Washington Jewish Week / May 7, 2009
By Larry Luxner
GERMANTOWN, Md. Unlike his Israeli hometown of Beit Shemesh, Upper Montgomery County has no dramatic mountains, prehistoric cities, underground cave systems or Biblical battlegrounds. But it does have trees lots of them and that was more than enough to impress Avraham Balte.
"Everything is so green here. There's also a lot of water," said the Israeli teenager, speaking in Hebrew. "In Israel, it's so dry."
Avraham, 13, was born in Ethiopia and settled in Beit Shemesh as a little boy with his parents. He, five of his bicycling buddies and three coaches are visiting the D.C. metro area for 10 days, courtesy of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and the Shimshon Riders Bike Club to which he belongs.
On Sunday, nearly 200 people were expected to attend an Israeli Independence Day "Ride With Us" bicycle trek, culminating with a community picnic at South Germantown Park in the afternoon. But the all-day drizzle kept crowds away and in the end, only 40 or 50 people showed up.
But the kids didn't seem to care. Decked out in bright blue T-shirts emblazoned with their club's logo, they were thrilled to be in Maryland; for most of them, it was their first trip away from Israel ever. Despite the rain, they rode loops of 17, 25 or 54 miles depending on their endurance, and enjoyed the scenery along the way.
"These children are from disadvantaged communities," explained Eitan Hevrony, the bike club's coach. "A lot of them are hyperactive, and some are overweight. So instead of vandalizing and fighting with each other, they get their energy out through bicycling."
The trip is part of the federation's Partnership 2000, which for the last three years has paired the Washington area with Beit Shemesh, a city of around 70,000 located along off the main highway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
The group of six teenage boys and three adults are spending 10 days in Washington courtesy of Congregation Beth El of Montgomery Country, which is providing host families for the Israeli delegation.
On Monday, the young visitors joined in the Northern Virginia chapter of Trips For Kids (TFK), an international nonprofit group, for a joint workshop at Lake Accotink Park in Fairfax County.
Ina Miller Lerman, director for Israel and overseas planning at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, told WJW the bike project is special because "it's a chance for Israelis and American Jewish communities to work together on common problems. From our side, we want to use Israel as a creative tool to help our people connect to global Jewry."
Beit Shemesh is particularly popular with bicyclists due to its scenic views, wealth of history and unique mountain-riding opportunities in an easily accessible area.
Last year, said Hevrony, Israel imported around $28 million worth of bicycles and parts, more than double bike-related imports only five years earlier. He said bicycling is increasing in popularity, and that every weekend the region holds mountain bike races.
But decent mountain bikes cost upwards of $450 in Israel, putting them beyond the reach of poor families. So the club, which owns 50 bikes of its own, lends them out to members, who learn the proper way to maintain them.
The federation started its Partnership 2000 with Beit Shemesh and the Matei Yehuda district of Israel. Along with its South African partner, it provides around $600,000 a year to the region, of which $15,000 is devoted exclusively to Shimshon Bike Riders Club, which now has over 100 members.
"The bicycling club is an example of a project that addresses all three of the federation's main missions: to help build a sense of peoplehood, not only by promoting bicycling but through a project that brings Jews and Arabs together. It also empowers girls to get involved, and particularly the disadvantaged Ethiopian community," said Lerman.
"It also teaches kids how to set goals for themselves, and it strengthens Jewish identity by giving Jews in our area a unique way to connect with Israel," she said.
Not only Jews are involved, by the way. Hevrony said that a new program called Dukiyim al-Galgalim (Coexistence on Wheels) involves two Arab villages near Abu Ghosh, a prominent Arab town down the road from Beit Shemesh.
"We take girls from these two villages and every Friday, they ride bikes with Jewish girls. The families are encouraging this," said the coach, noting that 15 girls from each village now participate in the weekly rides.
Because of the constant rain throughout the D.C. area, the visiting teenage cyclists didn't get to see everything on their program, though they did manage to squeeze in an afternoon bike tour of Washington.
When they depart for Israel on Thursday evening, the kids will take back more than memories of Maryland with them. In the cargo hold of their flight to Tel Aviv will be five brand-new mountain bikes all of them donated by Trips For Kids.