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  • Writer's pictureFriendship Circle International

Riding on a Dream

We’re celebrating our 10th year in existence, and you know how it is… birthdays have to be celebrated all month, right? So naturally, we’re taking our time and highlighting a different year of friendship every week!

In 2011, our ranks more than doubled to 29 participants, and our fundraising goal did the same with $40,173 dollars raised. Talk about impact!

Today, we’re throwing it back to 2011. It’s nine years later, but we’ll never forget the year we launched our Bike 4 Friendship, where our team of just three took the plunge and committed to biking 4,000 miles across America in the name of friendship.

Seven weeks, 4,000 miles, and one better world for special-needs kids

Cycling: Transportation for some, avocation for others, recreation for most.

For a threesome of religious types, however, it was a path to heaven on earth that was at once heavenly and down-to-earth. The energetic, idealistic trio—Dani Saul, Zalman Perlman, and Shmuel Rothstein, all 22—decided it would be a good idea to ride bikes across the United States.

Lunch with friends has been known to produce some downright out-of-the-box ideas, but as far as doing pizza with college pals—or, in this case, yeshivah study partners—goes, this one was pretty far out there.

It was in Jerusalem in the fall of 2010 when Perlman, an American doing school in Israel, found himself at a local pizza joint with a few friends. In the course of schmoozing, someone suggested some large-scale non-profit fundraising activity, though they weren’t sure what it would consist of.

Perlman, an L.A. native, and lifelong runner contributed to the cross-country cycling concept. The others laughed. When they saw that Perlman was serious, however, they started asking serious questions. The first: Who for? The Friendship Circle came to mind.

The Friendship Circle, a Detroit-based teen volunteer group for individuals with special needs, had long since grown past its 1995 origins into an international phenomenon. It boasts close to 80 chapters today in the United States alone. So the cross-country bicycle tour, or at least its net proceeds, would be dedicated to the Friendship Circle’s mission of mainstreaming individuals with special needs.

Then, with summer over and first musings somewhat solidified, it was back to the States for the trio, where, with overseas studies complete and the last leg of their rabbinical-ordination studies before them, they hunkered down for a fall, then winter and spring, poring over the intricacies of preparing kosher food and, during breaks, competitive cycling.

In October of 2010, the trio researched bicycles, routes, and possible places to stay along what would become nearly two months of riding. They shortly procured exercise bikes, placing them like immovable furniture in their dorm rooms and building up endurance every morning with stationary runs while reading cycling books. By the time summer of 2011 rolled around, three typically gangly yeshivah boys were quite ready to roll and in remarkably competitive shape.

They had trained extensively for the ride, however, several environmental scenarios became later glaringly absent from their training, such as high winds, mountainous terrain... and heat.

That high temperature, the group leader says, proved their greatest challenge, rendering freshly-paved blacktop across California’s Mojave Desert a veritable death trap for their bikes’ tender rubber tires, what with 120-degree mercury readings forcing a number of pit stops until pebble-punctured tires could be replaced, and cooler heads could quite literally prevail after several dousings with ice water

It was Sunday, June 26, 2011, and Saul, Perlman, and Rothman found themselves in Livingston, New Jersey, the official starting point of the ride, and home of Olivia Schwartz. The starry-eyed 11-year-old was the young organizer of Olivia’s Friendship Ride, a group of 100 individuals with special needs who would be riding handicapped-accessible “bicycles” for the first mile of what was now being dubbed Bike 4 Friendship.

Livingston’s chapter of the Friendship Circle, New Jersey’s largest and the world’s second after Detroit, boasts a huge contingent of individuals with special needs, volunteers who share time and love with them, and the adoring parents of all—and virtually all, numbering in the hundreds, were on hand to see the threesome and their fans off.

With an emcee counting down from three and emotions running high, the crowd erupted in cheers as the three yeshivah guys, shortly dubbed “the Rolling Rabbis,” and their young friends rolled across the starting line in a scene reminiscent of the New York City Marathon .It was only ten days after the official start that the cross-country tour got underway in earnest, however; organizers had long planned a send-off from the Big Apple, so the threesome spent the interim riding around Long Island.

On the 6th of July, the Hon. Michael R. Bloomberg, Mayor of the City of New York, was scheduled to present a proclamation to the three recognizing the day as “Bike 4 Friendship Day.” (It was the first of several equivalent proclamations issued by mayors of small towns and big cities alike in the course of Bike 4 Friendship). A mayoral aide showed. So did an official copy of the official proclamation, on oversized parchment paper complete with tri-color ribbon and gold seal. For whatever reason, however, the mayor didn’t. But the cause beckoned. The word had to get out.

And so, bedecked in t-shirts emblazoned with “Bike 4 Friendship,” three young rabbis boldly went where probably no rabbis had gone before—to Philadelphia by bike. They arrived the next day.

Hitting Baltimore by the 10th and Washington, D.C. by the 11th, the tour built momentum. Reaching Charlottesville, Virginia by the 12th, where a Brookyn-based media team arranged, control-room-like, a meeting with real live city official, the team worked their way down the East Coast, making North Carolina by the 15thand Charlotte by the 17th—where they had their first major event, a grand meet-up with that town’s small but robust Friendship Circle and ancillary community.

They had now ridden approximately 800 miles in a little more than half a month. And by the time they arrived in Atlanta two days later, they had truly hit their stride.

Help was never too far away as the three fully bearded young men self-powered their way across the South. Besides a chase car piloted by driver Levi Kirczenberg with staff photographer Leibel Krinsky and ample spare tires, Gatorade bottles and ice chests along for the ride, complete strangers would volunteer their helping hands at many an occasion.

“You don’t think about how nice people are, but everywhere we went people were really, really nice,” reminisces Saul. “The Southern hospitality was amazing.” That hospitality took the form of strangers offering the cyclists free Gatorade, or pulling their cars off the highways to ask whether they needed help.“Everyone tried to do their part,” Saul says.

But as they graciously accepted or demurred offerings of physical help, the rabbis also liberally dispensed spiritual help to every spirit they met, Jewish or not. For the Jews, the Lubavitchers—famous for outreach to other Jews outside the Orthodox camp—proffered tefillin, or phylacteries, and other such Biblical commandments.

Such was the case in historic Natchez, Mississippi, once home to a strong Jewish community whose youngest member today is a spry 63. The Jew had never had a Bar Mitzvah, the traditional age 13 rite of passage, complete with the donning of tefillin—and so the rabbis made him one. And while they did, an incredulous passerby stopped to marvel at the scene. He, too, turned out to be Jewish, and the young rabbis racked up another tefillin-wrapping score with him as well.

For those of other faiths, the threesome talked up the Noahide Code, the ancient universal morality manual centered on the idea that every individual can make a difference with just one act of goodness and kindness.

From Natchez on the 27th of July it was on to Leesville, Louisiana, and the border to the next state west the next day. Everything is big in Texas, they say, and the ten days it took Bike 4 Friendship to ride across the Lone Star State were a trip in their own right. Arriving in Houston on the 29th, where they whipped up some Texas-sized enthusiasm at that town’s equally-sizable Friendship Circle chapter (and greater Jewish community).

But Bike 4 Friendship’s coast through such Texas locales as Austin, El Paso, Fredericksburg, Pecos and Sierra Blanca wasn’t just a sojourn across America’s southern midpoint region, but also the point at which the ride, which also served as a fundraiser, hit a plateau of publicity.

Bike 4 Friendship had collected a number of media spots by that point, making its mission of talking to people about special-needs awareness and inclusion all the more powerful and prominent as they rode across Texas.

Additionally, everywhere it went, and on its live-updated website, Bike 4 Friendship asked new and old friends, admirers and the merely curious alike to contribute $4 for every mile ridden. It eventually garnered close to $10,000—not a major haul but a jackpot for special-needs awareness.

“When you see [the Friendship Circle’s volunteering] teenagers with [special-needs] kids, it’s a real friendship,” comments Saul. And with today’s teens needing more direction and leadership than ever, he adds, the Friendship Circle is a most healthy venue.

But besides fielding questions like “How much weight did you lose?” and “What are rabbis doing on bikes?”, the threesome also used the ride to talk morality—specifically, the Noahide Code. The riders, in their capacity as the Rolling Rabbis, also met Jews at the unlikeliest of places, gas stations, street corners and the like, and often in towns where theywere the only Jew, like Bedford, Virginia or Livingston, Texas. Names of said Jews were taken down for possible future outreach connections to be made by the Jewish Community Enrichment Program.

But better yet, notes Saul, were the hugs they’d get from kids with special needs at the 22 Friendship Circle branches they visited along the way—or the publicity granted special-needs awareness in general and the Friendship Circle in particular.

And finally, a good amount of people were totally new to the FC’s model, reports Saul, especially in the big cities’ suburbs.

So what was the most inspirational thing about the tour?

“A couple of different things,” Saul begins. “Every time we’d stop at a Friendship Circle and get hugs from the kids, and when you see their smiling faces...” And here he trails off, emotional. There’s a moment of silence that speaks volumes. When he comes back to himself, he speaks of finally breaking out of Texas, of covering about one state a day until the Golden State, breezing through the balmy coastal climate of the Diego region and finally concluding Bike 4 Friendship on Monday, August 22 in Agoura, California.

But for the stream of strangers met, dozens of Jews inspired, handful of mayors visited, hundreds of individuals with special needs and volunteers connected to and thousands of dollars raised, something bigger took shape.

Thanks to Bike 4 Friendship, several new FC chapters will be opening throughout the U.S. “It was an amazing ride, besides for the fact that we went across America,” he observes.“I have no regrets for doing it,” concludes Saul.

“There are talks of it happening again. ”And should that come to be, there’ll be just a few more Friendship Circle stops for Bike 4 Friendship II to make.

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