2003 Israel Ride – Letter from Nigel

New York
Yom Ha’atsma’aut 5763 / 7th May 2003

Dear All,

I’m back in New York after the first-ever Arava Institute Hazon Israel Bike Ride. I’m jetlagged and sunburned and, courtesy of my first-ever downhill mountain-biking, bearing one or two scars. But I had a wonderful time, and I’m delighted to report that (minus the injuries) so did the rest of our riders. I got an email yesterday from Rosie Sharabhani which was typical of people’s responses:

“I’ve been to Israel over a dozen times, but this has definitely been one of the most memorable trips I’ve ever had – from biking across the desert and feeling the utter beauty of the land in a more intimate way than ever before, to bonding with Jews from different backgrounds and ages who I would otherwise never have crossed paths with, and meeting Israelis who were so gracious and welcoming, and who shared with us their commitment and incredible contributions to this country. I’ve come out of this trip feeling a deeper love and connection to the miracle of Israel, and really look forward to build upon the community/family that was formed on this bike trip!”

(I’m also copying below the email that Howie Rodenstein, the Chair of the Ride, just sent out to the people who sponsored him, which gives a further flavor of it. Howie’s enthusiasm and commitment was inspirational, and a reminder of how one person can make a huge difference.)

For me personally the Ride was a fascinating experience. I’ve never cycled in Israel before, and it was a remarkable way to encounter the country. Cycling is so interesting because, unlike hiking, you can cover a fair amount of distance in a day, but unlike being in a car, you’re moving more slowly and you’re more connected to, and aware of, the world around you. And while you’re cycling you have time to think.

There’s something quite remarkable about cycling past acacia trees, for instance, and realizing that the Torah recounts that the Temple was built from them. Or cycling through the wilderness of Tzin, where Moses hits the rock in the biblical book of Bamidbar (literally, “in the desert.”) More than usual, I was aware of the juxtaposition of the ancient and the contemporary. Even in these complicated postmodern, post-Zionist days, there is something remarkable about the ongoing love affair between the Jewish people and the land of Israel. The USA is a little more than 200 years old; my high school was founded nearly 500 years ago; Chaucer was writing maybe 700 years ago, and we struggle to understand him. Yet two thousand years ago rabbinic Judaism was developing in the area we were cycling through, and the Jews of those days and the Jews of Israel today would read and understand each other’s Hebrew pretty well. Each night of the Ride I was counting the omer, fully aware that it is a tradition that arose in Israel as a biblical grain offering, probably three thousand years ago, and which has been observed continuously by Jewish people ever since.

There was a minyan (prayer quorum) that I participated in on the first two days, gathered largely because one of the riders was saying kaddish. We davenned pretty quickly and, in my case, with hardly any kavannah (sense of religious awareness) whatsoever. But by Tuesday night we were at sfinat hamidbar, in the desert. I chose to sleep outside, I watched the stars as I went to sleep, and I was awoken by the crowing of a rooster. I found myself soaking much more into the ancient rhythms of Jewish prayer, which evolved in encounter with the land we were then in, and which always comes alive for me there in a way that it hardly ever does in a synagogue. “Radical amazement,” as a phrase, comes from Heschel’s childhood in chassidic Poland, but the feeling which it describes arose when an ancient people encountered the raw grandeur of the desert I was then awakening in, and in doing so experienced awe in both its contemporary senses. Saying the words of the prayers in their place of birth can have, at least some times, an ethereal and calming quality, an aural and existential echo of the whisper of the desert and the quest within it for a sense of the divine.

More prosaically, I also loved the way that, in the south of Israel (and exerting oneself on a bike) I felt immense pleasure from very primary physical things. The feel of a breeze; the sea air as we came towards the beach in Ashkelon; the rush of the wind cycling down into Machtesh Ramon; the sheer childlike pleasure of coming upon an unlikely and unexpected pool while we were cycling on Tuesday afternoon, diving in and coming out refreshed. Seeing the blue of the sky, the pale grey of desert shrubs, the colored rocks of Timna, the green and brown of tall sprouty date palms, the red-colored sunset on the mountains of Jordan.

And cultural equivalents: phoning down to the hotel switchboard one day and being reminded that “kabbalah” is not only an ancient esoteric tradition or even a contemporary fad but that it is rooted in the word to receive, so that “hello, reception” comes out in hebrew as “shalom, kabbalah.” (And this in turn reminded me of Mike Marmur telling me twenty years ago that he wanted to live in Israel so that he could live in a place where referees in football games are called “shofetim” – the biblical word for “judge.”)

The admixture of ancient and contemporary, like the mix of physical challenge and time on a bike to think, can he heady and sometimes emotional. Quite a few riders reported that the final ride down into Eilat, for those who came in from the mountains, brought them to tears. There were tears shed in our closing circle at the end. For me, the most emotional moment came when we cycled to David and Paula Ben Gurion’s graves, at a remarkable overlook in Sde Boker. Our arrival coincided with the graduation ceremony of a group of students, many of them American and British, who were completing Marva, a two-month army program which gives young adults a unique experience of Israel. I still can’t explain why I started crying when they began to play hatikva, the national anthem, a song that I love but which does not usually bring me to tears. I think it was something about connecting with this feeling of love-through-the-confusion; knowing that there are many things messed up in Israel, many things we’d like to see change, yet knowing too that Israel in its essence embodies the inspiration and idealism which, despite buffering from within and without, remains at the core of Jewish life, and that so many people, both in our group and in the Marva group, aspire sincerely and purposefully to fostering that essence.

So parts of this trip definitely touched the place in me that resonates with very traditional Jewish and Zionist emotions, and I was happy about that. Other parts of the trip reminded me of contemporary complexity, though even there they were a source of inspiration rather than its opposite.

It was remarkable, for instance, to cycle with Ali, an Israeli Arab rider who, in our opening circle, spoke of his excitement at seeing “my country” in a unique way, and who in conversation with me said, “I’d really like to serve in the Israeli army, just not this army;” by which he meant, essentially, as an Israeli citizen he’d like to be able to fulfill his obligation to serve in the army like other Israelis, but in practice he understands both for himself and for Israel that that’s currently impossible. Ali was a reminder to me, and I think to many of the riders, both of the latent goodwill for the State of Israel that still exists amongst Israel’s second and third-generation Israeli Arabs, and at the same time of the tension they live under and the inequality that they face.

Another example of complexity was hearing from Dr Alon Tal and others about the evolution of the JNF and the Israel Lands Authority. Diaspora Jews have an opportunity, via communal philanthropy, both to support Israel and to encourage Israeli institutions towards policies that will foster long-term conservation of resources and equitable use of the land. Again, there are clear signs of positive movement in these areas.

It was good to be able to talk with people from institutions that are doing really important work in Israel and whom we’ve supported from the proceeds of Hazon’s Jewish Environmental Bike Rides in the USA. One of the riders was Noam Segal, who has been actively involved with Tel Aviv Bishvil Ofanayim, lobbying for alternative transportation policies in Tel Aviv (he’s now at Arava, and he created the website, www.israelride.org, which now has photos up from the Ride). We rode one afternoon with Eilon Schwarz, who runs the Heschel Center for Environmental Leadership: I’m delighted to announce that his colleague Jeremy Benstein is going to be scholar-in-residence at our NY Ride this summer. We cycled to Kibbutz Lotan, one of the most ecologically serious kibbutzim in Israel, and saw their recycling center and some of the buildings they’re constructing with little more than old tyres and Coke bottles.

And on Thursday evening we cycled to the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies itself, based at Kibbutz Ketura. Ketura embodies a combination of tradition and openness which to me is inspirational. It’s a kibbutz which is not “orthodox” by any means, but its kitchens are kosher and all public spaces are shomer shabbat. Like Lotan, Ketura is rooted in Jewish tradition and Zionist commitment. But the students at Arava include not only Israeli and American Jews, but also Israeli Arabs, Palestinians and Jordanians (not to mention both a Jewish-Moslem couple and a lesbian couple). One of David Lehrer’s soundbites, and a good one, is “we hope that at some point in the future the Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian Ministers of the Environment will be meeting together to sort things out, and that they’ll all be Arava alumni.” So, all in all, it really was a wonderful week. My abiding memories, apart from the physical beauty of the land, and the challenge of some of the riding, are simply of the phenomenal group of people I was privileged to ride amongst. I don’t think I’ve ever had the pleasure to be with such a wonderful group, in which every person was an ambassador of enthusiasm, in which the commonest facial expression seemed to be a big smile, and in which we spent a week together, quite intensely, without argument or disagreement, despite differences of religion, age, politics and – potentially much more problematical than all of these – speed on a bike.

In closing: My hugest thanks to everyone who made this possible – the support staff, the riders, their sponsors, and also our institutional sponsors, including Bikkurim and the Jewish Agency. We hope and intend that we’ve begun an annual tradition which will touch many lives, in many ways, for good. Watch this space for news of Israel Ride 5764…

With all best wishes


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