Fleeing Despair, Ukrainian Orphans in Israel Find Peace Through Mountain Biking
It is a long way from a small town 120km outside of Kyiv called Zhytomyr to the Nes Harim KKL nature preserve and youth village outside of Beit Shemesh. Yet, on a recent afternoon, dozens of Ukrainian orphans – boys and girls – donned fluorescent orange shirts and set out on their weekly mountain bike ride with the Israeli non-profit organization Geerz.
A remarkable journey took 70 orphans along with 70 staff, families, and Chabad shluchim from a shattered hometown in Ukraine through Romania and eventually to Israel in March 2022 to settle, temporarily, in a quiet KKL forest youth camp.
Each week, 4 groups of Ukrainian orphans spend an hour learning to ride and maintain a mountain bike all while getting inspired with words of encouragement and Torah from their Geerz instructor.
None of this would have happened without Chabad Shaliach Rabbi Shlomo Wilhelm. Wilhelm, originally an Israeli, was the Director of Chabad of Zhytomyr and the founder of the school and orphanage called Alumim. Some orphans were without parents, and some were abandoned. In Ukraine, Wilhelm built a caring community of 6 families, their children, and the orphanage support team to care for the orphans. Together, they totaled 140 individuals.
When the war broke out and came ever closer to their village near Kyiv, Wilhelm knew it was time to leave.
“We called on our network and in just a few days, all of us had fled to Romania and were camped out in a hotel. Not long after, we were on a plane to Israel. It is good to be home, but even better to have found a safe place where our orphans can find peace,” Wilhelm added.
In Israel, local organizations went to work. The Absorption Ministry also fast-tracked their arrival. Toronto-based Keren Yididut went one step further. Through their connections with KKL, they arranged for the entire crew – orphans, shluchim, and staff to be housed at a safe, enclosed natural wonderland just outside of Beit Shemesh in Nes Harim.
The Nes Harim site teems with wildlife, flowers, and trees. It hosts an iconic Swiss-style chalet meeting lodge at its center. The lodge is surrounded by dozens of traditional Israeli tzimmers that usually host school field trips, army soldiers on chofesh or gibush, or even residents seeking a nearby get-away in serene surroundings. Today, Rabbi Wilhelm’s entire orphanage infrastructure has been relocated to the site.
While the orphans may not have much, Geerz, an Israeli non-profit focused on therapeutic mountain biking has gone all-in to provide physical and mental well-being through sport. Across Israel, Geerz hosts afterschool clubs and also provides its instructors and training at a number of youth villages in partnership with the government.
It all began with a phone call in April 2022. Nachum Wasosky, the founder of Geerz, was informed of the newly housed residents by one of his donors who happened to see Wilhelm’s community on a recent mountain bike ride through the same KKL lands. Wasosky and Geerz saw an opportunity to quickly provide its skills training (riding skills, mechanical skills, bike safety, and etiquette) and an innovative educational component focused on grappling with life’s challenges to children who had little support beyond the gates of the village.
“Right after Pesach, I called them, got in touch, and visited them,” said Wasosky. “Within one week, we moved 20 bikes and helmets there, so that we could run our programs. We made a secure, makeshift place to store bikes and helmets. We knew we could dramatically improve the lives of these kids quickly,” he added.
Every Tuesday, a Geerz instructor arrives and spends an hour riding with a group of 10-12-year-old girls and then another group of 10-12-year-old boys. The riders are both orphans and the children of shluchim. On Fridays, another instructor arrives to work with two more groups, orphan boys aged 10-12, and older orphan boys ages 9th to 12th grade. While Geerz runs its regular programs in line with the academic year, this year it kept this program running continuously this Summer for the orphans.
On a recent Tuesday, the kids learned how to fix a flat tire, which can occur frequently while riding over Israel’s rocky paths.
Aleksandr, age 11 and also an orphan (name changed), tentatively gripped a brand new rubber tire right out of the packaging. He tried and failed 7 times to insert the tire’s lip into the bike’s wheel rim, a tricky maneuver for every cyclist. Instructor Oded used the opportunity to offer a lesson in resilience. Aleksander beamed with pride as he not only got the tire on the rim, but he then lept across the dirt patch to help his friend with the same repair.Another recent lesson taught the kids how to ride up a steep, slippery technical hill.
Nina pushed down with all her 10-year-old might onto a foot pump and inflated the tire on her mountain bike “just enough.” She learned that just the right amount of air will help her control the bike while climbing up some of the vaunted Beit Shemesh hills.
Wasosky said, “going slowly up a hill, any kid may fall, week after week, as we educate them to use their full body to climb up. Eventually, they make it. We use that moment to tell them they now have the tools and can utilize them to make it up any hill. The same goes for life. We’ve given you the tools to pick yourself up if you fall, the tools to get through the lesson, and eventually, you will succeed. You will get scrapes, you will fall.”
He adds, “this is so critical for these Ukrainian kids. Life is an uphill battle for them and we are giving them what they need to succeed.”
Another student, Rachel, recently stared at a downhill trail with great trepidation. Geerz instructor Oded coached her as she slowly descended the windy dirt path, gaining speed and confidence with each passing meter.
“These kids are dealing with anxiety, trepidation, and the trauma of being uprooted. We know from years of working with kids, that if we give her the proper care, love, encouragement, and tools to descend the hill, she can go from fear to success in 5 minutes. This is the same in our lives. With support, we all can make this transition quickly,” said Wasosky.
As temperatures rise, safe outdoor activities for the orphans are even more critical. Each week, the riders gain more confidence as they trek through the Beit Shemesh hills.
Communication isn’t always easy. The Geerz instructors speak English and Hebrew. The shluchim and other volunteers speak Hebrew and Ukrainian. Between them, they make sure the kids understand the lessons that are provided.
However, the beaming smiles on their faces speak a universal language of fun.