Enjoying the Ride: Austin Cyclists Experience Israel by Bike
By Tonyia Cone
This October, a group of cyclists will represent Central Texas at the 2018 Israel Ride as Team Austin Achim.
Team Austin Achim cyclists are Jonathan Silverstein, Rabbi Neil Blumofe, David Brenner, Nancyellen Seiden, Larry Hausman Cohen, Matt Schocket, Amy Voorhees, Miriam Raviv, Marcus Shaftel, Paula Falk, Marshall Bendalin, Mark Segal and Tom Gillespie.
Not all team members are from Austin. Gillespie, who is from Springfield, Illinois, joined after meeting Raviv at the USA Triathlon National Championships. Bendalin, who is from Houston, joined after meeting Raviv at the BP MS 150. Segal is from McKinney, Texas.
Founded in 2003, the annual Israel Ride is a fully supported fundraising ride from Jerusalem to Eilat, Israel, that benefits the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and New York City-based Hazon.
Located on Kibbutz Ketura, a desert kibbutz 30 minutes north of Eilat in the Arava Rift Valley, AIES is an environmental studies and research program that houses academic programs in partnership with Ben Gurion University, research centers and international cooperation initiatives.
AIES’s students are Jordanian, Palestinian, Israeli and from around the world.
“Here, the idea that nature knows no political borders is more than a belief. It is a fact, a curriculum and a way of life,” the organization’s website states.
AIES gives students an opportunity to learn from professionals while forming friendships and developing skills so they can lead the region and the world in solving today’s most pressing environmental challenges.
Team Austin Achim member Marcus Shaftel has completed the Livestrong Challenge twice, has done sprint triathlons since spring 2017, and since 2009 has participated in Extra Life, a game-a-thon that brings gamers around the world together to support Children's Miracle Network Hospitals. While looking for his next athletic challenge, he started thinking about doing the Israel Ride because it combined his love of fitness and civic action, and the AIES’s mission sealed the deal for him.
“I see that people work best together when they have a shared goal. I realized that’s what the Arava Institute is doing; it takes people who’ve never sat next to each other, and have all these assumptions about ‘the other,’ and has them work on something they all really care about,” he said, noting that air, water and soil do not pay attention to where borders were drawn.
“For me, creating these relationships, breaking down all of these assumptions and educating these people to repair the spaceship Earth that we all share, that’s how I think we have a chance of fixing the challenges in the Middle East,” Shaftel said.
“The folks that are now in elected office or whatever type of regime setups that are there, I have doubts about their true motivations to resolve things or take care of the denizens of all those countries. I think we’ll need new hearts and souls, and I think getting to folks at college age and giving them opportunities to get to know their neighbors and these opportunities to focus on their shared challenges is the way we grow up new leaders that can move us forward.”
Hazon, which means “vision” in Hebrew, is the largest environmental organization in the American Jewish community. With participants of all religious backgrounds, including those with no religious background, Hazon aims to create a healthier and more sustainable Jewish community and world. Hazon works with a wide range of Jewish institutions and leaders.
Rabbi Neil Blumofe, Congregation Agudas Achim’s head rabbi and a Team Austin Achim member, explained that participating in the Israel Ride is a unique way to experience Israel and to promote a camaraderie and connection among the riders and with those in Israel and the region.
“Being in such a close relationship with the land -- with the Negev Desert -- will transform our outlook on the natural, fragile beauty of Israel, and remind us of our responsibility to be stewards of the environment. There will be nothing like appreciating the land as we are struggling to climb the hills of the Negev,” he said.
“I believe as a rabbi that it is my responsibility to offer our Austin community, meaningful, unique and creative ways to connect to Israel, drawing all of us into continued conversation and deeper relationship. I also hope that our larger community will continue to support our riders as we look to meet our goals for the trip, and will also consider joining the Israel Ride in 2019,” he added.
The ride includes five cycling days, and a day off for Shabbat. The Israel Ride offers three route options: shomrim, an average of 30 miles each day; tzofim, about 55 miles each day; and chalutzim, an average of 75 miles per day that includes significant climbs. Riders can start with any group the first day, then must choose a group to ride with for the rest of the trip.
The group starts each day’s ride between 6:30 and 7 a.m., aiming to arrive at their hotel each afternoon around 3 p.m. Some evenings feature a presentation on an environmental topic.
Team Austin Achim member Jonathan Silverstein is participating in the Israel Ride because it combines two of his passions – cycling and his love of Israel.
“Right now, the exciting part is Austin being part of this annual event and being involved with Israeli based charities for the environment, for peace, and for the other things Arava and Hazon are doing,” said Silverstein, who trains mostly at weekday spin classes at the J and longer weekend rides and plans on tackling the Israel Ride’s tzofim route.
Silverstein explained that Israel Ride staff were surprised at the size of Team Austin Achim because most participants usually come from larger Jewish communities like the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut tri-state area or Los Angeles, California.
“This is a little microcosm of people coming together, and having a good time and caring for Israel to a degree that’s worthwhile and doing things we love doing at the same time,” Silverstein said. “I think for everybody it’s another way of experiencing Israel that they’ve never done before.” ■