JERUSALEM, May 9 (JTA) — A sandstorm was brewing, and the bicycles lay idle as the riders enjoyed a well-earned Shabbat rest. They 96 cyclists had come to the Ramon Inn at Mitzpe Ramon, in Israel’s Negev Desert, after a grueling three-day ride from Jerusalem, some of it off-road and much of it in searing heat. Most of the riders had arrived in Israel from the United States only four days earlier. The purpose of the six-day, 300-mile ride from Jerusalem to Eilat, called the Arava Institute/Hazon Israel Environmental Ride, was to raise money for the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. The institute is based on Kibbutz Ketura in the southern Negev, where the group’s members were to spend their last night. At the trip’s final destination, the Eilat City Council had scheduled its Earth Day celebrations to coincide with the cyclists’ arrival on May 3. For some participants, it was their first trip to Israel. Jennifer Molinari, of Brooklyn, a diminutive detective with the New York City Police Department and a novice cyclist, recently had discovered her Jewish roots. She said she was encouraged to join the ride by her mentor and teacher, Aliza Avital, who was on the ride for the second year in a row. Avital brought her sister, too. “I feel I’ve discovered a new family,” Molinari said on the final night of the ride, as she read a poem describing her sore legs and soaring emotions. For some, the ride offered the opportunity to express solidarity with Israel; for others, it was a chance to reacquaint themselves with a country they had visited as teenagers. Robert Fuhrer, from Chappaqua, N.Y., recently battled his cancer into remission and saw the ride as a chance to spend time with his childhood friend, Arthur Fried. “I love him like a brother,” Fuhrer said. “He made me who I am today.” At a Havdalah ceremony on a promontory overlooking the Ramon Crater, the world’s largest natural crater, the two friends stood arm in arm, lost in song and reflection. Daniel Asher, a 28-year-old rider from Asheville, N.C., had been re-evaluating his career in high-tech when he decided to take part in the ride. The ride spurred him to apply for the Arava Institute’s master’s program in environmental leadership. “I want to do something to improve the world for future generations,” he said. Asher said he was inspired to study at the institute by a chat Saturday night by students at the institute — including Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, Jordanians, American Jews and a few Palestinians. One student, Abdelraouf Darwish, a Jordanian government engineer based in Aqaba, chose the Arava Institute over an offer from a school in London. “I believe in the common destiny of all peoples in the region,” Darwish said. “The environment is not confined by borders, so why should I be?” Hadil, an Israeli Arab from Acre who completed her bachelor’s degree at Haifa University, said the institute was the only genuinely tolerant educational establishment she had encountered in Israel. “We talk about everything here,” she said. “We might not agree, but at the end of the day we hug and are family.” The bicycle ride is one of a series of Jewish environmental bike rides established by Nigel Savage, an English-born investment banker who became a Jewish social entrepreneur. Savage has a reputation for making things happen, particularly with bikes. He has used bicycles as a vehicle for environmental and Jewish education, raising funds and attracting an eclectic and enthusiastic following on three continents. Savage started his group, Hazon — which means “vision” in Hebrew — four years ago. He had been studying Judaism at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem and was thinking about what kind of contribution he could make to the broader Jewish community. The child of a traditional Jewish family, “I didn’t really discover planet Earth till I was 32,” Savage said. Eventually, he found a way to link his longstanding commitment to Judaism with his newfound passion for physical challenges. Savage said he sought to create an organization outside of synagogues and Jewish community centers that would connect Jews to Jewish tradition. So Savage turned to the great outdoors. Though the cyclists who joined last week’s ride came for a multitude of reasons and from many different backgrounds, concern for the environment was a unifying factor. Over the course of the ride, strong friendships were formed and the riders’ enthusiasm for the environment and for each other became apparent. On the fourth night, after the sandstorm broke and the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team won the Euroleague championship, Savage gathered the group and announced that the following morning there would be a prayer service at the Ramon Crater. But with a Freudian slip of the tongue, Savage said the group would “gather beside the Creator to daven shacharit,” or say morning prayers. When, the following morning, the prayers commenced, hail rained down from the heavens and lightning lit up the sky. Pulling their tallitot over their heads, the group broke into song: The Creator had shown up at the crater.
Environmentalists bike through Israel