The Ramah Galil Bike Ride, a five-day, 250 mile ride through Israel’s Golan Heights and Galilee, was a dream come true—a way to combine my love of biking, Israel, and special needs camping. From May 16-23, forty riders from the United States, Canada, and Israel biked more than fifty miles a day to raise money in support of Camp Ramah special needs camping programs across the United States and Canada, (www.ramahbikeride.org). Three riders have deep connections to the Nutmeg State: Dr. Cliff Nerwen of Riverdale, N.Y. grew up in West Hartford; Rami Schwartzer, a recent graduate of Columbia University/Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) List College Joint Program and incoming JTS rabbinical student, is a West Hartford resident. And the author has been a long-time resident of the New Haven Jewish community. The following is an excerpt from a diary I kept of this once-in-a-lifetime ride:
SUNDAY, MAY 15
I am standing in the El Al line at JFK airport, behind hundreds of Birthright Israel participants, waiting for my purple suitcase to return from being x-rayed. The packed plane is a welcome sign that no one is scared away by Nakba Day, commemorated today in Israel. The tall, dark glasses-wearing Israeli security guard looks at me and says in a serious voice, “I know you!” I look confused and he says, “Amir-Camp Ramah New England 2004 — I was on the mishlochot (Israeli delegation) and worked in Nivonim (the oldest division).” I knew we were in for a safe flight.
MONDAY, MAY 16
We land and claim our luggage. The only person to have a problem clearing customs, ironically, is a Manhattan assistant DA. They suspect his bike is new and force him to open his bike box and take his bike apart. We are soon on the road to Kibbutz Ein Gev, where we arrive in time for a delicious dinner and sunrise over the Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee which we will ride all the way around in exactly seven days. We meet Oded and his staff from Gal Galil, a tour company specializing in Israel bike rides, receive our ride shirts and two water bottles. This is starting to feel real!
TUESDAY, MAY 17
Riders who brought bikes assemble them; the rest of us are fitted for our rental bikes. Our name signs are attached to the front and to our helmets. Some members take their bikes on a short spin around the kibbutz. Shawna, a rider from Montreal, befriends Eric, a kibbutz member, who offers to take our group on a tour of the 200 acres of banana plants. Who knew plants only give fruit once, and that the blue plastic bags often seen covering bananas in Israel are there to protect the fruit from the huge leaves smacking against and bruising the fruit?! We left for a tour of Gamla, sometimes called “The Masada of the North,” and saw vultures soaring above. Then, the ride became a little more real with our first “evening briefing,” a nightly activity required for all riders, where we reviewed course routes and elevation maps
WEDNESDAY, MAY 18
The bus brought us to Katzrin in the Golan Heights where we had a beautiful pre-ride ceremony, consisting of psalms, songs, and readings in the ancient Katzrin synagogue. Then, on our bikes! The first hills heading south to Hispin and Ramat Hamagshimim reminded us Connecticut riders that the familiar rolling hills and even the elevations of Woodbridge, Bethany and West Hartford, and our training rides in Central Park and up the Palisades of New Jersey were no match for the Golan Heights! What makes a ride like this so special — other than the great cause — special needs camping programs, and the camaraderie — 40 riders — ages 13 through 70 — is riding through Jewish and Israeli history. Today, we ascended to Tel Saki, famous site of a battle during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, where the Nahal Brigade and the armored Brigades 7 and 188 fought against a whole Syrian division!
We ended the day with a steep ascent to Har Bental, overlooking Israel’s tallest mountain, Mount Hermon, which some brave riders would climb tomorrow.
THURSDAY, MAY 19
Perhaps the most interesting day of all—biking through the Druse village of Mass’adeh, a climb up the Hermon by some brave riders. The first to make the climb to the top was Matthew Goldstein, the youngest rider who had celebrated his bar mitzvah at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires five days before! All riders descended from Mount Hermon (cool seeing Israel’s one and only ski area, in the summer!), ate an amazing soup and sandwich lunch at Hurshat Tal Park, and biked on to Agamon Hahulah Reserve—famous for the half billion birds which pass through each year on their way from Russia to Africa. A particular highlight of our night at Kibbutz Kfar Giladi was the tour of the sleek, an underground arsenal of guns and ammunition.
FRIDAY, MAY 20
Imagine riding along the Lebanese border for so many miles—just days after tensions in the area related to Nakbah Day. You wouldn’t know it — except for the fact the road we just traveled on was closed when we attempted to get back on, following our tour of the Galil Mountain Winery. Oh, well, what’s a few extra mountainous kilometers for the sake of our safety! The beautiful descent through an Arab village, followed by a huge climb to our beautiful C Hacienda Forestview Hotel in Maalot was worth it! The riders spent Shabbat together—swimming, playing miniature golf and ping pong, and eating like royalty. All riders had the opportunity to hear from Tikvah Program founders, Herb and Barbara Greenberg, founders and directors for 29 years of this visionary program for campers with special needs. I felt honored to be on a panel with my mentors, who moved to Israel 12 years ago. The riders truly felt connected to the cause they were raising money for—and they were treated to stories about campers with special needs–from forty plus years ago!
Saturday May 21 – Monday May 23:
After Shabbat, the riders were joined by members of the singing group, The Shuk, for a Lag B’Omer kumsitz (marshmallows, bon fire, and great singing). Sunday two part ride—Upper Galil to Lower Galil (with lunch and a tour of Kibbutz Hannaton), and mountain biking on the Israel Trail, starting in Tiberias, offered breathtaking views of the Kineret, the Sea of Galilee. On Monday, we set out from Tiberias and rode around the entire Kineret. About half the group did the optional hour and a half climb up the Golan Heights for a final look over the breathtaking Galilee and Golan Heights — which we had just proudly experienced by bike over the past five days. We covered approximately 250 miles, and climbed 15,000 feet. We leave with the wise words of Ramah Israel director Dr. Joe Freedman in our ears; “Israel is a smorgasbord — you can’t have everything at once, so you have to keep coming back!” See you soon, Israel!
Howard Blas is a freelance writer from Connecticut.