I was appointed Executive Director of the Arava Institute in September 2001. At the time, the Institute was mainly an academic study program with a nascent research department. Alumni programs had not yet been conceived. As Executive Director, I was involved in many aspects of the Institute but it soon became clear to me that my main job was fundraising. My first fundraising trip to the US was in November 2002. Besides reaching out to foundations, the only people I could think of to ask for money were my old friends from Young Judaea. I met with long-time friends and mentors, Karen and Barry Fierst, and we discussed the establishment of a “Friends of the Arava Institute” organization. I had also met with another old friend from Young Judaea, Howie Rodenstein. When I asked Howie for a donation, he said that he could write me a check, but that he thought he had a better idea: a charity bike ride in Israel. I was a bit skeptical, however, I trusted Howie, and I agreed to give it a try. The problem was that neither of us knew anything about running a bike ride. Howie went on the computer, using something new called “Google” and typed in “Jewish Environmental Bike Ride”, and “Hazon” popped up, the world’s expert on Jewish Environmental Bike Rides, having done 2 previous ones. With the help of Alon Tal, founder of the Arava Institute, I connected to Nigel Savage, the founder and head of Hazon in NYC. Hazon was a young Jewish start-up trying to reinvigorate Jewish life in the US by connecting Jews to the environment and the outdoors. I met Nigel in Hazon’s cubicle at the Jewish Federation offices in NY, where Nigel proceeded to grill me, not so much about the Institute but more about me, my life, my kibbutz and my aspirations. After about an hour, there was a pregnant pause, and then Nigel said “I think we should do this”. I breathed a sigh of relief as I felt I had passed the test. In truth the 15 year partnership between the Arava Institute and Hazon has been a bit like a marriage, and Nigel was very wise to have taken the time to get to know who he was partnering with… Like any marriage, it has had its ups and downs but all in all, we are still going strong.
The first Israel Ride was launched in May 2003 in the shadow of the Second Gulf War. While planning the ride, we worried that a war in the Middle East, with the threat of missiles being lobbed at Tel Aviv would deter people from coming. Howie, Nigel and I agreed that if we got a minyan (10 people) to sign up, we would go through with the ride. In the end, 38 people came on that first ride, many coming in order to show their solidarity with Israel, whose tourism industry had suffered from the war. In order to organize the ride, I drafted Vered Balan and Shirley Reisman, two Arava Institute alumnae, with some guidance from Hazon. I did not ride that year but together with Vered, directed the production of the ride.
On the final night of the ride at Kibbutz Ketura, I challenged the group by saying to them that if they came on the ride next year, they would see me on a bike. This foolish declaration made in the heat of the moment was captured on film and became difficult to deny. I have ridden every ride ever since then.
Over the years there have been some major and many minor changes in the ride, however the general route has not changed that much. The Israel Ride starts in Jerusalem with an orientation day. Then we ride from Jerusalem to Ashkelon, Ashkelon to Ramat HaNegev, Ramat HaNegev to Mitzpeh Ramon, Mitzpeh Ramon to Ketura and Ketura to Eilat. We have tinkered with the route from time to time, including riding by way of the Dead Sea, riding by way of Beer Sheva, and starting in the Galil. Once we started the ride from Tel Aviv on Yom Haatzmaout (Israel Independence Day). The major change in the ride occurred, however, in the second year when Nigel proposed that instead of running the ride, Sunday through Thursday, we run the ride Tuesday through Monday with a day of rest, Shabbat, in Mitzpeh Ramon. This addition has changed the nature of the ride enabling us to build a community and allow our bums to recover!
The other major change to the ride was the makeup of the crew; those people who set up rest stops, drive people who need a rest, provide lunch, snacks, water and sunscreen, drive the lead cars, and greet the riders at the hotels. In the second year of the ride, instead of hiring random crew, we hired our own Arava alumni. This decision had a profound impact on the rider experience. The opportunity for riders to get to know Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian and other graduates of the Institute made the ride a unique experience for all participants, even those who had done other charity rides. For many riders, most of whom are American Jews, a Palestinian or Jordanian crew member may be the first Palestinian or Jordanian they have ever met. Almost all riders tell us that the interaction with our crew is profoundly meaningful and builds a relationship not only with the ride but with the mission of the Institute.
For me the best day of the ride is Sunday. The day begins with a small group of riders riding over to the edge of the Makhtesh (a geological formation made by a collapsed mountain) for Shacharit (morning prayers) often led by Nigel. Next we line up for a picture of the entire ride. A wall at the Institute commemorates this moment of each year’s ride when we capture the excitement of the riders’ anticipation. We then release the riders one by one as they joyfully coast the 4 miles down to the bottom of the Makhtesh. The rest of the day is all wilderness, with a few army bases off in the distance, some up hills but mostly down hills or flat. For most riders, it is a spiritual experience riding in the desert mentioned in the bible, for me, we are going home.
Arrival at Kibbutz Ketura, home of the Arava Institute, is the culmination of the 7 hour trek across one of Israel’s starkest landscapes on a bike. The exhausted riders are greeted by students, Arava Institute and Keren Kolot (Kibbutz Guest House) staff, beer and snacks. The riders have the opportunity to tour the Institute and the kibbutz and meet the current students. They know now that they will complete this journey and are generally feeling pretty good about themselves. That evening, a festive barbeque is an opportunity to really celebrate their achievement.
The last day of the Israel Ride includes an exciting trip along the Egyptian border, a climb into the red Mountains of Eilat and a magnificent 11 mile decent to the Red Sea where once again, the riders are greeted by music, beer, students, crew and blue water.
We just completed the 17th Israel Ride (for two years we held the ride twice a year). The Israel Ride is a partnership between the Arava Institute, the Friends of the Arava Institute, and Hazon. The Ride is also sponsored by the JNF who organize the JNF riding team. The Israel Ride has brought over 1,000 people to Israel and enabled them to see the beauty and appreciate the complexity of the land Israelis and Palestinians share. It has afforded an opportunity for people to hear Palestinian, Israeli and Jordanian narratives, often for the first time, and to experience their own spiritual and intellectual journey possibly leading to a redefinition of their relationship to this ancient land. The Ride continuously raises vital donations for the two beneficiary organizations providing critical core funding. A significant number of Trustees on the Board of the Friends of the Arava Institute are Israel Ride alumni and, while for some riders, this is a once in a lifetime experience, many ride alumni are frequent flyers, coming once every two to three years and even some coming every year.
On November 7th, 2017, 165 riders, 12 touring non-riders and 60 crew and staff rolled into Eilat, finishing another successful Israel Ride. I would like to thank Tali Adini and Avigail Ben Yohanan, Arava Institute Ride Directors, Miriam Leichtling and Jessie Karsif, the Hazon Ride Directors, all of the Institute, Hazon and Friends of the Arava Institute staff who supported this year’s ride, the ride crew, lead riders and the mechanics and ride co-chairs, Howie Rodenstein and David Eisenberg. We missed David Rendsberg and Nigel Savage this year but we expect to see them both on next year’s ride, October 23rd to the 29th, 2018. Registration is open now: www.israelride.org.