November 3rd, 2017

Riding the Paths

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The Israel Ride has come to the Negev Desert. We, the riders of the Chalutzim, have ridden over 200 miles since leaving Jerusalem just three days ago. As a full moon bloomed on the eastern horizon and the sun dipped below the western horizon this evening we welcomed Shabbat as one community in Mitzpe Ramon. It seemed ages ago that we were packing our bikes and individually making our journeys to this mystical land.

After riding together now for half the week we are no longer individuals. We are a community. Today we traveled for nearly 40 miles along the Sinai border escorted by soldiers of the IDF and guided by David Palmach, the founder of Kibbutz Nitzana a small village on the border where we stayed the night. Last night he told us the security reasons to move people to this border outpost, the battles fought to secure it from Egypt and the more recent mission of educating children at risk. Today he told us of the battles in which he had fought to preserve the state and of the friends, 34 of whom had sacrificed their lives at the battle of Ammunition Hill for the cause. Can you imagine the grit and determination of this man and his fellow soldiers. And this morning he got on his bike and rode 45 miles with us to cross the tallest mountains of the Negev Desert.

Along the way we received a briefing about the brigade that patrols the border. The Intelligence Officer, a Major, described that the threats along the border are not the Egyptians, nor even North African migrants attempting to gain political asylum. The security fence, twenty feet high and deep below the ground have stopped the migrants. Even Isis of the Sinai knows “the rules” and makes no attempt to challenge the IDF. The concerns seem to be more focused on providing intelligence to the Egyptian Army who is in a war with Isis and taking casualties every day. We were not permitted to take a picture of the Majors face but she did let us photograph her from behind.

That’s an M-16 slung over her shoulder. Her steely professionalism made me very glad to be on this and not the other side of the border.

Yesterday we marked two remarkable anniversaries, the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration which recognized the national aspirations and rights of the Jewish People to a homeland and the 120th anniversary of General Allenby’s victory over the Ottoman Empire at Beersheba, the first meaningful toehold of Great Britain in the land that would ultimately form the modern State of Israel. On the Ride these moments are tempered because our mission to support the Arava Institute acknowledges the complexities of competing narratives in the “conflict” and more importantly our crew made up of Arava alumni include people of this land who have yet to achieve their own national aspirations. So while we may rejoice in these milestones there is still a recognition that there is much work to be done to provide peace to all the communities of the region.

These moments make the ride unique among bicycle rides but it is the people on the ride, the riders, the crew, the staff, the Arava students who we’ll meet on Sunday that make the Ride. Riding long distances in windy and hilly terrain requires teamwork. Two or more riders working together to create drafting opportunities or simply encourage each other on a long steep climb make a huge difference in how far and how fast we ride. On Thursday our 92 mile ride from Ashkelon to Nitzana presented many challenges including buffeting winds and long hours in the saddle. My many miles of training over the year paid handsome dividends as I hung with the lead riders for 70 miles. Hung is the key word as others did the hard work leading the pace line. The leaders, guys I’ve ridden with in prior rides, are team players with an amazing tolerance for the challenges of riding into the wind for hours on end. As the day wore on my muscles began to send signals that the pace, even at the middle of the pack was taking its toll. Small twitches at first and then early instances of cramping told me to adjust. Changing my riding posture helped but before long I simply fell off the back. Now I am riding alone on a road that heads due west to the Sinai from which the winds blow relentlessly and my pace slowed. Soon I saw another rider, a friend from prior rides, had also slipped off the pace line. I worked to catch him knowing that the demands of the push would be rewarded by the two of us working together taking turns in the front while the other drafted. I caught up to him and we began to work together. Not long after his riding mates, still fresh because they are simply stronger dropped off the pace line to retrieve us. Three of them surrounded he and I to form what felt like a human cocoon with two in front and one at our rear to literally pull us through the last 20 miles. The sense that we were a community of riders responsible for each other was overwhelming.

After a restful evening in Nitzana, Friday’s Ride loomed large, not because the miles or hours would match the previous day, but because the mountains would present the work. As I mentioned, our route to Mitzpe Ramon and a day of rest required that we cross the tallest of the desert’s mountains. The treat was that we would be traveling on the border road which is limited to IDF patrol and for one very special day, the Israel Ride. A ride on an amazing road with no vehicles save for the Humvee that would keep watch over us is another among the unique experiences this Ride presents. Nonetheless, there would be no free lunch because we knew to go this way we would have to overcome two climbs of each over 1000 feet and many more for a total of 5000 feet for the day. We were blessed that the temperatures were unusually low with highs barely in the 70’s. The sun in the desert still is a challenge even when it’s cool. Fortunately we stop intermittently as there are so many important stories to be told and learned in this area where the Israelites camped in their journey from Mitzrayim. After our first major climb we stopped atop a peak called Kardesh Barnea which is a bit of a misnomer because the name really applies to the spring that lies below in the Sinai. We can’t see the spring but we do see a glimpse of trees in the valley miles to the west. It is at this spring where the Israelites encamped for 19 years and Moses incurred the wrath of G-d by summoning water from a rock by striking it with his staff rather than pleading for it from the almighty. Looking out upon the landscape I am amazed of the challenges overcome by so many who were once slaves in a land that offers no water, no sustenance and no clear direction home. It is no wonder that faith became their guiding light. Just imagine the challenges these children of Israel our ancestors overcame. Surely I could not succumb in their metaphorical presence to the climbs and challenges of the day, yet when it was all over I had given everything I had. Every sinew of every muscle ached from the days work and my brain which carried me long after my muscles said stop was simply spent.

I should mention that not all of the 168 riders take on the challenges of riding the grueling routes of the Chalutzim. There are three different options on the Ride for those who want less miles or less hours on the bike but all the riders take on challenges that are daunting which at the end of the day makes our shared bond incredibly powerful. Cap that off with a Kabbalat Shabbat among a community that is now bonded and ready for rest and I think we raised the roof of our sanctuary just a bit with our foot stomping, clapping and voices raised in unison tonight. Just another unique part of this amazing Ride.