the Babylonian exile. Through Nazi Germany. We now enjoy our freedom again.” Jeff Mustard, president of the King David Bikers and the day’s main organizer,, called the ride a “demonstration of our faith, our religion, and our unity as bikers from across the nation we gather in the nation’s capital for this Ride to Remember. “We ride for one, we ride for all. We ride to remember so the world will never forget.” “Should we do this every year?” Mustard asked his audience.”Yes,”the crowd roared.