The Aliya experience continues…
This past week I spent 5 days cycling 530 kilometers and climbing 7,150 meters with 64 other crazy cyclists from around the world through central and northern Israel… from Michmoret to Nachsholim up to Karmiel, though the Golan, and up to the top of the Hermon, then down through Beit Sha’an around the Kinneret and up and over the Gilboa Mountain. On the last day we rode from Latrun to Jerusalem through Nes Harim and Ein Karem and into the loving arms of the patients and staff at the Alyn Hospital for Children in Jerusalem. (If you are interested, here is a link with all the details of our ride.)
We were one of the various routes organized last week by Alyn for its annual Wheels of Love event where it raises most of its funds for their hospital. A quick word about Alyn (which is an acronym for All the Love You Need): Alyn Hospital is Israel’s only pediatric and adolescent rehabilitation facility. Alyn treats children with a wide range of congenital and acquired conditions including cerebral palsy, neuromuscular diseases, spinal cord injuries, brain injuries, burns, terror and motor vehicle accident victims. What the children and their parents find at Alyn is different than anything else they (or I) have ever seen. Gone are the traditional therapies. Here you find therapy meant to improve the quality of life for these brave children through activities that children who do not have these injuries partake in regularly: basketball, swimming, soccer, cycling, etc. despite their horrific injuries, Alyn helps the kids and their families live fun and fulfilled lives… “the Alyn Way”, as they say. Needless to say this was a good cause. Each cyclist raised at least $2,500 for the hospital from their generous friends and families.
Our group of 65 cycling included cyclists from Israel, Miami, Mexico, Holland, New York, Chicago and even Cuba. My cycling group from Miami, called Beitzim Cycling (yes, beitzim!), had a representation of 20 cyclists, including my father and one of my law partners.
Of particular note, however, was a Cuban Paralympics cyclist named Damian Lopez Alfonso who led the pack most of the way. Damian was invited to the ride by a doctor in Los Angeles, and served as an example for all of the children of Alyn of what is possible despite difficult life-altering injuries. Damian lost both arms – above the elbow – and suffered burns from head to toe, when he was 13 years old he was electrocuted with 13,000 volts of electricity (the voltage equivalence of what it takes to move a New York City subway car) while trying to retrieve a kite from electrical lines in Havana, Cuba. Damian, now in his late thirties, has gone on to become a Paralympic cyclist for Cuba and rides with amazing strength and technique with a bike which is only modified by flipping over the handlebars and without any prosthetics. Damian represented to us, and to the children of the Alyn Hospital, that anything is possible. (To read more about Damian, here is a link to a NY Times article about him.)
If you cannot experience Israel from the saddle of a bicycle, do it from the saddle of a motorcycle; if you don’t like motorcycles, do it in your car with your windows open… and drive slowly there is much to see, smell and feel along the way. There are two highlights of the ride for me:
First, the Hermon. Riding from Yesod Ha’Maala across the Jordan River, up through the Golan Heights and up to the Hermon, which is a 50 km climb of over 1500 meters is a crazy experience. After riding through much barren land and fields of cows, we rolled through the Druze town of Majdal Shams where we were warned of a demonstration in the center of town that we had to ride through. A group of police cars escorted us through (up) the town, and most of us were pretty nervous about this demonstration and what would happen when 65 of us in cycling tights and fancy bikes would ride through. As we pulled up to the demonstration, the demonstrators stopped their protest, cleared the path and began to cheer us on as if we were the Tour de France! I don’t think the police expected that, we certainly did not. Kids from the town even came out to cheer and give us high-fives. This was just the energy and adrenaline we needed for what came next… the Hermon.
I think driving up the Hermon would be an exhausting experience, with its steep pitch and non-stop switchbacks. Try cycling it. The only thing that masked some of the pain and burning in our legs was the beauty of the mountain. The temperature dropped as we climbed, but the scenery and view only got more magnificent. A couple hundred meters before reaching the top we encountered a group of soldiers doing some training on the Hermon. Me and a few of the guys decided to stop.
The soldiers were so happy and surprised to see us, and we were greeted with open arms by these 18 year old heroes. They all came over, took pictures with us, and were very happy to see us. Of course, they thought we were nuts for riding our bikes up the Golan and the Hermon! They told me that my brother in-law and cousin, who are also in the army, in the same unit, were there last week training. I couldn’t believe it. For us this was a playground, an experience. For them this is their training ground. One of the places they go to protect this beautiful land. I am always in awe of these kids. They are our modern day Maccabees. Our modern day heroes. Because of them we were able to ride around our land, close to the border with Lebanon and Syria. Because of them we were safe. This brief encounter gave us the strength to push to the top. At the top we found a dry Hermon, with plastic Snowmen ready for the upcoming ski season.
Luckily, what goes up must come down. Our 50 km descent through Nimrod was fast, fun, and rewarding.
The next highlight was riding into the Alyn Hospital. On the last day of the ride all of the groups met at Ein Kerem junction and rode up to the hospital together. The over 500 riders were greeted by a cheering group of patients and doctors. I rode in with my dad and a few other people who came in from Miami, as we pulled in emotions overwhelmed all of us. Although we just accomplished a difficult physical feat, our accomplishment paled in comparison to what these kids had to go through to just have a “normal”, happy life. The feeling that I did something to help the children of Israel (however small), that these kids were somehow inspired by me and my group was incredible. This feeling was capped by a young boy in a wheelchair and a breathing tube who smiled and gave me a high-five after putting a medal around my neck.
Four months have passed since me, my wife and three daughters have come to Israel for our one year experience of a lifetime. This week connected me to the land and to the people more than I ever expected. It is said that the people of Israel are one big family, one nation. I feel so lucky to be part of this family. While we have experienced centuries of persecution and yearning for this land, I am blessed to be here to experience, and be a part of, this miracle that is the modern day State of Israel from up close. It is clear that the only thing that rivals the natural beauty of this country is its people.
Am Israel Chai