Three rising seniors at Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy are ready with a great story about how they spent their summer vacation, pedaling 1,650 miles, raising $3,000 each for sustainable food systems and experiencing Jewish life throughout the United States.
The three Kemp Mill 17-year-olds participated in Hazon Cross-U.S.A. Bike Ride, joining a total of 25 people who rode for at least one week throughout the United States. Eight people, including a couple in their 60s, rode the entire 72-day, 3,300 mile trek, beginning in Seattle and ending Aug. 15 in front of the White House.
They traveled through 14 states and visited with 20 Jewish communities, racking up a total of one broken bike, 35 flat tires and fortunately no accidents, noted David Rendsburg, ride director for the environmental group Hazon.
“It was amazing. Every day was a new experience,” said Ilan Fleisher. “It was the best summer, ever.”
The teenager said an average day meant rising at 4:45 a.m., eating breakfast and getting everything ready to start riding at 7 a.m. Next came 12 hours of pedaling, with breaks every 20 to 25 miles, and then ending at that night’s stopping point around 4 p.m. One third of the time, they camped out. Another third of the nights were spent in church basements and school gyms, and the other third was shared with a local Jewish community, either staying in their synagogue or with a host family.
On Shabbat, they rested their bodies while learning about food sustainability and the local Jewish community.
Shai Brown especially liked “meeting new people and seeing different sects of Jews you wouldn’t see living in an Orthodox community.” He particularly was impressed with his visit at Maryland’s oldest synagogue, located in Cumberland County.
Brown’s family gathered in front of the White House to cheer Shai’s homecoming. His mother, Erica Brown, scholar-in-residence at The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, was thrilled to see her son following his month-long trek.
“It’s the first time he really left home,” she noted, adding, “He did an amazing job. It was really a good test of his physical and mental capacities.”
Fleisher and Brown were accompanied by classmate Rami Eisenman. The three joined the group in Minneapolis since they were still in school when the ride began.
Fleisher, who turned 17 toward the end of the ride, was the youngest participant. The oldest was Freddie Fisherman, 66, of Boise, Idaho, who traveled with her husband Terry McKay, 65.
“I love Judaism and thought learning about it while riding” would be a great way to spend a summer, she said. Apparently the ride wasn’t long enough for the couple. They planned to immediately head out to Rehoboth Beach in Delaware, so they could earn the bragging rights of saying they truly went from coast to coast. After that, they planned to do some more riding, hoping to ride through as many states as possible, she said.
Kimberly Burnham rode the entire 72 days, acknowledging there were several times she didn’t think she’d be able to finish the whole ride.
During the ride, she learned that the Defense of Marriage Act had been just ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. The following day, she went to a rest stop and used a phone on the side of the road to call her partner of seven years, Vicki Carmona, and proposed marriage.
The couple lives in Connecticut, where same-sex marriage is permitted, but Burnham said she didn’t think it made sense to get married while DOMA was still in effect. After the couple agreed to wed, her fellow bike riders celebrated with her. Later on in the trip, as planned, Carmona joined the ride, traveling about 500 miles from Minneapolis to Chicago.
Michael Zucker of Dallas rode 730 miles from Seattle to Helena, Mont., calling those 14 days “extraordinarily difficult. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” But it was on his bucket list, and he was glad to be able to accomplish it. His son, Arye, rode the whole way. “He loved every minute of it,” said an obviously proud father. His son, a recent graduate of University of Maryland with a degree in communications, wanted to do one great thing before entering the working world, his father explained.
The frame of Arye Zucker’s bike cracked while he was traveling near Wisconsin, and even though that frame came with a lifetime warranty, the young man couldn’t just sit around waiting for the company to check out and fix the bike. He ended up purchasing a brand new bike.
Also riding was Hannah Seidel of D.C., who announced, “It’s good to be home. I’m hot, and I’m sweaty, and the sun is in my eyes,” but very happy and very proud to have finished the ride.
“I was always a casual bike rider,” with 35 miles in one day being her record, Seidel said. Now, she can boast of riding 101 miles in one day. While there were plenty of highlights for Seidel, she said a casual conversation with a truck driver at a rest stop turned out to be her best memory. There she was in North Dakota, constantly amazed at how large and beautiful this country is, when she happened to meet a man who grew up in Silver Spring.
“As big a country as this is, it’s also very small,” she said.
Overall, the trip was great but an awfully long time to be on a bike, she admitted.
The ride kicked off in Seattle on June 13 and headed to Spokane in the first week. During the second week, the group traveled to Helena. The following weeks included stops in Miles City, Mont.; Aberdeen, S.D.; St. Paul, Minn.; Milwaukee, Wis.; Indianapolis, Ind.; Pittsburgh, Pa.; and Cumberland, Md. The last night was spent with Temple Olam Tikvah in Fairfax.